Were diamonds a girl’s best friend in the ancient Land of Israel? 

June 3, 2019 by Elana Oberlander
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Israel’s Bar-Ilan University is spearheading a new field of research in archaeological gemology which aims to examine and shed light on ancient precious stones and minerals. 

A necklace from the Persian period at Tel Michal with a mix of coral, carnelian and chalcedony

Prof. Zohar Amar and Yael Elkayam, of Bar-Ilan’s Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology, are directing the research. In recent years, Prof. Amar has conducted an extensive historical study on common precious stones found in the Land of Israel and its environs, covering such topics as their origin, processing methods, identification, and more. His research was recently published in a book entitled “The Beauty of Gemstone“.

Tens of thousands of raw and processed gemstones used to make jewellery, seals, scarabs and more were uncovered during excavations carried out in the Land of Israel during a variety of periods.  Yael Elkayam recently completed her doctoral dissertation which focuses on these ancient gems.  Among other things, she examined changes in gemstone fashion throughout history, from the Bronze Age to the modern era.

A selection of stones of various types, including talc, amethyst, serpentine, chalcedony, lapis lazuli, opal, chrysocolla and more from different periods and different sites

To advance this research Bar-Ilan University is establishing a unique laboratory featuring equipment that allows for analytical and absolute identification of precious stones found during the excavations.  This identification can be carried out without causing any damage to the stones.  To date, approximately 1,500 gemstones from various sites have been examined, most of them from State Treasury warehouses. Among the researchers’ first projects is the identification of gems found at the Temple Mount Sifting Project, and the identification of minerals from the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt which were found in a Judean Desert cave and used in women’s cosmetics.    

Among the gemstones found in the excavations from the First Temple period were Lapis Lazuli, which originated in Afghanistan, Karniel, probably from the Arabian Peninsula, and Obsidian from the Asia Minor region. They also originated from plants, such as amber, and wildlife, such as coral.  The study also shed light on well-developed trade relations that existed with the Land of Israel and jewellery fashion that prevailed throughout the ancient periods.

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