Last month an ancient bronze tablet went up for sale at the Artemis auction house in Louisville, Colorado. The tablet is somewhere between 2000-3000 years old and is written in the ancient Yemeni alphabet. Though it sold at auction for only $1200, this tablet is remarkable because of its inscription: it makes the first and only reference to a previously unknown ancient deity named Athtar Harmān.
The inscription on the tablet is written in Sabaean, an old South Arabian language spoken in the region of Yemen by a group called the Sabaeans. According to a translation by Christian Robin, a researcher emeritus at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, it reads: “Ilīmataʿ and Khabīʾat, the two servants of Khawliyān offered to Athtar Ḥarmān, the owner of Bana, with a tablet of bronze, their sons and those he will add, for their salvation.”
Robin told Live Science that the plaque comes from a temple (the “Bana” referred to in the text) dedicated to the god Athtar Harmān. All of which is fascinating for scholars who had no idea that this god or his temple existed before this discovery. Robin added that there are reasons to think that the temple was originally located close to the ancient city of Ṣan'ā', (close to the modern capital of Yemen, which has a similar name). An inscription noted by Robin and discovered in 1909 at Shibām al-Ghirās mentions the presence of another nearby temple, which might be the one dedicated to Athtar Harmān.
For readers of the Bible, the region (Saba) is best known for its possible identification as the biblical land of Sheba. In 1 Kings 10 the Queen of Sheba travels to Jerusalem with a large retinue and brings spices, gold, and other valuables with her. She tests Solomon’s wisdom and they then exchange gifts. (Apparently Solomon meets “every desire she had expressed”.) The identification of Saba as ancient Sheba is controversial, and not just because there’s a competing claim that Sheba was in Ethiopia. As archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman have written, the Sabaean kingdom began to flourish only in the eighth century B.C.—some two hundred years after the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon were said to have known one another. If Saba is the biblical Sheba then it’s unlikely that there ever was a historical Queen of Sheba. Regardless, the story offers evidence of trade relations between Judah and the Arabian peninsula, where the Sabaean Kingdom was located. There are other references to the Sabaeans in prophetic literature that offer further evidence of the relationship. For example, Isaiah tells us that people from the region were tall (Isaiah 45:14)
The real issue, however, is where the tablet came from. Small objects like bronze tablets are especially susceptible to looting, and Yemen has been torn apart by civil war since 2011. It’s in situations like this that ancient history and culture are most susceptible to looting. It’s very possible that this bronze tablet was sold on the black market in the wake of the civil war and was illegally imported to the US. As The Daily Beast has written about before, those involved in the black market have been known to forge provenance documents in order to facilitate sale of illicit artifacts.
The Artemis listing provides no information about the previous ownership of or provenance for the bronze tablet, but this is not unusual for auction houses. Bob Dodge, the co-founder and director of the gallery, told me it was purchased at the California auction house Ancient Resource in 2015 (for $2500), having previously been in the possession of an old New Orleans collection that formed between 1970 and 1990.
Dodge has said that they are attempting to trace the prior history of the artifact but their efforts are hampered by the fact that the New Orleans collector may well be deceased. He added that if they find evidence that the item was looted they will return it to their consignor.
In the meantime, what can we say about Athtar Harmān? Well, Athtar is the standard Southern Arabian rendering of the god Istar (also known as Attar or Astar), a Mesopotamian deity who is sometimes male and sometimes female depending on which tradition and culture is discussing him/her. Harman is almost certainly related to the Arabic term haram which means essentially “consecrated” (al-haram is the name of the Saudi mosque in Mecca). So this deity, who crops up elsewhere in the ancient world, is essentially identified as the god of this holy place. Did the Queen of Sheba worship this god? Even if she’s a real person, it would take many more archaeological discoveries to be sure.