Archaeologists Find Unexpected Source of Stone for King Herod’s Bathtubs

The assumption had been that the alabaster for the royal hygienic furnishings and other artifacts in Second Temple-period Judea was Egypt. Not so, analysis at Bar-Ilan University finds

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The Te’omim cave, with the quarry on the right.
The Te’omim cave, with the quarry on the right.Credit: Ayala Amir / Bar-Ilan University
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

“And now Herod, in the eighteenth year of his reign, and after the acts already mentioned, undertook a very great work; that is to build of himself the temple of God.” – Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus, XV Chapter 11

King Herod, the vassal king appointed by the Romans in 40 B.C.E. to rule Judea on their behalf, famously had a mania for colossal construction projects. Most famously, he redid the temple in Jerusalem, creating the reportedly magnificent second Second Temple after apparently deciding that the first Second Temple wasn’t grand enough. He is credited with building the palatial fortress at Masada, the port of Caesarea Maritima, palaces for himself (and his bonsai collection?), and in fact entire cities during his reign in the second half of the first century B.C.E.

Herod’s edifices were accoutered magnificently, using the finest materials, such as marble shipped over from Italy. Having been a seabed many millions of years ago, Israel now has abundant chalkstones of various types such as cheapo gypsum, but not marble, certainly not of the quality the king wanted for his ports, palaces and the great temple itself.

Nor was Israel thought to have the beautiful white calcite alabaster from which Herod’s bathtubs and many other artifacts, from cups to pillars, were fashioned.

Which leads to the latest revelation, published by Dr. Ayala Amir of Bar-Ilan University, with Prof. Aren Maeir, Prof. Boaz Zissu and Prof. Amis Frumkin of the Hebrew University in the Nature journal Scientific Reports Herod would, of course, have wished for the finest alabaster for the greater glory of God and/or himself. The assumption had been that he obtained calcite alabaster for his bath facilities from Egypt, a key source of this soft stone in antiquity.

Supporting that contention, no calcite alabaster quarries had been found in Israel. Until they were, Amir explains.

Frescoes in Herod's Masada palaceCredit: באדיבות משלחת החפ

“Until a few years ago, we knew of no alabaster quarries in Israel and in Egypt there’s a ton,” Amir says. “So there had been a clear understanding that anything made of alabaster calcite had to have been imported from Egypt.” In fact, this importation of alabaster from Egypt began all the way back in the Bronze Age, she says; and it influenced the local alabaster plaster industry.

Yet in recent years, two quarries for calcite alabaster have been found, one in Te’omim Cave and the other in Abud Cave, both in central Israel, not far from Beit Shemesh. Thus the question arose: was Herod importing alabaster from Egypt, or using the local stone? Was the local rock even fine enough for his discriminating taste? In short: Was the assumption that he imported it from Egypt correct?

As far as his bathtubs were concerned, it is incorrect. Herod the Great’s royal tubs, one found decades ago in the Kypros fortress and one recently discovered in the palace of Herodium, both just south of Jerusalem, were made of stone quarried in Israel, not in Egypt.

Herod’s calcite-alabaster bathtub, found in Kypros fortress. Credit: Prof. Amos Frumkin / The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Analysis has demonstrated that they were his personal tubs, the team writes. Why did Herod have bathtubs, anyway? Because he sought to introduce Roman cultural norms to Judea, including Roman bathing culture, a habit recently demonstrated to have led the ancient Romans to share not only bathwater, but also parasites.

Anyway, asked when the local quarries that produced Herod’s tubs were operative, Amir explains that the one in Te’omim Cave operated from the Middle Bronze Age to the early Roman period.

Only the tubs? Not at all. “Additional things were checked that also turned out to be local,” Prof. Maeir confirmed – and the team will be in touch about it in due time.

In one of those twists, the researchers were given samples from the Temple Mount to check the source of the alabaster, but these turned out to be marble, Amir says. Yes, there are objects in ancient Israel that were made of alabaster imported from Egypt, she confirms.

It bears adding that all along, archaeologists have assumed that while fine alabaster projects were made of Egyptian stone, it was clearer that poorer quality vessels around the Levant were made of local gypsum. Herod would not have abided tacky materials in his great works, as Josephus says regarding the temple project: “…as esteeming it to be the most glorious of all his actions, as it really was, to bring it to perfection; and that this would be sufficient for an everlasting memorial of him,” which explains a great deal.

“Herod built in all sorts of places around Israel, and in Jordan. There are even historic sources saying he built in Turkey,” Prof. Maeir says. “He was a local king, but an important one. The Romans were his patrons, but he was an important client.”

Ayala Amir beside the wall of the quarry, signs of quarrying scars and cessation of quarrying are visible on the quarry’s walls and floor.Credit: Prof. Boaz Zissu / Bar-Ilan University

Asked why Herod, ruling from Jerusalem, would build in Turkey, Maeir explains that kings of the time built partly in order to aggrandize themselves – for instance, they would build a monument for a temple or a foreign city.

The research method involved analyzing ancient and modern alabaster samples from Egypt and Israel, and analyzing Herod’s tubs and other objects. The ancient Egyptian samples were obtained courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, the team notes: they had been collected by the Austrian archaeological expedition to Giza in the 19th century. The modern Egyptian sample was bought in a Cairene shop. The various calcite-alabaster samples from Israel and Egypt were analyzed with the assistance of Prof. Gil Goobes and Prof. Amnon Albeck of Bar-Ilan University, using four analytic methods.

“All four analytical methods applied in the study provided consistent results, clearly distinguishing the Israeli from the Egyptian calcite-alabaster for the first time,” Albeck said.

The conclusion, says Prof. Maeir, is that the Judean calcite-alabaster industry in the second half of the first century B.C.E. was sufficiently developed and producing stone of sufficient quality to meet Herod’s standards. And whether or not he actually completed some of the projects ascribed to him, which is debated – those standards were very high.

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