Jun 30, 2022
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Herod the Great, a Roman client king of Judea and one of the most controversial kings of Judea who was raised as a Jew some 2100 years ago, was known for his colossal building projects throughout Judea. These included his renovation of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the expansion of the Temple Mount towards its north, the enclosure around the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the construction of the port at Caesarea Maritima, the fortress at Masada near the Dead Sea and Herodium south of Jerusalem.. 


The Second Temple period was well known for its strict purity laws – the need to be cleansed and pure enough to worship at the Temple dominated the lives of Jews in Judea. Evidence for this can be found in the abundant amount of mikvaot (ritual baths) spread throughout the country, most of them found in Jerusalem.


Ritual baths and bathtubs were found in all of Herod’s palaces, even at the more private ones. Some, such as the one located at the lower terrace of the Northern Palace in Masada, were of a small, domestic size, indicating that they were probably used by the inner family – perhaps even by the king himself. 


As part of this emphasis on purity, stone vessels made of soft chalk, a substance that does not pass ritual impurity, began to appear in Jewish settlements. When such vessels are found at an excavation, it points to a strictly Jewish lifestyle, especially when the same place has mikvaot.


Although these palaces were in use after Herod’s lifetime, and thus the findings do not prove that he used such vessels, the ensemble in the Third Winter Palace in Jericho can be directly attributed to Herod’s lifetime. The fact that such vessels, which can be found only in a Jewish context, were unearthed at the Herodian strata means that the king and his family did uphold some of the purity laws of their time.


From the Middle Bronze Age, Egypt played a crucial role in the appearance of calcite-alabaster artifacts in Israel, and the development of the local gypsum-alabaster industry. The absence of ancient calcite-alabaster quarries in the Southern Levant (modern-day Israel, Judea and Samaria) led to the assumption that all marble-like vessels found in the Levant originated from Egypt, while poorer quality vessels made of gypsum were local products. 


Until now this long-held assumption was never scientifically tested. But the recent identification of a calcite-alabaster quarry in the Te’omim cave, located on the western slopes of the Jerusalem hills (near modern-day Beit Shemesh), calls this hypothesis into question. 


A new study just published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports scientifically debunks the hypothesis and, for the first time, allows the distinction between calcite-alabaster originating in Israel from that originating in Egypt. Furthermore, it confirms that calcite-alabaster objects, such as Herod the Great’s alabaster bathtubs, were quarried in Israel rather than Egypt. 


The research was conducted as part of Ayala Amir’s master’s degree thesis at the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University (BIU) in Ramat Gan (near Tel Aviv), supervised by Prof. Boaz Zissu and Prof. Aren Maeir of BIU and Prof. Amos Frumkin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI).


Analytical data were first collected from samples of two well-defined sources, from Egypt and modern-day Israel. The Egyptian sources included both ancient and modern calcite-alabaster samples. The ancient samples were obtained courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. These ancient vessel remains were collected by the Austrian archaeological expedition to Giza in the nineteenth century CE. 


The modern Egyptian artifact, made of geological-sourced calcite-alabaster, was bought in a market in Cairo, Egypt in 2013. The calcite-alabaster from Israel included raw material from the Te’omim cave quarry, chips (sharp-edged waste material left over when a stone tool is made) found in the cave near the quarry, and chips and a stone block (raw material carved to a cube, but not yet used to make a vessel) from Umm el-‘Umdan – an archaeological site near the Te’omim cave. Additional samples were collected from a speleothem (eological formation by mineral deposits that accumulate over time in natural caves) in the Natuf cave located in western Samaria. 


Next, through a multidisciplinary approach, the calcite-alabaster samples from Israel and Egypt were analyzed with the assistance of Prof. Gil Goobes and Prof. Amnon Albeck of BIU’s chemistry department o using four analytic methods, most of which have not been previously used, to determine their origin. “All four analytical methods applied in the study provided consistent results, clearly distinguishing the Israeli from the Egyptian calcite-alabaster for the first time,” explained Albeck.. 


The same methods were then applied to two of Herod’s royal bathtubs, which were made of finely worked calcite-alabaster and found in the Kypros fortress and the palace of Herodium, located just south of Jerusalem. The results unequivocally indicated that the bathtubs were quarried in Israel and not in Egypt, the main source of calcite-alabaster in ancient periods.


“The fact that both bathtubs were unequivocally quarried in Israel and not in Egypt, as we would have expected due to the high quality of the stone, was a particular surprise because that means that Herod the Great used local produce and that the calcite-alabaster industry in Judea in the second half of the first century BCE was sufficiently developed and of high enough quality to serve the luxurious standards of Herod, one of the finest builders among the kings of that period,” said Maeir.


The source of calcite-alabaster artifacts can’t be determined by traditional archaeological methods. In addition, the study of rocks in thin sections using a special to determine the source of Israeli calcite-alabaster showed wide variability in texture, so this method could not be used to identify the source of the bathtubs. 


“The multidisciplinary approach adopted in this study provides information concerning both the composition and crystalline structure of calcite-alabaster and is significant for understanding and interpreting archaeological findings,’ concluded Amir. “Combining analytic methods with archaeological studies may provide new and fascinating information that could not be obtained by traditional archaeological techniques and enable us to determine the origin of other calcite-alabaster artifacts with much greater confidence.’