The mystery of the ancient head: 3,000-year-old sculpture of unidentified biblical king found in Israel

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A 3,000-year-old sculpture of a king’s head, unearthed in modern-day Israel, is at the center of a mystery that has baffled researchers the world over. An extremely rare example of figurative art dating back to 9th century BC Holy Land, the 2-inch (around 5-centimeter) sculpture is remarkably well preserved, with only a tiny portion of the subject’s beard missing.

Although experts are of the opinion that the stern-bearded figure with the golden crown represents royalty, they are yet to ascertain his identity and are even struggling to determine which kingdom he may have ruled.

The sculpture, as per reports, was discovered last year at an archaeological site known as Abel Beth Maacah. Situated south of Israel’s border with Lebanon, around 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) from the present-day town of Metula and 4 miles (approx. 6.5 kilometers) west of Tel-Dan, the site comprises a mound with a small upper northern section and a large lower southern one, connected by means of a saddle.

Originally uncovered by 19th-century archaeologists, the site was then home to a village called Abil al-Qamh, which interestingly is mentioned in the Old Testament’s Book of Kings.

Back in 9th century BC – a period historically associated with biblical kings – the town was located in what was a liminal zone between three regional kingdoms: the Arameans, an ancient Northwest Semitic Aramaic-speaking tribal confederation based out of present-day Damascus, to the east; the Phoenician city of Tyre to the west and the Israelite kingdom, with its capital in Samaria, to the south.

In the Old Testament, Kings 1 15:20 talks about Abel Beth Maacah as one of the many cities attacked by the Aramean king Ben Hadad in a power struggle against the Israelite kingdom. Elaborating further, Hebrew University archaeologist Naama Yahalom-Mack, who has been jointly leading excavation works at the site since 2013 along with California’s Azusa Pacific University, said –

This location is very important because it suggests that the site may have shifted hands between these polities, more likely between Aram-Damascus and Israel.

Uncovering The 3,000-Year-Old Head

It was during the summer of 2017 that Yahalom-Mack and his team stumbled upon the 3,000-year-old sculpture of a biblical king while digging through the floor of a huge iron age structure. According to the researchers, the section where the figurine was found actually dates back to the Iron Age period of the ancient Levant, which is essentially associated with the rival kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

Immediately after its discovery, the ancient sculpture was brought to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where it was put on public display. Calling it a one-of-a-kind find, Eran Arie, the curator of Iron Age and Persian archaeology at the Israel Museum said –

In the Iron Age, if there’s any figurative art, and there largely isn’t, it’s of very low quality. And this is of exquisite quality.

A thorough report on the findings is slated for release in the June edition of the Near Eastern Archaeology journal. Made from faience, a delicate glass-like material that was commonly used in jewelry and small figurines in ancient Egypt and the Near East, the newly-unearthed sculpture shows a biblical king with a “very interesting hairdo”, which according to Yahalom-Mack is typical of the way ancient Egyptians portrayed Near Eastern people in art. She stated –

The color of the face is greenish because of this copper tint that we have in the silicate paste. The guy kind of represents the generic way Semitic people are described.

While carbon-14 dating has helped date the sculpture’s origin to some time in 9th century BC, scholars are still struggling to establish the subject’s identity. Robert Mullins, lead archaeologist at Abel Beth Maacah and Chair of Azusa Pacific’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies, summed it up as follows –

Given that the head was found in a city that sat on the border of three different ancient kingdoms, we do not know whether it depicts the likes of King Ahab of Israel, King Hazael of Aram-Damascus, or King Ethbaal of Tyre, rulers known from the Bible and other sources. The head represents a royal enigma.

Meanwhile, the team from Hebrew University and Azusa Pacific University is set to recommence excavations at the site where the sculpture of the biblical king wad found, later this month.

Source/Image Credits: The Associated Press (AP)/Azusa Pacific University (APU)