Archaeologists Find Gold Ring With Amethyst in Yavneh

Amethyst was prized in antiquity and appeared in the Temple priest’s breastplate, but the rationale behind this gorgeous jewel in this city in Israel was likely superstition

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Would wearing this gold and amethyst ring protect one from the ravages of the demon drink?
Would wearing this gold and amethyst ring protect one from the ravages of the demon drink?Credit: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Yavneh is quite the gift that keeps on giving. The latest discovery in the central Israeli city is a gold ring with an inlaid amethyst crystal, the Israel Antiquities Authority said Tuesday.

Dating metal and gems from antiquity is a function of the layer in which they’re found – being inorganic, they can’t be carbon-dated, for instance.

In this case the dating isn’t crystal-clear. The ring was found in a fill from the seventh century, either the late Byzantine period or the Early Islamic period. But as the authority notes, a ring that pretty may well have been handed down in the family over generations, so who knows.

It could even date to the Roman period preceding the Byzantine; those folks did like such things, the IAA points out.

The ancient Hebrews also had a keen appreciation of amethyst, it seems. Describing the garb of the Temple priest, and specifically the breast piece, the Bible says: “And thou shalt make a breastplate of judgment …. And thou shalt set in it settings of stones, four rows of stones: a row of carnelian, topaz, and smaragd shall be the first row; and the second row a carbuncle, a sapphire, and an emerald; and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst.” (Exodus 28:15; 17-19)

Where the ring was foundCredit: Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority
Raw amethystCredit: JJ Harrison

That’s not the end of the list of the stones on the breastplate, but it will do; also note that today a carbuncle usually refers to a pustulent boil but it is, less commonly, a reference to a red gemstone, usually a garnet. Also note that the Bible exhorts that these stones in the priest’s breastplate “shall be inclosed in gold in their settings.” Which this ringstone certainly was.

However, the ring of Yavneh was probably completely unrelated to memories of the magnificently garbed Temple priests and was more likely the result of a superstition from the other side of the Mediterranean.

Gold rings inlaid with amethyst, a type of purple quartz that can vary quite a bit in hue, were worn in ancient Rome and Greece; this ring could even have belonged to some adipem cattus living in Yavneh, as they did until the third century C.E.

Why did they like amethyst so much? It’s pretty if one is into purple rock, but more to the point, the ancient Greeks, Romans and possibly the people of Byzantine Yavneh thought the gem could protect them from the evil of inebriation or at least the horror of hangover.

The word amethyst stems from the ancient Greek amethystos, which, according to experts in Koine – the language of the time – meant “not intoxicating” – the methys part being an even more ancient root stemming from medhu, which referred to mead, i.e., honey liqueur.

Cleaning the ringCredit: Ilan Naor, Israel Antiquities Authority
Cleaning the ringCredit: IAA

The ancient Greeks decked themselves out in amethyst and even carved wineglasses from it with the idea of drinking to their heart’s content without cost. It seems the fallacy of the sot – that people can handle their liquor and nobody can tell they’re wasted – goes way back.

The ring found in Yavneh weighs 5.11 grams, said Yotam Asher of the antiquities authority’s analytical laboratory. IAA jewelry expert Amir Golani adds that anybody – male or female – could have worn this ring.

The surmise that the amethyst ring had less to due with Jewish reverence and more to do with classic delusions is the timing and context. Yavneh sported the biggest known winery in the Byzantine world.

Wine vessels found in the area of the gargantuan Byzantine wine factory of YavnehCredit: Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority

“Did the person who wore the ring want to avoid intoxication due to drinking a lot of wine? We probably will never know,” says Elie Haddad, the director of the excavation for the IAA along with Liat Nadav-Ziv and Jon Seligman.

“The ring was found just 150 meters from the remains of a long warehouse, which was used to store wine jars,” Haddad says. “Some of the jars were found upside down on their mouths and it may have been a warehouse full of empty jars before they were taken to the winepresses, to fill with wine.”

The Yavneh winery was so huge it could produce about 2 million liters of wine a year, the archaeologists estimate. Haddad notes that the ancient world didn’t have a drinking age; everybody drank wine, including little kiddies, not least because the local water supply might not have been that clean.

The wine factory was carpeted with functional, not gorgeous, white mosaic tiles. But among the ruins of the facility, archaeologists noticed a Byzantine-style ornate mosaic carpet. In this case they don’t think it was necessarily in a church; the archaeologists believe it may have decorated a private home.

Yavneh is also the site of heartbreak. This is where, earlier this year, archaeologists found a 1,000-year-old chicken egg, whole and perfect, in a toilet. Finding whole eggs is incredibly rare in archaeology. It was from the Islamic period. Then the researchers accidentally broke it.

The public is invited to visit the ancient winery of Yavneh this Friday, November 5. Details are available on its Facebook page.

The Yavneh egg, pre-accidentCredit: EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP

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