Rare Gem Discovery in Jerusalem Has Two Mysteries
Why was a Jewish person wearing a ring with a Greek god? And how on Earth was it made?
A 2,000-year-old carved gem that once formed part of a ring has been discovered in Jerusalem. The dime-sized jasper stone likely dates to the first century A.D. and is carved with an image of the Greek god Apollo. Experts say that the ring was likely owned by a Jewish person, a somewhat startling revelation given that it bears a portrait of a foreign pagan deity. All of which raises the question, why would an ancient monotheist be wearing an image of Apollo at all?
The engraving shows a profile of Apollo with his characteristic long, flowing hair and prominent nose and chin. The 13mm long red-brown gem was a seal that was designed to be used to stamp personal correspondence, contracts, and other items that needed to be identified. But, just as signet rings are sometimes worn as fashion statements today, it is possible that the seal-ring was worn as jewelry. The stone was found as soil that was once at the base of the Western Wall of the (Second) Jerusalem Temple was being sifted as part of the City of David National Park sifting project. The Jerusalem Temple was destroyed during the first Jewish war (70 A.D.) when Roman armies stormed the city. This gives archaeologists a better sense of when the gem seal was originally buried.
The discovery of gem seals like this one is extremely rare, especially in Jerusalem. Despite the presence of Apollo on the ring, experts say that they believe that the owner was likely a first century Jew. Eli Shukron, who oversaw the discovery, hypothesized in a video that the owner did not believe or worship Apollo as a deity, but admired the qualities with which the god was associated. In the ancient world Apollo was associated with good health, success, and light. These are, as Shukron notes, “very conventional” positive attributes.
While the discovery of these items is unusual, it is not extraordinary to find ancient Jews incorporating artistic representations of Greek mythology and religion in their décor. As Rachel Hachlili has argued in a series of articles, the signs of the zodiac are sometimes found in mosaics on the floors of ancient Israeli synagogues. These symbols would have been immediately recognized by visitors to the synagogues and while their meaning is debated (maybe they marked the calendar or perhaps they symbolized divine oversight over the universe) their identification is not up for debate. Moreover, as Hachlili has written “that the zodiac mosaic was used several times makes it clear that … there must have been something unique about this particular design that caused the community to wish to adopt it.” One does not just commission an expensive mosaic on a whim or without thought.
What the discovery of items like this gem seal show, therefore, is that first century Jerusalem was more diverse and pluralistic than we might have assumed. This isn’t to say that Jews weren’t monotheists or that they didn’t obey commandments to worship God alone, but rather that they interacted with other religious traditions. This is similar to the way that modern Christians might attend yoga classes, practice meditation, or wear clothing or jewelry that contains Buddhist or Hindu language or symbols without considering these things a threat to their religious identity. The relationship between light and Apollo may well, said engraved gem expert Shua Amorai-Stark, have resonated with Jews because imagery of light and darkness was prevalent in many second temple Jewish texts.
For modern viewers seeing a carved gemstone like this for the first time the more astonishing question is ‘How did they make it?’ The gem is extremely small, was made by hand, and features precise minuscule details. How could an ancient craftsperson—who did not have access to magnifying glasses, microscopes, or even a loupe—fashion something like this? The earliest examples of handheld convex lenses are from the 13th century and were used to treat age-related vision loss. The 16th century Medici Pope Leo X is shown holding one in a portrait by Raphael. But what did people do before then?
One explanation is that younger artisans may well have been employed to do this work. Nearsighted vision is heightened in children and, thus, they may have had the ability to produce this kind of detail on small objects. The problem with this theory is that children would have needed especially well-developed hand-eye coordination and would have aged out of the business relatively quickly. Given how expensive a gemstone like this one would have been, is it conceivable that this kind of work was delegated to children?
It’s in this context that myopia—or nearsightedness as we tend to call it—was actually an advantage. People with nearsightedness have problems seeing objects in the distance but can see “close up” objects more accurately and clearly than those with so-called perfect vision because the object is “magnified.” This magnification is caused by the enlarged size of the eyeball. For most of the Common Era there has been were a whole range of tasks—from illuminating manuscripts, to carving gems or seals, and making the dies from which coins were cast—that required not just a steady hand and artistic skills, but also a heightened ability to see small details. It’s likely that in these contexts people with myopia were highly valued for their abilities. That myopia is hereditary means that an ancient artisan or craftsman could have passed on his skill set and business to his heirs.
Coincidentally, as Leonard Gorelik has written for Expedition Magazine, the well-known British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who was the first to excavate Knossos in Crete and “discovered” Minoan civilization, first travelled to the island to examine the small seals. His ability to study the details of the seals stems, as his biographers note, from the fact that he was extremely shortsighted. As recently as the turn of the 20th century, myopia provided an edge to those in certain professions.
For those in the ancient world myopia might also have offset the loss of close-up vision that results from old age. Dr. Ivan Schwab, professor of ophthalmology at the University of California, Davis and author of Evolution’s Witness: How Eyes Evolved speculates that “if people [in the past] with nearsightedness had some special skill, they might even be revered.” This is just one of the many ways that people in the past valued bodily (dis)abilities differently than we do now.
If one was looking for special treatment from friends of family members today, however, the nearsighted person is out of luck. Not only are myopia rates rocketing, but laser technology can now carve gems for us.