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Rare 2,000-year-old seal of god Apollo found in drainage canal of Jerusalem’s City of David

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The gem sealing was embedded in a ring, and it dates from the first century CE, which is during the Second Temple period and was believed to have been worn by a Jew

By ILANIT CHERNICK

In an amazingly rare find, an ancient gem seal, otherwise known as an intaglio, bearing the portrait of the Greek and Roman god Apollo, was found in the drainage canal of the City of David

According to the City of David and Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority, the seal dates back 2,000 years and was discovered in archeological soil that was removed from the foundations of the Western Wall during the sifting project in the Tzurim Valley National Park.

“The gem features an engraved portrait of the god Apollo,” they said in a statement. “According to researchers, this surprising and rare find is the third secured gem sealing (intaglio) from the Second Temple period to have ever been discovered in Jerusalem.”

The gem is cut from dark brown jasper stone and has remnants of yellow-light, brown, and white layers. In antiquity, jasper was considered a precious stone. 

“The gem sealing was embedded in a ring, and it dates from the first century CE, which is during the Second Temple period,” they said.  

According to the researchers, archaeologist Eli Shukron, Prof. Shua Amorai-Stark, and senior archaeologist Malka Hershkovitz, although Apollo is an Olympian deity of the Greek and Roman cultures, they believe that it’s highly probable that the person wearing the ring with Apollo’s portrait was actually a Jew.

Commenting on the find, Shukron, who conducted the excavation in which the gem was found, stressed that “it is rare to find seal remains bearing the image of the god Apollo at sites identified with the Jewish population.” 

“To this day, two such gems (seals) have been found in Masada, another in Jerusalem inside an ossuary (burial box) in a Jewish tomb on Mount Scopus, and the current gem that was discovered in close proximity to the Temple Mount,” he said. 

Shukron highlighted that when they found the gem, “we asked ourselves ‘what is Apollo doing in Jerusalem? And why would a Jew wear a ring with the portrait of a foreign god?’” 

“The answer to this, in our opinion,” he said, “lies in the fact that the owner of the ring did so not as a ritual act that expresses religious belief, but as a means of making use of the impact that Apollo’s figure represents: light, purity, health, and success.”  

The team of archeologists also pointed out that the gem is tiny.  “It is oval-shaped, 13 mm long, 11 mm wide, and 3 mm thick,” they said. 

Above Image: The rare and ancient seal of Apollo found in the City of David is tiny, as shown here. (Photo Credit: Yael HaEytan/City of David)
Featured Image: The rare and ancient seal of Apollo found in Jerusalem’s City of David. (Photo Credit: Eliyahu Yanai/City of David)

With the gem being an intaglio, which means it has a design carved into the upper side of the stone, “its main function was a seal to be stamped on soft material, usually bee wax, for use as a personal signature for contracts, letters, wills, and goods or bundles of money.” 

The gem features an engraving of Apollo’s head in profile to the left, with long hair flowing over a wide, pillar-like neck, large nose, thick lips, and small prominent chin. 

Apollo’s hair on the gem” is styled in a series of parallel lines directed to the apex, and surrounded by a braid above the forehead.”

One line of Apollo’s hair marks a strand that covers the ear, while long curls flow over part of the neck, reaching the left shoulder. 

“Thin diagonal lines at the base of the head mark the upper end of the garment and the body,” the archeologists added.

Researcher of engraved gems Prof. Shua Amorai-Stark explained that “at the end of the Second Temple period, the sun god Apollo was one of the most popular and revered deities in Eastern Mediterranean regions.”

“Apollo was a god of manifold functions, meanings, and epithets,” he said. “Among Apollo’s spheres of responsibility, it is likely that association with sun and light (as well as with logic, reason, prophecy, and healing) fascinated some Jews, given that the element of light versus darkness was prominently present in Jewish worldview in those days.” 

Amorai-Stark pointed out that the craftsman of this gem left the yellow-golden and light brown layers on the god’s hair, which “probably indicate a desire to emphasize the aspect of light in the god’s persona, as well as in the aura that surrounded his head.” 

Concluding his assessment, Amorai-Stark added that “the choice of a dark stone with a yellow coloring of hair suggests that the creator or owner of this intaglio sought to emphasize the dichotomous aspect of light and darkness and/or their connectedness.”

The Archaeological Sifting Project at Tzurim Valley National Park, sponsored by the City of David and the Nature and National Parks Authority, is a large scale archeological project that offers the public an opportunity to experience and appreciate archeological activity without pre-requirements of advanced training or specialized knowledge. 

Findings unearthed so far include an imprint of King Hezekiah, coins from different periods, arrowheads, and jewelry.

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