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Rare 6,000-year-old elephant ivory vessel unearthed in southern Israel

Unusual find sheds light on ancient trade connections with Egypt

The rare ancient ivory vessel (Photo: Dafna Gazit, Antiquities Authority)

A remarkable discovery emerged from a recent excavation near Beersheva in southern Israel: An ivory vessel crafted from elephant tusk dating back to the Chalcolithic period (around 4,000 B.C.).

This rare find sheds light on ancient trade connections between the Holy Land and Egypt some six millennia ago. Dubbed an "amphoriskos," or small jar, this vessel offers unprecedented insights into prehistoric commerce and cultural exchange.

While initially fragmented, diligent restoration efforts at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) labs have revived the vessel's former splendor. Scheduled for unveiling at the forthcoming Israel Prehistoric Society Conference, this artifact promises to fascinate scholars and enthusiasts alike.

The excavation at Horbat Raqiq unearthed more than just relics, it revealed an ancient settlement featuring subterranean structures carved into the Loess soil. During the final stages of the dig, Emil Aladjem stumbled upon the edge of a basalt vessel, prompting further exploration.

This expanded effort unearthed three imposing vessels strategically arranged within the excavation site. Among them, nestled within layers of soil, lay the shattered remnants of the ivory vessel, carefully interred in antiquity – a testament to its significance.

The broken ivory vessel deposited within the large basalt bowls (Photo: Davida Dagan, Antiquities Authority)

Dr. Ianir Milevski, a renowned authority on prehistoric archaeology, underscored the deliberate arrangement of the vessel and accompanying artifacts. Such intentional placements align with scholarly interpretations linking broken vessel deposits to ceremonial practices, underscoring their ritualistic importance.

Measuring 20 cm (about 8 in) across, the vessel's exquisite design showcases symmetrical side handles adorning its neck and base, reflecting meticulous craftsmanship.

The rare ivory vessel and the big basalt V-shape bowls (Photo: Emil Aladjem, Antiquities Authority)

Following its discovery, excavation directors Avishai Levi-Hevroni and Martin Pasternak, in collaboration with esteemed scholars, embarked on a journey to unravel its mysteries. Through meticulous analysis and painstaking conservation efforts led by expert Olga Negnevitsky, the vessel gradually took shape, preserving its authenticity and historical significance.

This painstaking process not only restored its physical form but also deepened our understanding of the Chalcolithic era and the cultural exchanges that characterized the region.

Conservator Olga Negnevitsky during vessel restoration (Photo: Ianir Milevski, Antiquities Authority)

However, questions linger regarding the vessel's origins and craftsmanship. Did it arrive fully formed from afar, or was it sculpted locally from imported ivory? Levi-Hevroni and Dr. Milevski pondered the skill and ingenuity of ancient artisans, marveling at their ability to fashion such intricate artifacts.

Biomolecular analyses, spearheaded by Dr. Harel Shochat and Dr. Liora Kolska Horwitz, offer a glimpse into the ivory's provenance, unveiling clues about ancient trade routes and elephant habitats.

As scholars eagerly anticipate further revelations, this ivory vessel stands as a testament to humanity's enduring quest for knowledge and understanding.

Its journey from ancient obscurity to modern revelation symbolizes the timeless allure of archaeology, inviting us to unravel the mysteries of our shared past.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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