Fragments of decorated ivory plaques found among the ruins of an ancient palace in Jerusalem

It has been suggested that the ivories were made by Assyrian artists and possibly arrived in Jerusalem as a gift to the nobility.

Archaeologists working in Jerusalem have discovered around 1,500 fragments of decorated ivory plaques among the ruins of a palatial building occupied during the 8th-7th centuries BC. Conservators have pieced together many of these finds, unearthed by the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University’s excavations in the Jerusalem Walls National Park, to recreate at least 12 small square plaques that would have been inlays adorning luxurious wooden furniture.

Conservators reassembled the ivory plaques, revealing designs including frames with rosettes. Image: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority

While some of the ivories are decorated with lotus flowers and geometric patterns, most of the plaques have the same design: a stylised tree inside a border featuring rosettes. Both trees and rosettes were popular motifs in Mesopotamia and other cultural centres. Ornate ivory inlays with similar imagery are known from Samaria, as well as Nimrud and Khorsabad in the Assyrian Empire. These other sites also have ivory decorated with mythological figures (both human and animal). Such subjects do not appear in the Jerusalem finds, so although the ivories point to interconnectedness and cultural exchange, they also hint at some selectiveness about which imagery was adopted.

Yuval Gadot (Tel Aviv University) and Yiftah Shalev (Israel Antiquities Authority) suggest that the ivories were made by Assyrian artists and possibly arrived in Jerusalem as a gift to the nobility. Ivory was a valuable material, and would have been a suitable gift for a high-status resident of the palatial building. The building was devastated by a fire, in which the ivory plaques were also burnt, perhaps during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 587/586 BC. Other finds that add detail to our knowledge of the palatial surroundings include an agate seal, a seal impression naming ‘Natan-Melech servant of the king’, jars that contained wine spiced with vanilla, and parts of wooden furniture.