Sculpted head of mystery biblical king found in Israel
Buried under a pair of hills at Israel’s northern border, at the nexus of three ancient kingdoms, is one of the last large biblical sites yet to be uncovered. So said an international team of archaeologists after they started to dig up the ruins of Abel Beth Maacah five years ago.
The lost town is also one of the more enigmatic places mentioned in the Old Testament.
As legend had it, the archaeologists wrote, Abel Beth Maacah was a fortified crossroads connecting the kingdoms of Israel, Damascus and Tyre, and “perhaps the seat of a local oracle.” It’s unclear to which king the town was loyal, they wrote — or whether it belonged to a possibly mythical fourth kingdom called Maacah.
Only a few stories about the town are told in the Bible, and all of them are more tantalizing than illuminating for scientists who want to know what Abel Beth Maacah actually was.
A traitor to Israel’s King David once took refuge in Abel, according to the Books of Samuel. The king’s men accordingly besieged the town, and were in the process of ramming down the wall when a “wise woman” called out to them from inside:
“Why do you want to swallow up the Lord’s inheritance?” she asked.
The soldiers said they just wanted the traitor. So the wise woman had her people cut off his head and toss it over the wall, and King David left Abel Beth Maacah alone.
And then a century or so after that episode, if radiocarbon dating can be trusted, this little guy showed up in Abel:
The Israeli and Americanled team of archaeologists were about five years into their excavations last summer, “digging through the floor of a massive Iron Age structure” when they found the head beneath the top of the site.
The carved head was about 2 inches around, encased in a clump of dirt that dated to between 900 and 800 B.C. — a period when King David’s Israel had splintered into two kingdoms, and Abel would have been in the middle of a power struggle among its many neighbors.
Which raises the question: Who was the man whose likeness is captured in the figurine, and what did he mean to the people of Abel?
“We’re guessing probably a king, but we have no way of proving that,” Robert Mullins of Azusa Pacific University, who is co-directing the American side of the excavation, told LiveScience.
The man was important.
Even aside from his crown, regal beard and elegant hair, he was crafted with artistic precision.
“His almond-shaped eyes and pupils are lined in black and the pursed lips give him a look that is part pensive, part stern,” the university wrote.
He is made of a glasslike material more commonly seen in Iron Age jewelry. The archaeologists rushed to put him on display at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum.
Which king is now the central question, and the answer could shed more light on the encompassing mystery of Abel Beth Maacah.
Experts say Abel likely switched kings and loyalties fluidly throughout the 9th century B.C. — meaning that the sculpted head could belong to one of several feuding monarchs. Two likely possibilities would connect the head to one of the Bible’s most notorious characters: Queen Jezebel of Israel.
In the Bible, Jezebel is usually depicted as a traitor, synonymous with immorality. But historically, she was a powerful queen who united the families of two kingdoms: the daughter of King Ethbaal of Tyre, and wife to King Ahab of Israel.
And both of those men ruled around the time the head was carved.
“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,” Azusa Pacific University wrote. “The head represents a royal enigma.”
This detailed figurine of a king’s head, on display at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, dates to biblical times. It was found last year near Israel’s border with Lebanon.