Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften


The Ivory Carvings from Samaria

Excavations conducted between 1908 and 1935 at Samaria, Israel, have brought to light a large number of ivory carvings, mainly parts of furniture decorations, in the vicinity of the ancient palace. Although found largely in later debris, the ivories can be dated to the 9th - 8th centuries BCE when Samaria was the capital of the king­dom of Israel. Biblical prophets single out luxurious ivory furniture and “ivory houses” as symbols of sins committed by kings of Israel – especially Ahab and his Tyrian wife Jezebel – for not following on the path of Yahweh’s monotheism. When large quantities of ivory carvings were discovered at Samaria, scholars seeking confirmation of the Bible’s writings attributed the entire assemblage to “pagan” Phoenician workmanship.

The production of ivory objects had an old tradition in the Levant with a high point in the Late Bronze Age and reaching its peak in the 9th - 8th centuries BCE. These small works of art are of extraordinary workmanship, carved in a variety of techniques often finished with colorful glass inlays and/or gold overlays. Their imagery is indebted to the Late Bronze Age and linked to royal ideology. The high value of ivory carvings as objects of prestige and royal emblems is corroborated by the Bible, albeit in a mainly negative way, and also by Assyrian royal inscriptions reporting ivory objects among the booty and tribute from various Levantine kingdoms. In addition, store­houses filled with actual objects were discovered at Nimrud, ancient Kalhu, capital of the expanding Assyrian empire in the 9th - 8th centuries BCE. In fact, the vast majority of early first millennium BCE Levantine ivory carvings were found in Assyrian rather than Levantine cities. The Samaria ivories form the largest assemblage unearthed in a Levantine capital before its incorporation into the Assyrian empire. Assyrian military policies, especially the deportation and relocation of royal families together with large numbers of the working population, brought an end to the Levantine production.

Despite its significance for both the study of Levantine ivory carving and the cultural history of Israel, the assemblage from Samaria has never been properly published. While the excavators’ final report from 1938 describes only a small portion of the material (c. 200 items), this project will produce a comprehensive catalogue of all ivory objects found, amounting to over 12,000 items. Furthermore, it aims at a balanced assessment of this assemblage in light of current scholarship on Levantine ivory carving and the history of Israel.

Claudia E. Suter, PhD

Sponsorship: Swiss National Science Foundation and Shelby White and Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications at Harvard University