Archaeologists have found out where the material for the alabaster baths of Herod the Great was mined

(ORDO NEWS) — A new study has refuted the hypothesis that all luxury and household items found in the Levant, made of alabaster (calcite), come from Egypt.

A team of Israeli scientists from the Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem managed to refute the widespread hypothesis that all objects of art, luxury and everyday life found in the Levant and made of calcite alabaster , including the baths of King Herod the Great , – came exclusively from Egypt.

Herod I the Great, who was nicknamed “the evil genius of the Jewish nation” for his particular cruelty and is famous for the story of the beating of babies described in the Gospel of Matthew , was born around 73 BC, during the reign of the Hasmonean queen Alexandra (Salome).

In 40 BC, by order of Mark Antony and the decision of the Roman Senate, he was appointed king of Judea, but in fact Herod began to rule only three years later.

He respected the Roman Caesar Augustus and sought to show himself as a champion of the traditional values ​​of the Hellenistic and Roman monarchy. In addition, the king adopted some of the cultural traditions of Rome, including bathing.

The “greatness” of Herod was reflected not only in his power and wealth, but also in construction projects: under him, fortresses, palaces were actively erected and entire cities were rebuilt in Judea, such as Masada, Jericho, Cypros, Paneada (Caesarea Philippi), Caesarea Maritime, Jerusalem and Herodium.

According to scholars, few rulers had such a huge impact on changing the material culture of their time as “the greatest builder in Jewish history”: he introduced many new trends in almost all aspects of life in Judea.

Although much is known about the public activities of King Herod, little evidence of his personal life and property has been found.

However, archaeologists discovered the baths of Herod the Great from calcite alabaster: the first was found more than 40 years ago in the fortress on Kypros, the second – recently, in the chambers in the palace in Herodium near the village of Tekoa.

Archaeologists have found out where the material for the alabaster baths of Herod the Great was mined 2
One of the alabaster baths of Herod the Great

The researchers wondered: where was the mineral mined for the manufacture of these royal baths? The fact is that since the Middle Bronze Age (XXVI / XXV – XX / XIX centuries BC), Egypt played a decisive role in the appearance of alabaster products in Israel and the development of the gypsum-alabaster industry there.

Since no ancient alabaster quarries have previously been found in the Southern Levant (modern Palestine and Israel), it has been assumed that all Levantine vessels and other utensils from the so-called oriental alabaster were created in Egypt, and lower quality calcite ware was locally produced.

That is, it could be said with certainty that Herod’s heavy baths were brought from Egypt, although their transportation would clearly have been a difficult task.

But not so long ago, in the Teomim cave, located on the western slopes of the Judean mountains (Jerusalem hills; not far from the modern city of Beit Shemesh), that is, within the borders of the kingdom of Herod, a calcite-alabaster quarry was discovered: traces of stone mining are visible on its walls and floor , in particular the shallow channels left after the separation of the blocks.

Archaeologists have found out where the material for the alabaster baths of Herod the Great was mined 3
Teomim Cave

The results of radioisotope dating and other related archaeological finds indicate that the main work in the Teomim Cave quarries was carried out before 1500 BC, during the Middle Bronze Age. The later use of the quarry is evidenced by the abundance of late Roman remains found there.

Based on these data, the scientists assumed that the alabaster for the baths of Herod the Great was taken from the Teomim cave – that is, in Judea, not Egypt – and decided to test their hypothesis.

Archaeologists have found out where the material for the alabaster baths of Herod the Great was mined 4
Teomim Cave

The authors of the new study developed an approach to identifying the source of calcite alabaster by combining four analytical methods involving ten criteria. Scientists analyzed samples provided by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the remains of ancient vessels discovered by the Austrian archaeological expedition in Giza in the 19th century.

They also examined a modern alabaster artifact bought at a market in Cairo in 2013, alabaster from the Teomim cave, fragments and a stone block from Umm el-Umdan, an archaeological site nearby.

Additional samples of the mineral were collected in the Natuf Cave, located in Wadi en-Natuf in Western Samaria (historical Israel), after which everything was ground into powder using an agate mortar and pestle.

“Each method (inductively coupled plasma (ICP) atomic emission spectroscopy, IR spectroscopy, solid state NMR spectroscopy, and measurement of the ratio of stable C and O isotopes) demonstrated a clear distinction between Egyptian and Israeli calcite alabaster, and the determination of its origin was supported by a combination of results. taken together,” the scientists write.

In particular, the samples differed in the distribution of trace elements: the Egyptian ones contained significantly more magnesium and strontium, while the Israeli ones had higher concentrations of phosphorus and titanium.

The same methods were then applied to determine the origin, composition and crystal structure of the alabaster from which the baths of Herod the Great were made: the results clearly demonstrated that the royal bathing tanks were carved from a mineral mined in what is now Israel.

Consequently, the production of calcite alabaster in Judea in the second half of the first century BC was quite developed, and the material was of sufficient quality to meet the standards of Herod.


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