Beetle Jews: Late Bronze Age Scarab Found on School Trip in Central Israel

The image on the 3,000-year-old artifact could theoretically symbolize a pharaoh conferring authority on a local Canaanite subject, during the period of Egyptian rule over the area

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Scarab in Azor
The ancient scarab, showing a seated figure on the right and a standing figure with a raised arm on the left.Credit: Gilad Stern, Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A 3,000-year-old scarab was found last week on a tour of historical Azor for eighth-graders. The ancient artifact was lying on its face, but Gilad Stern of the Israel Antiquities Authority Educational Center, who was guiding the kiddies, said an inner voice told him to turn it over. He did so, and the rest is rediscovered history.

“I was astonished: it was a scarab with a clearly incised scene – the dream of every amateur archaeologist. The kids were really excited,” he says.

The bottom, flat part of the scarab shows a seated figure, before whom a person is standing. The standing person has one arm raised and an elongated head, which the archaeologists suspect may represent the pharaonic crown.

The image could theoretically symbolize the pharaoh conferring authority on a local Canaanite subject during the period of Egyptian rule over this part of the world, the Israel Antiquities Authority says.

“This scene basically reflects the geopolitical reality that prevailed in the land of Canaan during the Late Bronze Age [around 1500 to 1000 B.C.E.], when the local Canaanite rulers lived (and sometimes rebelled) under Egyptian political and cultural hegemony,” says Dr. Amir Golani, an IAA specialist on the Bronze Age era. “Therefore, it is very possible that the seal is indeed from the Late Bronze Age, when the local Canaanites were ruled by the Egyptian Empire.”

Israel Antiquities Authority Education Officer Gilad Stern with the eighth-graders from the Rabin Middle School in Azor.Credit: Gilad Stern, Israel Antiquities Authority

Signs of that ancient time of Egyptian rule can be found throughout Israel. Earlier this year, archaeologists found an intact ancient burial cave complete with ceramic and metal grave goods – a rarity because of the perennial plague of grave robbery (itself going back to antiquity), from the Egyptian period (about 3,300 years ago). Sadly the grave was promptly robbed that night, though the thieves didn’t take much, archaeologists said.

In 2016, archaeologists reported discovering ruins from the fiery destruction of a fortress in ancient Jaffa, dating to 3,100 years ago. The destruction layers may be the remnant of never-recorded violent Canaanite resistance to Egyptian rule over the seaside city, which spanned 1460 to 1125 B.C.E., archaeologists suggest.

Back to our scarab, which, as scarabs are, was shaped like a dung beetle – an insect revered during at least some stages of ancient Egyptian culture. The ancient Egyptians hailed the beetle’s efficient utilization of balls of dung as baby beetle incubators, seeing it as an embodiment of creation and regeneration, reminiscent of the act of the Creator God, the IAA explains. Dung beetles have even been found mummified: a collection of them was found, for example, in a tomb dating to the Fifth Dynasty (2500 to 2350 B.C.E.) in the giant ancient necropolis of Saqqara.

Conservationist Yosef Bukengolts cleaning the scarab seal in the Israel Antiquities Authority Laboratories.Credit: Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

“The scarab was used as a seal and was a symbol of power and status. It may have been on a necklace or a ring,” says Golani.

Like many precious ancient Egyptian artifacts, the scarab seems to have been made of blue-green faience. “But that needs double-checking. There also used to be copycat artifacts made of cheaper blue stones,” Stern says.

How did it get to ancient Azor (a small town to the southeast of modern-day Tel Aviv)? Maybe somebody dropped it 3,000 years ago. Or maybe it was deliberately buried. It’s impossible to say but there it was, joining the hundreds of scarabs found from the Egyptian era in Israel, both in the context of burials and in settlement layers.

Which leads to a key point about its “authenticity”: Many of the scarabs found in Israel are believed to have been imported from Egypt, but many also seem to be locally manufactured knockoffs. Indeed, the nature of the presently revealed scarab seems to be rather atypical for Egyptian craftsmanship, suggesting it was locally made.

And now thousands of years after the scarab was dropped or interred, the eighth-graders from the local Rabin Middle School were being taught about the history of Azor, with the idea that they will serve as “tour guides” for fourth-graders, Stern explains.

The back of the scarab, incised with the form of a dung beetle.Credit: Gilad Stern, Israel Antiquities Authority

Today, Azor is nestled among myriad other settlements in central Israel and at its center is a tell, which goes back at least 4,000 years. One of its features is ruins from a 900-year-old Crusader fort, the first of a series of strongholds from this Christian era built between Jaffa and Jerusalem. The next one after the Azor fort is in Beit Dagan, then Ramle – and yes, scarabs have been found there too.

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