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Aren’t You Dying To Know?

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Find of the Month: January

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Singer Family and the Murex Shell

Aren’t you dying to know what this month’s “Find of the Month” is? Well, if you can’t tell from my bad pun, this month’s find of the month is a murex trunculus: a rock snail shell. It was found by the Singer family from Jerusalem, who were really excited to have found something so special. This shell is another piece to a puzzle we have been trying to put together here for years.

The murex family of snails are medium to large predatory, tropical, sea snails, also known as murexes or rock snails. They have elongated shells with spines of fronds and brightly colored inner surfaces. Aristotle used the word murex, and Vitruvius described the dye made from these shells, making this one of the oldest shell families still known today.

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Modern tzit tzit with blue strings mimicking tehelet

What makes the murex trunculus so special is that they are connected with the ancient process of making tehelet, the blue dye we know from the Bible that was used in priestly garments and the Israelites’ tzit tzit (fringes). This snail family was also used to make the purple dye known in the Bible as argaman.

Making tehelet or argaman requires special skills as well as a lot of snails. Dye can be collected by crushing the snails, or by laboriousy poking (milking) the snails and collecting the excretion. 12,000 snails might yield 1.4 g of dye, which is only enough to color the trim of a single garment.[1] Because of this, this Royal Blue or Royal Purple dye was very expensive, making it an almost exclusive sign of kingship and royalty. Interestingly, the color of this dye becomes more vibrant when left in the sun, and it is possible that different versions of the color can be made by making the dye in the sun or in the shade.

slide1Much of the production of this type of dye we attribute to the Phoenicians. The purple is also known as Tyrian purple (from the Phoenician city of Tyre). Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of dye production at Phoenician sites in Morocco and all across the Mediterranean, including Israel. There is a lot of evidence at Tel Dor for Phoenician dye production in the Iron Age as well as the merchandizing and trading of goods like colored fabrics and wool.

So what was this murex shell doing on the Temple Mount? Any time we find a shell, we know that it was used by humans because Jerusalem is too far from the sea for sea creatures (and their shells) to dwell there. This means that shells were brought to Jerusalem for a purpose. We have discovered over 20 of these murex trunculus shells in the sifting, and it leads us to wonder why. Is it possible that there was a workshop for dye production on the Temple Mount? Perhaps these shells were used to create the dye for fabrics used in the Temple. Maybe it was produced on site for purity reasons.

Unfortunately, we can’t date these shells until we have evidence that would link them to another, datable, artifact such as something else used in cloth or dye production. With more funding, we might be able to carbon date them, but each test costs about $400 and in order to reach statistical significance, we would need to test samples from 20 shells. Regardless, there is a lot of research yet to be completed on this, but these shells certainly raise a lot of really interesting questions.

Just because, check out this video see archaeologists extracting dye from one of these shells.

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[1] Jacoby, “Silk Economics and Cross-Cultural Artistic Interaction: Byzantium, the Muslim World, and the Christian West” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 58 (2004:197–240) p. 210.

It’s All Fun and Games!

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Find of the Month: December

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Alumah, age 10, holding an astragolos

Over Chanukkah, we had 1356 people come and sift with us! Out of the thousands of amazing finds recovered in the last week and the last month, our find of the month is this fantastic astragolos also commonly known as a game piece from the game of Knucklebones (though it isn’t the knuckles but rather the anklebones from the hind legs of sheep and goats that are used to play this game of chance). This artifact was found by the Bar Yosef family from Eli and seems to be the perfect fit for this fun-loving family! See Alumah, age 10, holding the astragolos found by her family.

The origin of Knucklebones is probably a more primitive form of dice. Sophocles ascribed the invention of knucklebones to Palamedes, who taught it to the Greeks during the Trojan War. It became one of the most popular games of chance in antiquity. The knucklebones, or astragaloi, were used like fivestones, dice, or jacks. The game is played with five small objects (10 with jacks) that were thrown in the air and caught in various ways such as on the back of the hand. Many have been found in funerary contexts and may have been intended to help the deceased entertain themselves through eternity.

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Bone astragolos found by the Bar Yosef family in the sifting

Today, variations of this game with specific rules and combinations of throws and catches are still played in different contexts across the world. Here in Israel, children play “Chamesh Avanim,” which is similar in concept but played with small metal dice or cubes. (This archaeologist can admit that her nieces always beat her).

Sometimes these game pieces were also made out of glass, bronze, stone, and terracotta, or had a hole and were used as a bead. Most astragaloi come from Hellenistic or Roman contexts. In October, while sorting through a collection of bones found the day before, one of our staff noticed that one of the bones looked like it was made of glass. He had found a glass astragolos! Though there have been many glass astragaloi discovered in Greece, its dependents, and the Eastern Mediterranean, they are rare here in Israel. A few have been found in Samaria, Maresha, Dor, and Jaffa. Unless others are unpublished, this was the first glass astragaloi found in Jerusalem. More research will determine the significance of this find and refine its dating, so stay tuned for a future article about this.

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Glass astragolos from the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv that is like the one found by the Sifting Project.

Bejeweled

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Warning: This is a post about jewelry. Be wary when sharing it on social media before the holidays.

On This Day

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Hilda and Flinders Petrie 1903

Did you know that on this day (November 26th) in 1896 Sir Flinders Petrie married his wife Hilda, who excavated with him throughout their marriage? Perhaps best known for his excavations in Egypt, Sir Flinders Petrie also spent time excavating and doing research here in Israel. We would like to wish the Petries a happy 120th anniversary.

Research

Well, this is a great excuse to talk about some of our research here at the Sifting Project, and weddings always make me think of rings. Though we have many rings of different styles and types, today we are going to focus on glass rings and bracelets.

During the first nine years of the Sifting Project approximately 1800 glass bracelet fragments and about 150 glass finger ring fragments were recovered and catalogued (we have since found many more but they are waiting to be officially counted and added to the database.) Circular glass “bangle” bracelets were common in Israel from late Roman times to the present, and these inexpensive bracelets were the most prevalent type of glass jewelry in the Levant and the Near East. Although the majority of these bracelet fragments are the brightly colored ones popular during the Islamic periods, especially Mamluk and Ottoman, the collection includes some that are consistent with the dark monochrome bracelets dated to the Late Roman and Early Byzantine periods. The range of bracelet diameters indicates that these inexpensive ornaments were popular among children as well as adults. Glass finger rings, some matching the glass bracelet styles (such as the bracelet third from the right), were not as varied or as popular as the bracelets.

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Assorted Glass Bracelet Fragments Found by the Sifting Project

Glass Bracelets

Glass bracelets first appeared in Egypt in the 2nd millennium B.C.E. They became more popular in Europe during the last centuries of the first millennium BCE, but did not become common in the Levant until the 3rd century C.E. They were very popular during the Islamic periods when brightly colored bracelets replaced the earlier mostly dark-colored ones. During the later Islamic periods Tyrus, Hebron, Aleppo, Acre, Sidon, Raqqa, Cairo, Alexandria and Damascus were famous glass production centers, and Hebron was especially famous for its glass bracelets from the 16th through the 19th centuries. Bracelets from Hebron were still made there and sold in Jerusalem into the 20th century.

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Assorted Glass Ring Fragments Found by the Sifting Project

Glass Finger Rings

Glass rings began to appear in Israel in the late Roman period, about the same time as glass bracelets. Their types were not as varied as the bracelets, nor were they as popular, but the sizes indicate that many were worn by children. The rings are often monochrome, but the rings of the Islamic era are multicolored, with added colored patches and trails creating rings that matched bracelet types. One popular type found on the Temple Mount was a simple monochrome band decorated with an added contrasting glass “gem” at the seam. Another was monochrome with a flattened rhomboidal or oval bezel. Glass rings were produced in Hebron during most periods and continuing into the 19th century.

Very few glass rings have been published from sites in Israel, and Maud Spaer (see below) only wrote a typology for glass bracelets, not glass rings.  Consequently, the dating of many of our rings is based on finding matching types of bracelets, and giving the rings the same date as the bracelets.  For example, the ring on the far right matches the bracelet 3rd from the right — turquoise base with white-yellow-orange-black-striped patches.

Further Reading
Maud Spaer, “The Pre-Islamic Glass Bracelets of Palestine,” Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 30 (1988), pp. 51‒61; “The Islamic Glass Bracelets of Palestine: Preliminary Findings,” JGS, Vol. 34 (1992), pp. 44‒62.
Margreet L. Steiner, “An Analysis of the Islamic Glass Bracelets Found at Tell Abu Sarbut,” in M. Steiner and E. van der Steen, Sacred and Sweet: Studies in the Material Culture of Tell Deir ’Alla and Tell Abu Sarbut (Leuven: Peeters, 2008), pp. 231-239.
Maud Spaer, “Bracelets and Other Jewelry,” Ancient Glass in the Israel Museum: Beads and Other Small Objects (Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 2001), pp. 193‒210, Pls. 33‒37.

 

lady-layard-necklaceCan I write a post script on a blog? Now I know that this has nothing to do with our project or the Petries, but speaking about archaeology and weddings, how amazing is this jewelry made out of cylinder seals? It was given by Archaeologist Henry Layard as a wedding gift to his wife Enid in 1869. It is currently in the British Museum. Now you all know what to get me for the holidays.