Decorated ivories

What is it?

This collection of decorated ivory plaques found in Jerusalem was probably once inlaid in a piece of ornate wooden furniture. The plaques, which are believed to date to the 8th-7th centuries BC, were discovered broken into many fragments, but conservators were able to piece them back together into at least 12 small square fittings measuring c.5cm x 5cm, and at most 0.5cm thick. The plaques are made from elephant tusk and have been intricately carved. Most share the same designs – frames with rosettes surrounding a stylised tree – but there are also several examples decorated with other motifs, including lotus flowers and geometric patterns.

Photo: Eliyahu Yanai, City of David

Why does it matter?

Decorated ivories of this kind are relatively unusual, with only a few other examples known, all originating from other important centres of power in this period, such as Nimrud and Samaria. These are the first examples to be found in Jerusalem, and it is thought that they were probably imported, perhaps made by artisans from Assyria and given as a gift to a member of Jerusalem’s nobility.

Ivories like this would have been extremely valuable, indicating that the building from which they came was occupied by high-status, wealthy individuals, such as leading government officials or priests. This is supported by additional luxury finds from the site, including other elaborate furnishing decorations, an agate seal, and jars that once held vanilla-spiced wine. These discoveries offer a glimpse into the daily lives of Jerusalem’s elites as well as a better understanding of the city’s political and economic status at the time.

The designs on the plaques also tell us something about which global symbols were being adopted in Jerusalem and which were not. Motifs such as the rosette and the stylised tree appear on other ivory objects from sites such as Samaria, Nimrud, and Khorsabad. However, the plaques from Jerusalem do not include any of the animal and human mythological figures also found on ivory items from many of these locations.

Where was it found, and when?

The decorated ivories were unearthed during recent excavations by the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University in Jerusalem, in the Givati Parking Lot, an archaeological site within the Jerusalem Walls National Park. The ivory plaques come from a palatial building that was in use during the 8th-7th centuries BC, before being destroyed by fire, perhaps during the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587/586 BC. The ivories are thought to have been part of a couch-throne, possibly from the second floor of the grand structure. They were severely damaged during the fire, but wet-sieving of material from the excavation produced c.1,500 ivory fragments, which were restored through careful conservation work.