Last month, while hiking with his family in Israel’s northern Negev Desert, 11-year-old Zvi Ben-David picked up a tiny ceramic figurine. As the Times of Israel reports, the ancient amulet, which depicts a bare-chested woman whose scarf covers her head and neck, was apparently intended to promote fertility or protect children.
Ben-David’s mother, a professional tour guide, promptly notified the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) of the find. Experts there say the statue is only the second of its kind ever found in the country. The other specimen was also unearthed in the Negev Desert.
The molded figurine stands less than three inches tall. It was probably made during the fifth or sixth century B.C., toward the end of Judaism’s late First Temple period.
“Ceramic figurines of bare-breasted women are known from various periods in Israel, including the First Temple era,” say IAA archaeologist Oren Shmueli and curator Debbie Ben Ami in a statement. “They were common in the home and in everyday life, like the hamsa symbol today, and they apparently served as amulets to ensure protection, good luck and prosperity.”
Infant mortality was far higher in ancient times, with an estimated third of babies dying in infancy, according to the IAA.
“There was little understanding of hygiene, and fertility treatment was naturally non-existent,” add Shmueli and Ben Ami. “In the absence of advanced medicine, amulets provided hope and an important way of appealing for aid.”
The Jerusalem Post’s Rossella Tercatin writes that fertility gods were common in ancient societies. As evidenced by both historical texts and archaeological evidence, neighboring cultures’ traditions influenced the Israelites and may have served as inspiration for the amulet.
According to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, for instance, Israeli archaeologists have found many seventh- and eighth-century B.C. female figurines from the kingdom of Judah that appear to reflect the Canaanite religion’s influence on the nation. Women may have used them in folk worship or as magical talismans.
Per Encyclopedia Britannica, the Negev region covers southern Israel and almost half of Palestine west of the Jordan River. Researchers in the area have found artifacts including late Stone Age arrowheads, Copper and Bronze Age implements, and Iron Age items like the newly discovered amulet. A pastoral region in biblical times, the Negev later developed into an agricultural center thanks to terracing and irrigation technologies.
The IAA awarded Zvi Ben-David a certificate of appreciation for discovering the amulet. Experts from the organization’s National Treasures department are now examining it more closely.
“The exemplary citizenship of young Zvi Ben-David will enable us to improve our understanding of cultic practices in biblical times, and man’s inherent need for material human personifications,” say Shmueli and Ben Ami.