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The mystery of king herod’s bathtubs

King herod

Herod “the Great” was a Jewish Roman king that ruled Judea in the second half of the first century BC. 

He was fond of Roman cultural norms, such as Roman bathing culture, and sought to incorporate them into his realm.

In fact, it is samples from two of his personal calcite‑alabaster bathtubs that were used to scientifically test the long-held assumption that all calcite-alabaster objects of the time were quarried Egypt.

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 and Palestine) led to the assumption that all calcite-alabaster vessels found in the Levant originated from Egypt, while poorer quality vessels made of gypsum were local products.

This long-held assumption was never scientifically tested – until the recent identification of a calcite-alabaster quarry in the Te’omim cave, Israel. 

Located on the western slopes of the Jerusalem hills (near modern-day Beit Shemesh, Israel), the quarry was the key to proving that calcite-alabaster objects were quarried in Israel rather than Egypt.

This research is presented in a study published in the Nature Journal Scientific Reports, “Sourcing Herod the Great’s calcite‑alabaster bathtubs by a multi‑analytic approach” by Ayala Amir as part of her MA thesis at the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

Amir analysed calcite-alabaster samples from Te’omim cave quarry and ancient Egyptian quarries and compared them to Herodian bathtub samples using four analytic methods.

The results of the study demonstrated a sound distinction between calcite-alabaster originating in Israel from that originating in Egypt, indicating that calcite-alabaster objects, such as Herod the Great’s alabaster bathtubs, were quarried in Israel rather than Egypt.

“All four analytical methods applied in the study provided consistent results, clearly distinguishing the Israeli from the Egyptian calcite-alabaster for the first time,” said Professor Albeck.

“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 BC 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 Professor Aren Maeir.

Amir’s research is also a steppingstone to helping identify further archaeological artifacts in the future.

“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,” Amir noted.

“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.”•

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