The World's First Paleontologist? Shark Teeth Found in City of David Baffle Archaeologists

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A fossilized Squalicorax tooth from the Jerusalem site.
A fossilized Squalicorax tooth from the Jerusalem site.Credit: Omri Lernau

Ancient Jerusalem! City of magnetic attraction and religious ecstasy, home of great religions, kings and prophets - and, maybe, the world’s first paleontologist.

An international team of researchers in the city was studying the provenance of fish by the isotope signals of their teeth, as one does. And in the course of their study, they made a stunning discovery.

In the garbage of a 2,900-year-old home were normal things such as fish bones, food waste, broken pottery – and 29 shark teeth.

It is true that the ancient Jerusalemites in the First Temple period apparently didn’t adhere religiously to the rules of kashrut. Recent discoveries have found bones from non-kosher fish such as catfish and sharks, though whether they were eaten by early Jews ignorant or defiant of the dietary rules, or somebody else, cannot be certain. The initial assumption was therefore that the shark teeth were food waste dumped nearly 3,000 years ago.

They were not. Dr. Thomas Tuetken of the Institute of Geosciences at the University of Mainz and colleagues submitted their groundbreaking paper “Strontium and Oxygen Isotope Analyses Reveal Late Cretaceous Shark Teeth in Iron Age Strata in the Southern Levant” for publication in the peer-reviewed Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. And one of the reviewers pointed out that one of the teeth came from a Late Cretaceous shark that had been extinct for at least 66 million years.

Further investigation showed that all 29 of the shark teeth were fossils, the researchers say. In other words, somebody in ancient Jerusalem, shortly after the legendary reign of King Solomon, collected mineralized shark dentition from the time of the dinosaurs.

Their findings were presented at the Goldschmidt Conference on geochemistry by the lead researcher, Dr. Tuetken. This research is an international collaboration between the University of Mainz, Haifa University, Israel Oceanographic and Limnological research and Oranim Academic College of Education.

Where did the shark teeth come from? Not nearby, which makes the paleontological collection even more baffling.

Jerusalem’s City of David – found beneath the site formerly known as the Givati parking lot just beyond the walls of the Old City – and the entire area actually sit on a prehistoric seabed. Stroll the hills and in some spots you may find sea urchins, shells and other long-dead life forms from many millions of years ago.

Dr. Tuetken says that at first he, too, entertained the thesis that the shark teeth had originated in the sedimentary rock strata that comprise the bedrock in and around Jerusalem and beneath the City of David.

“However, it seems that no fossil shark teeth finds are reported from the Jerusalem/City of David area. Furthermore, the Cretaceous sediments have a slightly different age from the fossil shark teeth. That does not fit,” he explains to Haaretz.

Similar finds of late Cretaceous shark teeth were made in Maresha and Miqne (Tel Ekron), in ancient Judea, the team adds, and their rationale is as baffling as this one.

Artist’s impression of a Squalicorax shark.Credit: Dimitri Bogdanov

The teeth may have come from the Negev, where similar fossils have been found, Tuetken suggests.

“These fossils are not in their original setting, so they have been moved. They were probably valuable to someone; we just don’t know why, or why similar items have been found in more than one place in Israel,” he says.

We add that the teeth were subsequently identified as coming from multiple extinct shark species, including from Squalicorax, a fish that grew up to 5 meters in length and apparently only lived in the Late Cretaceous – the same period as the late dinosaurs. It was a reference point in dating these fossils, the researchers elaborate.

A Squalicorax tooth in Erfoud (Arfoud), Meknès-Tafilalet Region, Morocco.Credit: Parent Géry / Wikimedia Commons

A strange pool

However prized the fossil fangs were to whoever collected them, they were found in the detritus, including household garbage, that was used to fill in a cavity hewn in the rock, on top of which a large Iron-Age house was built. Asked how they know it was a home, Tuetken reveals another oddity.

There was a “pool” cut into the bedrock, but that was a misnomer, he explains: “Apparently, it never served as a pool, a water reservoir, as the bottom of this “pool” is at a higher level than the spring nearby. This large cavity was cut into the rock, about 10 meters deep, and its original purpose is still unclear.” The rock-cut pool site was excavated by Professor Ronny Reich from Haifa University.

Come the late 9th century B.C.E. or early 8th century, this pool, or cavity, was filled up with two meters of stuff and soil. “This fill contained different items including 10,600 remains of fish, hundreds of broken bullae (tin seals) and more. The fill was considered to consist of garbage collected nearby,” Tuetken says. Then in the mid-8th century B.C.E., a house was built on the filled “pool.”

The pottery in the filling correlates with Iron Age IIA, which dates it to 1,000-925 B.C.E. “The structure built on the pool was filled after 925 B.C.E. with trash from a previous period and was part of a residential quarter, located on the lower section of the eastern slope of the City of David,” he tells Haaretz.

And now we may speculate why somebody in First Temple Jerusalem would collect fossil shark teeth. Tuetken says he isn’t aware of any other fossil collections in ancient Jerusalem.

There are no indications that the teeth were used in jewelry – for instance, there are no drill marks – and no indications they were used as tools, which would have worn them down. Could they have been seen as a rare, valuable oddity? Perhaps a sort of currency: You did an extraordinary job for the king, here, have a stone shark tooth? Tuetken doesn’t think so, but does point out how rare they are: 29 out of 10,000 fish remains are shark teeth, and they don’t appear together. One has to sieve through the sediment to find them.

He has another theory, though: “We know that there is a market for shark’s teeth even today, so it may be that there was an Iron Age trend for collecting such items. This was a period of riches in the Judean Court,” he points out. However, Tuetken begs caution: “It’s too easy to put two and two together to make five. We’ll probably never really be sure.”

We add that a shark tooth is a thing to marvel at; maybe somebody 3,000 years ago in ancient Jerusalem was captivated by the bewildering mineralized versions. They may have seemed somehow miraculous, we say cautiously, and maybe thusly the first paleontologist was born. Why and how the precious, rare collection was then discarded remains fodder for couple’s counseling.

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