In First, ‘Extremely Rare’ First Temple Ivories Unearthed in Jerusalem
Illustration: The inlay of ivories in couch thrones. (Shalom Kweller, City of David)

In First, ‘Extremely Rare’ First Temple Ivories Unearthed in Jerusalem

1,500 ivory fragments shed new light on the place and importance of Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah thousands of years ago

A team of Israeli archaeologists has unearthed an extraordinary collection of ivory plaques from the First Temple Period—the first of their kind to be found in Jerusalem, the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced Monday.

The plaques are among the few such ivories in the world and were discovered during excavations conducted by the IAA and Tel Aviv University at the Givati parking lot in the City of David, an archaeological site situated just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls. The dig was funded by the City of David Foundation.

Some of the ivories discovered in the assemblage, which contains no fewer than 1,500 fragments. (Eliyahu Yanai, City of David)

The ivories were uncovered among the ruins of a palatial building that was in use during the eighth to the seventh centuries BCE when Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah were at the height of their power.

At the time, ivory was one of the most expensive raw materials and was worth even more than gold.

According to Prof. Yuval Gadot, who heads Tel Aviv University’s Archaeology Department and was one of the excavation directors, the findings are “remarkably significant” and likely belonged to a very well-connected person.

“Ivories are really the elite art of the ancient world,” Gadot told The Media Line. “We knew of ivories in other capitals at the time, like Samaria or earlier in Megiddo, but we never found anything like this in Jerusalem [before].”

Researchers believe that the decorative plaques were inlaid in wooden furnishings that were used by residents of the buildings, most likely high-ranking government officials or priests. The structure is located very close to the site of the Temple Mount (also known as the Haram esh-Sharif), where ancient Israeli royalty is believed to have once lived.

It was destroyed along with the First Temple and much of the city by the Babylonians in the early sixth century BCE during the Siege of Jerusalem.

“It took us a lot of time to go through the rubble and debris,” Gadot related. “We constantly noted that we were seeing bits and pieces of ivory, but they were really tiny. Everything was sent to sifting. When things came back, we suddenly saw that we have something like 1,500 small pieces of ivory and that they were decorated and carved.”

The fragments were carefully assembled and restored by specialists, who spent painstaking hours putting all the pieces of the puzzle together.

Most of them depict popular floral designs, such as rosettes, lotus flowers, and stylized trees, symbols that are also found in similar objects from the Assyrian Empire. Starting in the second half of the eighth century BCE, Judah was under Assyrian rule and so it appears as though the elite of Jerusalem adopted some of their symbols.

Ivory plaque decorated with a lotus flower. (Eliyahu Yanai, City of David)

Following the death of King Solomon circa 930 BCE, the Israelites were split between two kingdoms: the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south.

Dr. Yiftah Shalev, an archaeologist at the IAA and one of the excavation’s directors, told The Media Line that the ivories showcase the prestigious status of Jerusalem during that period and “puts the capital of the Judean Kingdom more or less at the same rank as the capital [of the Kingdom] of Israel.”

Dr. Yiftah Shalev of the Israel Antiquities Authority, with some of the ivories discovered in the assemblage. (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)

The ivories, Shalev said, indicate that the Judeans had important connections with surrounding kingdoms and peoples. They are made from elephant tusk and were likely originally carved by artisans from Assyria.

“The ivory and the knowledge that the artisans had to have to use this kind of material” were extremely rare, Shalev noted. “I assume that these items were not made here in Jerusalem. Only the most skilled artists knew how to carve ivory. These items are only 2 to 3 millimeters thick.”

The findings further show that the palatial structure where they were uncovered was one of the main administrative quarters of Jerusalem during the First Temple period. It is located very close to the Temple Mount itself and as such might have housed priests or ministers.

“It’s the structure of someone of a high rank, but not the palace,” Shalev clarified.

In addition to the ivory plaques, archaeologists found jars with vanilla-spiced wine and decorated stones and wooden objects, and a seal impression carrying the name “Natan-Melech servant of the king,” a tantalizing find suggesting that it could belong to the same Natan-Melech who is mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 23:11) as an officer of King Josiah.

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