A veterinarian taking a morning swim along Israel’s northern shores last year spotted something one doesn’t usually see at the bottom of the sea: hieroglyphs.
“I saw it, kept on swimming for a few meters, then realized what I had seen and dived down to touch it,” Rafi Bahalul tells. “It was like entering an Egyptian temple at the bottom of the Mediterranean.”
What Bahalul, a 55-year-old animal doctor and artist from the village of Ein Hod, had stumbled upon underwater turned out to be a 3,400-year-old Egyptian stone anchor, and a highly unusual one at that. The anchor bore beautiful decorations, featuring the image of an ancient goddess and hieroglyphic writing as well. It had evidently sunk into the sand, which preserved it for millennia until getting washed off by recent stormy weather.
The vet called in experts from the Israel Antiquities Authority to examine his find, which was made just off Atlit, a town near Haifa.
“This was a known site from which other finds have emerged, but we were not digging there at the time,” says Jacob Sharvit, head of the IAA’s maritime archaeology unit. “Sometimes the sea does our job for us, and fortunately a member of the public saw it and alerted us.”
The stone was raised from the sea last January and is now on display in an exhibition on Egyptian writing at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Its function is quite mundane and easily identifiable: it was a typical anchor used by ships during the Bronze Age, which ended some 3,200 years ago, says Shirly Ben-Dor Evian, curator of Egyptian archaeology at the museum. These anchors were shaped like a trapezoid with rounded corners, with a hole drilled near the top end to secure a rope.
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Similar anchors from the period have previously emerged on the coasts of the Levant, including at Atlit itself. But what is unique about this anchor is the amount and quality of the decoration, the curator says.
A bookish goddess
It isn’t however that the ancient stonemason decided to make a decorative anchor. It is a case of what archaeologists call secondary use, essentially a form of recycling, Sharvit explains.
The anchor likely originated in a larger decorative relief located in a temple or royal precinct somewhere in Egypt. The chisel marks that separated it from the rest of the original limestone block, cutting the inscription and shaping it into an anchor, are still clearly visible today.
Stone was a precious commodity in the alluvial Nile Valley and it makes sense that every pebble would be recycled, no matter how important its original function was, Ben-Dor Evian says. Which begs the question of whence the engraved stone came and what was its initial purpose.
The most telling part of the decoration is the image at the bottom showing a woman writing on a tablet. The symbol above her head identifies her as the goddess Seshat, the ancient Egyptian deity of writing, Ben-Dor Evian explains.
This goddess did not have separate temples dedicated to her but usually appeared on the walls of other major shrines, recording the pharaoh’s regnal years, taking note of the booty brought back from military campaigns or helping the king take measurements for the establishment of a new holy site.
“She was this sort of divine scribe, librarian, record-keeper and engineer,” the curator says.
The identification of the goddess is also strengthened by the hieroglyphs that accompany her image and proclaim Seshat’s traditional divine attribute: “Mistress of the house of books.” Because it is incomplete, the rest of the inscription is difficult to decipher, but Ben-Dor Evian thinks it may have something to do with the recording of war loot.
Based on the style of the hieroglyphics, it was carved around the 15th century B.C.E, that is more than 3,400 years ago, Ben-Dor Evian says. This would have been during the 18th Dynasty, the pharaohs who founded the New Kingdom and led to ancient Egypt’s maximum expansion. So the Seshat inscription could have adorned one of the many royal reliefs that were set in temples across Egypt, she says. Which temple that might be is still being investigated.
All we can say for now is that at some point that shrine was renovated, abandoned or destroyed and the relief was deemed obsolete, allowing for the reuse of the raw material.
This must have still happened in the Late Bronze Age, that is between the 15th and 12th centuries B.C.E., because anchors in later periods were shaped differently, Ben-Dor Evian says. So it is possible that not a lot of time passed between the carving of the relief and its repurposing.
What is even more interesting is that while most of the inscription is perfectly preserved, the face of Seshat has been clearly chiseled away. But why deliberately deface just that part of the inscription?
One theory, which Ben-Dor Evian favors, is that this was done actually as an act of respect for the deity: sort of the equivalent of Christians deconsecrating a church before the building can be reused for non-religious purposes.
“When you take something sacred and reuse it for a secular purpose you have to make it non-sacred first,” the curator says. “You cannot use the image of a goddess as an anchor, so you deface it and then it’s no longer a goddess.”
Another possible scenario is that the Seshat relief was caught on the wrong side of a political or religious struggle and fell victim to an iconoclastic campaign, she says. This happened several times in ancient Egyptian history, during periods of religious conflict or when new pharaohs tried to erase the memory and works of rival predecessors.
There were at least two such cases in the timeframe to which the anchor belongs to. The first was in the 15th century B.C.E., when Thutmosis III ascended to the throne after the death of Hatshepsut, his step-mother, who was arguably the most powerful female pharaoh of ancient Egypt. Her successor decided to literally erase Hatshepsut’s memory by defacing her monuments and chiseling off cartouches and images of the deceased queen.
In fact, Sharvit speculates that the ship that carried the anchor may have been part of one of Thutmosis III’s military expeditions in Canaan, a territory he finally secured for the Egyptian Empire at the Battle of Megiddo, around 1456 B.C.E.
A second and much broader campaign of iconoclasm occurred in the mid 14th century B.C.E. under the pharaoh Akhenaten, who spurned Egypt’s polytheistic pantheon and embraced a quasi-monotheistic cult focused on the worship of the sun god Aten. At the height of his religious revolution, Akhenaten banned the worship of all other gods, including Seshat, ordering the closure of their temples and defacing the statues of the chief Egyptian deity, Amun-Re.
Akhenaten’s own images and the temples he had built for Aten would undergo a similar campaign of iconoclasm once his successors returned to the traditional gods.
Whether the repurposing of the Seshat inscription had something to do with these historical events is one of the questions that experts hope to answer in the future. We can say though that such a richly decorated anchor is an unparalleled find, Ben-Dor Evian avers.
The most similar discovery was an anchor that was found in 1982 off the coast of Megadim, just north of Atlit. This artifact also came from a repurposed Egyptian engraving – but in this case only the legs of two unknown figures are visible.
The fact that several anchors were lost at sea in the vicinity of Atlit does not necessarily mean that all the ships that carried them sank. The Atlit bay was a common anchorage point for merchant ships in the Bronze Age and it is likely that periodically a vessel would lose an anchor that had been badly secured or got stuck at the bottom of the sea, Ben-Dor Evian says. In fact, we know from actual shipwrecks of the period that vessels carried spare anchors just for such an eventuality.
However, in the case of the Seshat anchor, it is likely that the entire ship was lost because of the presence of other ancient finds at the site, Sharvit says. The marine archaeologist does not reveal what those discoveries are, saying that his unit is still combing the area looking for other remains from the possible shipwreck.
If it did come from a merchant ship, the Seshat anchor would also give us information about the nature of international trade in its time, Ben-Dor Evian says.
“During the Late Bronze Age, there was an explosion of trade, but there is always a question of who was doing all the trading, was it the Egyptians themselves, or was it say, Canaanites who were licensed by the Egyptians,” she says. “This find clearly identifies at least some of the traders as Egyptians who were under the direct control of the pharaohs, because otherwise they wouldn’t have had access to the stones of whatever sacred precinct this relief was taken from.”
The anchor is on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority to the Israel Museum as part of the “Emoglyphs” exhibition, which teaches visitors about ancient Egyptian writing by highlighting the parallels between hieroglyphs and their now ubiquitous digital descendants, emojis. The show runs until October 12 and it is not yet known where the anchor will be displayed after the exhibition.