Israeli Boy Finds Tablet Immortalizing Victorious Canaanite and His Naked Captive

Nothing remains of the 3,500-year-old Canaanite mud-city of Yerza but scattered pottery and this gloating triumph from the past, now found by a 6-year-old boy

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Tablet of captive and captor
Tablet of captive and captor found at Tell JemmahCredit: Emil Elgem / IAA
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Some 3,500 years ago, the land of Canaan was – as usual – not a peaceful place, and somebody apparently wanted to gloat about a particular victory. He didn’t want it marked just once: He had a stamp made that could be impressed into wet clay again and again, showing a soldier, modestly clad in a belted skirt, pushing a naked captive, his penis prominently displayed and his arms tied behind his back for maximal humiliation value.

This edifying scene appears on a tiny clay tablet from the Late Bronze Age that was found recently by Imri Elya, a 6-year-old boy walking on Tell Jemmeh. That is a large mound in the western Negev that houses the remains of the ancient settlement of Yerza, strategically located at the confluence of two streams: Besor and Gerar. In winter at least, they flow with water. The site is near the present-day location of Kibbutz Re’im, not far from the Gaza Strip. At the time, it lay near the border with ancient Egypt.

No other tablets made using that triumphant imprint have been found so far, but it clearly wasn’t a stand-alone engraving, says Saar Ganor, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority. “Looking at the object, we see that its rear bears the artist’s fingerprints,” he tells Haaretz. “He imprinted the clay using a stamp, which in ancient times were made of stone.”

The history of habitation at Tell Jemmeh goes back at least to the Chalcolithic, more than 6,000 years ago. Today, the site is arid, but what the climate was like there at the time is the subject of much fraught debate. In any case, clearly people found it congenial to live there.

“Jemmeh was a very important site in the Late Bronze Age,” Ganor says. “It is identified with the city of Yerza, which is mentioned in the Amarna Letters – an archive found in Egypt of letters written in Akkadian between the pharaoh and the Egyptian colonial empire during the 14th century B.C.E.”

Tablet of captive and captor
Tablet of captive and captorCredit: Israel Antiquities Authority

That empire included the great city-states of Canaan – one of which was Yerza, which apparently had over 5,000 people in its Bronze Age heyday. Each of the city-states had its own king, who was however vassal to the great pharaoh in Egypt. And the Amarna Letters mention Yerza and its king.

Constant fighting

Who might the captor and captive be? According to the iconography of the time, neither is Egyptian – but they are clearly meant to be different peoples from one another.

The thing is, the local city-state kings would fight not only with the great armies that captured the land, including the Egyptians (until the Egyptians won), but with each other. The king of Yerza would fight with the kings of Ashkelon and Gaza, and all would fight with the Habiru nomads, who predated the Nabateans in plying the desert sands, Ganor explains.

Why were they constantly fighting? Human nature aside, they would incessantly struggle over resources: arable land and water sources. Some things evidently never change. “We haven’t learned a thing since Cain and Abel,” Ganor sighs.

Imri Elya from Kibbutz Nirim with the tablet he found, and certificate of good citizenship for handing it over to the IAA
Imri Elya from Kibbutz Nirim with the tablet he found, and certificate of good citizenship for handing it over to the IAACredit: רשות העתיקות

Anyway, the miniature tablet may show two different types of Canaanites. When the Bible references “Canaanites,” it is evidently collectively referring to a whole slew of tribes. They were not a single state with a central government, and there may have been clear ethnic differences between the tribes that were referred to collectively after the fact, Ganor suggests.

The fact is that the tablet shows the squat captor with curly hair and a beard, wearing a belted skirt. The captive, meanwhile, looks completely different: naked for the sake of degradation, thinner, with an elongated neck. Whether the captive is meant to represent a different Canaanite from Lachish or Ashkelon, or maybe even a Habiru or someone else, remains a mystery.

As for the Habiru, they are also mentioned in the Amarna Letters, as the nomadic enemy, also fighting over water sources and rich lands.

While this is the only tablet of the type ever found in Israel (so far), it is possible that something similar was found in the northern Sinai about a century ago, by the great Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) with an American delegation. Since they dug there in the era before widespread photography, we have no image of it. Petrie did make a sketch, which showed the hallmark captive with hands tied behind his back, but where that artifact is now, we do not know.

Egyptian iconography is in fact rich with imagery of the subdued and humiliated captive, arms tied behind his back. It appears, for instance, in their depictions of the Battle of Kadesh and against the Philistines, Ganor says.

Tell Jemmeh
Tell JemmehCredit: IAA, V. Lifshitz

So perhaps this tablet, the only one found locally, was imported from Egypt?

Not likely, Ganor answers, since neither the captor nor the captive comply with the Egyptian images: they were never depicted with curly hair. So while the imagery may have arisen in Egypt, this tablet found by young Eliya shows Semites as the ancient Egyptians drew them.

The Egyptians controlled the land of Canaan for about 400 years, Ganor points out: they brought their techniques, their know-how and, evidently, their image of how a subdued captive should be depicted.

It’s almost a miracle that the child found this icon, since little remains of ancient Jemmeh, though it existed from the Chalcolithic through to the Hellenistic period, and was important enough in the Middle Bronze Age – about 1700 B.C.E. – to warrant mention in the Amarna Letters. This is because there are no rocks in this coastal desert area.

The edifices of the great city were built of mud, and though mud may be preserved under some conditions – witness remains of buildings from 7,200 years ago recently uncovered in the Jordan Valley – once they’re exposed, they’re toast. “Within a few years they deteriorate without conservation,” Ganor explains. “Now we conserve, but a century ago Petrie did not.”

So all that remains is a gorgeous view of Gaza and Ashkelon from the mount of Tell Jemmeh, and thousands of pieces of ancient pottery, among which the sharp-eyed boy noticed an unusual scene that can give us shivers 3,500 years after the event.