In the Bible’s book of Samuel, a traitor escapes the wrath of Israel’s King David by hiding in a nearby town. When David’s men besiege the area, a wise woman asks what they desire and, upon learning of the traitor’s presence, has the townspeople cut off the man’s head and throw it over the wall.
This story is one of the text’s few mentions of Abel Beth Maacah, an ancient fortification that once stood at the crossroads of three powerful kingdoms—Israel, Damascus and Tyre. Abel’s role outside of Biblical lore has long puzzled archaeologists, but the recent discovery of a two-inch sculpted head suggests the city is one step closer to revealing its secrets.
According to a press release, engineering student Mario Tobia chanced upon the sculpture during a dig at the Abel site, located south of the Israel-Lebanon border, last summer. Archaeologists from California’s Azusa Pacific University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem were unearthing an enormous Iron Age structure, possibly an ancient citadel, when Tobia found a clod of dirt covering the head.
“Despite the head’s small and innocuous appearance, it provides us with a unique opportunity to gaze into the eyes of a famous person from the past,” lead archaeologist Robert Mullins, a professor of Biblical and religious studies at Azusa Pacific, said in a statement.
The Associated Press’ Ilan Ben Zion reports that the sculpture, which is made out of a glass-like material called faience, dates to between 900 and 800 B.C. It depicts a bearded man with black hair and almond-shaped eyes. His golden headband suggests royal lineage, but researchers have been unable to determine which ancient leader the figure represents.
“We’re guessing probably a king, but we have no way of proving that,” Mullins tells LiveScience’s Owen Jarus.
Archaeologists initially identified the historic site of Abel during the 19th century. At the time, the area was home to a village known as Abil al-Qamh. Although researchers had previously conducted limited surveys of the area, the first full-fledged excavation, a joint venture between Azusa Pacific and the Hebrew University, began in 2013.
Ben Zion writes that Abel is significant for its location at the junction of ancient powers. Another Biblical reference to the city, found in Kings 1 15:20, includes Abel in a list of places attacked by Aramean King Ben Hadad during his invasion of Israel's territory.
“This location is very important because it suggests that the site may have shifted hands between these polities, more likely between Aram-Damascus and Israel,” Hebrew University archaeologist Naama Yahalom-Mack tells Ben Zion.
Based on carbon dating’s inability to pinpoint the statue’s date beyond some point during the 9th century B.C., as well as the geopolitical conflicts that characterized the region at the time, archaeologists have a wide range of candidates for the figure’s identity.
Three of the top contenders are King Ahab of Israel, King Hazael of Aram-Damascus and King Ethbaal of Tyre. As The Washington Post’s Avi Selk writes, two of these kings are associated with the infamous Queen Jezebel of Israel. Alternately portrayed as a traitorous woman of immorality and an unjustly vilified ruler, Jezebel, the daughter of King Ethbaal and wife of King Ahab, united two feuding kingdoms.
For now, the king's identity will remain a mystery. At the end of May, the figure went on exhibit at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem under the label “head of a statue depicting a king.” Eran Arie, the museum’s curator of Iron Age and Persian archaeology, tells Ben Zion that the artifact was rushed onto display because of its unparalleled quality.
“In the Iron Age, if there’s any figurative art, and there largely isn’t, it’s of very low quality,” Arie says. “And this is of exquisite quality.”
Archaeologists from Hebrew University will return to the scene of the find later this month as they continue searching for traces of Abel Beth Maacah.