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Ancient Clam Shell Jewelry from Prehistoric Israel

Intriguing archaeological news from Qafzeh Cave, a prehistoric burial site located at the bottom of Mount Precipice in Israel.  The anatomically modern human remains found interred in the cave are 92,000 years old–among the oldest Homo Sapiens remains discovered outside of Africa.  However the cave did not just contain ancient skeletal remains–indeed the upper levels of the cave (which is to say, the younger/newer layers) were filled with stoves, stone tools, animal bones and all manner of campsite detritus.  Yet, we are interested in the layers below the ancient graves which predate them by tens of thousands of years.  In these strata, anthropologists discovered the shells of Glycymeris bivalves, carried from the Mediterranean Sea 35 kilometers away.

The shells bear evidence of having been prepared (perferrated/polished) and hung on wild flax string.  Some shells even had ochre stains on them.  These were special adornments–jewelry–for the humans who dwelt in the Lower Galilee region of Israel 120,000 years ago.  They are striking in their lack of obvious utility, and are among the first cultural artifacts known.

Alas, we can not know the precise meaning which these adornments had for the hunter-gatherer folks of prehistoric Galilee, but, based on everything we know about subsequent humans we can certainly make intelligent guesses. The shells were ornaments which indicated status.  They could also have indicated group identity or reflected personal beliefs of the wearer.  Another nearby cave had shells from 160,000 years ago–which must also have been carried by ancient humans to that site.  Yet the 160,000 year old shells had no perforations or marks of wear from string.  Somewhere between 120,000 and 160,000 years ago we made some real leaps forward in terms of string and accessories!  It doesn’t surprise me that the phylum Mollusca was involved (obviously clams had been important to us as food and tools for tens of thousands of years before we discovered their use as stringed body ornaments), yet I do find it worthy of comment.


flgdecl1000004758_-00_isreal-flag-decalHey! It’s the flag of Irsael: a blue Star of David on a white background between two blue stripes.  What’s the story with all of that blue anyway?  Well, like most stories involving Judaism, the story goes back a long, long way to the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, where the high priests wore a robe dyed a deep midnight blue.  In fact, this color, known as tekhelet, was a sacred color which appeared in temple hangings and in the twined fringes known as tzitzit which hang from the corners of Jewish prayer shawls.

A High Priest with Tekhelet Robe

A High Priest with Tekhelet Robe

The Tanahk (the sacred books of Judaism) are pretty specific about tekhelet.  It is mentioned nearly 50 times and it is specifically and explicitly stated that the special blue dye must be made from a shellfish called chilazon (rather than from the less expensive indigo).   And so it was for many lives of men.  Unfortunately everything went wrong in the first and second centuries AD when the Roman Empire destroyed the temple, defeated a Jewish revolt and exiled Jews from Jerusalem.  During this period of chaos and diaspora, the fine nuances of dyes were not of tantamount importance, and the way to make tekhelet were lost as was knowledge of exactly what sort of mollusk a chilazon actually is.

Oh, also, during travel, the Ark of the Covenant was supposed to be covered in a cloth of tekhelet

Oh, also, during travel, the Ark of the Covenant was supposed to be covered in a cloth of tekhelet

The Talmud demands that tekhelet be used for crafting the fringes of prayer shawls and it stipulates that counterfeit dyes must not be (knowingly) used.  This has left devout Jews with a conundrum as to how to proceed.  Since the Roman exile, Orthodox Jews have most commonly setteld plain white tzitzit, however there have also been several attempts to rediscover the mysterious chilazon and recreate tekhelet.   In the late nineteenth century the Grand Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner researched the subject and proclaimed that the common cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis, was the missing mollusk.  The dye he created, however, did not seem to fit Talmudic descriptions and chemists later determined it was simply Prussian blue (although the holy man proudly wore his blue fringes, as did many of his followers).

Common cuttlefish - Sepia officinalis (photo by David Nicholson)

Common cuttlefish – Sepia officinalis (photo by David Nicholson)

Hexaplex trunculus

Hexaplex trunculus

Another Talmudic scholar cross referenced his ancient religious text with modern malacology texts and concluded that the chilazon was actually Hexaplex trunculus, a murex snail which is a close relative of  Murex brandaris (the source of Tyrian purple).   The dye which he created from the secretions of Hexaplex trunculus was also purple and thus did not seem to fit the bill.  Only with the help of a chemist in the 1980s was it determined that the proper blue color could be obtained by exposing a solution of the snail slime dye to sunlight.  So if you are an orthodox Jew (or a high priest of the Temple) you might want to look into getting some tekhelet clothing.

Actual Tekhelet dyed wool (probably...)

Actual Tekhelet dyed wool (probably…)


Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

February 2023