Ancient Jerusalemites Doted on Seafish, Archaeologists Discover

Some 10,000 fish bones, an abundance of broken seals and an ivory pomegranate uncovered in a Jerusalem dig attest to the presence of Phoenician sailors in the capital of Judah during the First Temple period

Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira
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Prof. Ronny Reich inside the ancient Jerusalemite water system in the City of David, Sept. 9, 2007.Credit: Tess Scheflan
Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira

Jerusalem's ancient water system, which excavations over the past decade are gradually uncovering, included a large pool hewn into rock. The pool, next to the Gihon Spring in the City of David, ceased to be used and dried up in the late eighth century B.C.E., after King Hezekiah of Judah built a new water project in the city, the Siloam tunnel. But according to Prof. Ronny Reich, of the University of Haifa's Archaeology Department, and Eli Shukrun of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), who are overseeing the excavations at the site, the pool hewn into the rock did not remain desolate for long: Toward the end of the eighth century B.C.E., a Jerusalem resident decided to build himself a house inside it, thus sparing himself a lot of work, since the pool's four hewn walls served as a base for the external walls of his home.

Apparently, the new homeowners did not want to live in the depths of the pool and preferred to raise the lower level of their home by about three meters. In order to bring the house to the desired level, they poured stones and earth into the bottom of the pool, and its upper reaches abutted the floor of the house.

The excavation, being managed by the IAA with the assistance of the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA), the Elad Association and the Gihon Company, has uncovered in the attached earthen floor of the house clay vessels dating to the end of the eighth century B.C.E., but the more surprising findings were in the stratum beneath. Reich and Shukrun decided to sift through all of it in the hope of uncovering artifacts that would help date the structure.

The first sifting did not yield any dramatic discoveries. Mostly the earth yielded clay vessels typical of Jerusalem in the First Temple period, and the bones of animals that were part of the standard diet of residents of the city, mainly cattle and sheep. But Reich and Shukrun suspected that other findings were hiding there and therefore decided to sift through it all, around 250 cubic meters, once again. This time, the earth was rinsed with water and what remained in the sifter after the rinsing was carefully inspected in a process that lasted around a year and a half. The findings justified the effort.

Pottery sherds that differed in nature from those found so far in the City of David were uncovered and the researchers date them to the second half of the ninth century or the beginning of the eighth century B.C.E. approximately, a range that covers the reign of Jehoram, son of Jehoshaphat, to the reign of Joash, son of Ahaziah, a period when Jerusalem was subject to the influence of its northern neighbors, the Kingdom of Israel and Phoenicia. (Reich is nonetheless cautious and says that the precise date has yet to be determined.)

Prof. Ronny Reich, Haifa University.Credit: Kobo Kalmanovich

In addition to the sherds, an abundance of small seals, about a centimeter in diameter, that were used to seal documents and goods were found. All the seals were broken - they had been removed from the letters or goods they sealed. In this respect, they differ from seals found in the past in the City of David, which were all unbroken, and apparently were used to seal documents preserved in the local archive of the City of David.

The seals uncovered by Reich and Shukrun differ from those uncovered by Shilo also in their graphic characteristics. Approximately 170 of the broken seals bore stamps or part of one and some had signs of Egyptian writing, unlike those uncovered by Shiloh, where the names appeared in Semitic writing. A review by experts found these were not meaningful signs, but a copy of Egyptian script familiar to residents of the ancient Near East. Such seals were uncovered in the past in excavations in Samaria, the capital of the kingdom of Israel.

The seals also bore other graphic symbols, such as sphinxes, images of winged persons and an image of the sun with wings. Others contained etchings of proto-aeolian capitals, an architectural motif typical of structures from the ninth and 10th centuries B.C.E. in Israel and Judea. This motif appears often in Phoenician ivory bas-reliefs.

A grouper surprise

Another surprise was the impressive amount of fish bones found in the earth. After the second sifting, it turned out that the fill beneath the house concealed close to 10,000 fish bones.

They were sent for careful analysis by Prof. Omri Landau, a retired surgeon, who now devotes himself to his hobby of researching fish bones uncovered in excavations. Landau has yet to complete his analysis, but at this stage it is clear that the lion's share of the bones are from fish found in the Mediterranean Sea, primarily bass and grouper.

Like the seals, this is also not the first time fish bones were uncovered in Jerusalem. However, Reich stresses that such a large quantity of them in one site is not an ordinary occurrence. The large accumulation attests to the importance of fish in the diet of Jerusalem residents then, as they were willing to invest considerable effort in bringing fish from the Mediterranean coast to the city.

Phoenician ties

The high concentration of seals, the graphic motifs on them, which are not typical of Jerusalem of the First Temple era, in addition to the impressive amount of fish bones, are likely to provide evidence of the Phoenician or Israelite presence in Jerusalem during the second half of the ninth century, B.C.E. Reich notes that the dynasty of the house of Omri, the ruler of the Kingdom of Israel in the early ninth century, had family ties to the Phoenicians. These ties reached the Kingdom of Judah when King Jehoram, the son of Jehosaphat, who controlled Judah during the second half of the ninth century, B.C.E., married Athaliah, the daughter of Omri or of his successor, Ahab, who was of Phoenician origin. Athaliah forcibly assumed power and ruled Judah for a number of years until being deposed (II Kings 11).

It is possible that the high concentration of fish bones and seals with graphic images typical of the Phoenicians - one seal depicted a Phoenician ship, another an image of a fish - indicates that before the house was built in the pool, an administrative center of the rulers who were close to the Phoenicians operated nearby. Reich and Shukrun note that apart from Athaliah, also her predecessor, Jehoram and her successor, Ahaziah, were likely to maintain close ties with the capital of the Kingdom of Israel and with Phoenician cities, such as Sidon.

The hypothesis regarding ties between Jerusalem and Phoenicia in the late eight and ninth centuries, B.C.E. is reinforced by other findings, including a pomegranate made of ivory that was found in the earth. The Phoenicians, who were talented sailors, builders and merchants served as cultural intermediaries in the Mediterranean basin, where they sailed. Among other things, they engraved ivory, a craft they learned in Egypt, where they found raw and etched ivory to bring back to Assyria. They also brought artistic motifs from one place to another, such as Egyptian symbols that appeared on the seals. As seafarers, it is likely that the Phoenicians did not want to give up the fish they were so fond of, even when they were far away from the coast, and took the trouble to bring the fish from the coastal cities to Jerusalem.