The Mysterious Prehistoric Shark Teeth Found in a Jerusalem Basement
In a nearly 3,000-year-old basement in the City of David scientists have unearthed a perplexing cache of 80-million-year-old fossilized shark teeth.
Jerusalem is known for many things: for the Temple Mount, for the Mount of Olives, for being the location for the death of Jesus and the setting for violent crusades, for dozens of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim pilgrimage sites and, now, for prehistoric shark teeth. In a nearly 3,000-year-old basement in the City of David scientists have unearthed a mysterious cache of 80-million-year-old fossilized shark teeth. How the fossils got so far inland is currently unknown. Barring an ancient Sharknado event, someone must have moved them.
In a presentation at the Goldschmidt Conference, archaeologist Dr. Thomas Tuetken of the Institute of Geosciences at the University of Mainz, said that the shark teeth were found among a collection of debris and discarded material that were used to fill in the lowest level of an Iron-Age house in the Palestinian village of Silwan (what was once the City of David). As reported by Heritage Daily, the teeth were found with food waste and pottery shards from a period that dates just after the death of the biblical King Solomon.
Initially, the archeologists thought that the teeth were just waste from food preparation. It was only when a reviewer prompted them to revisit the evidence that they realized that the remains came from a Late Cretaceous shark that had been extinct for at least 66 million years. Further scientific testing performed by the team revealed, said Tuetken, that “all 29 shark teeth found in the City of David were Late Cretaceous fossils—contemporary with the dinosaurs.” The strontium isotope composition of the teeth suggests an age of about 80 million years.
The question at that point was, how did the teeth get there? Tuetken notes that they were almost certainly transported to the region, “possibly from the Negev, at least 80 km away, where similar fossils” have been found. The team’s “working hypothesis is that the teeth were brought together by collectors… There are no wear marks which [had they been present] might show that they were used as tools, and no drill holes to indicate that they may have been jewelry. We know that there is a market for shark teeth even today, so it may be that there was an Iron Age trend for collecting such items.” The 10th century BCE was a period of economic development and flourishing in Judea. Collecting is a wealthy person’s hobby: that the teeth were discovered alongside administrative bullae (the seals used to secure and authenticate ancient correspondence) further supports this theory. “We don’t have anything to confirm” that, cautioned Tuetken, “it’s too easy to put 2 and 2 together to make 5. We’ll probably never really be sure.”
The teeth in question have been identified as belonging to several species of extinct Squalicorax, or crow shark, a coastal predator and scavenger that grew to between 2 and 5 meters (for reference a great white shark grows to between 3-6 meters depending on its sex). The presence of sharks in the Mediterranean is well documented in archaeology, but is also clear just from reading ancient literature. The third century BCE Greek poet Leonidas describes the death of a sponge diver at the hands of a shark and Aristotle even gives a lengthy description of the shark in his History of Animals. The Roman admiral and encyclopedia writer Pliny notes that sponge divers often had run-ins with sharks and advised that “the only safe course is to turn on the sharks and frighten them” (Natural History 9.148) Other writers like Diogenes describe sea monsters that can “swallow up both ships and their men.”
Arguably the expert here is the second century CE Greek writer Oppian, whose influential poem the Halieutica uses the world of the sea to describe the order of the universe. As University of Nottingham classicist Emily Kneebone shows in her engaging and recently released book on the subject, Oppian describes the “terrors of the sea”—the Hammer-head, Saw-fish, Dog-fish, and solitary sharks—as outstripping their terrestrial counterparts the lion, leopard, bear and wild boar. The terrors of the sea were so considerable, Oppian writes, that the young of Dogfish would renter her “loins” when they got frightened (yes, it was apparently as painful as it sounds). The poem concludes with a whale-chase to make Melville envious: a huge sea monster from the depths—something that Kneebone describes as lying “somewhere between a shark and a whale in form”—is hunted down and killed.
While it tends not to provide anatomical descriptions, the Bible has more than its fair share of sea monsters. In the book of Jonah the protagonist is famously swallowed whole by a “big fish” while trying to evade God’s prophetic call. The story sounds absurd but was mirrored by an incident last month when Cape Cod lobster diver Michael Packard was briefly swallowed by a humpback whale and lived to tell the tale. In the 19th century the story of a “modern day Jonah” went viral when a man named James Bartley was allegedly eaten by a sperm whale only to be cut out of the creature’s stomach alive 36 hours later.
The most terrifying biblical sea creature, however, is Leviathan, an enormous sea monster referenced in Psalmody, by the prophets Amos and Isaiah, and in the book of Job. According to some Leviathan was a sea serpent but some Jewish traditions refer to it as a “dragon” or just a monster. A popular 19th-century theory speculated that it was a crocodile. According to the Rabbinic text Baba Bathra 75 Leviathan will be killed and eaten at the banquet that takes place at the end of time (the rest of it gets hung on the wall). Other Jewish legends about Leviathan preserved in rabbinic texts include the idea that it can make the waters of the ocean boil, smells dreadful, and is afraid of a small worm that gets in the gills of fish and kills them.
In Christian tradition Leviathan is associated Satan and envy. His jaws are sometimes shown as the hellmouth, the gateway through which people descend into hell at the Last Judgment. Even serious theologians develop this theme: one prominent theory of salvation espoused by prominent bishop and saint Gregory of Nyssa in his Great Catechism pictures the devil as a large fish who swallows people when they die. After the crucifixion Satan mistakenly consumes Jesus on the assumption that he is just another human being. It’s a trap. Jesus becomes the fishhook by which Satan is forced to “bring up again”—i.e., vomit—all of the people he had previously swallowed. Call this the emetic theory of salvation, if you will (or its actual name the Christus Victor theory of salvation). Traces of this idea are found in Christian writers as early as the second century and show, as Kneebone argues for Oppian, the way that the sea monster is both a mythical prototype for everything bad and a plausible candidate for the terrors of the natural world.
Though almost no sharks stalk the waters of the Mediterranean today, it’s easy to see why ancient Israelites would collect their teeth. For centuries human-eating sea monsters dominated the imagination of ancient peoples, who saw them as inherently terrifying. What better testimony to the triumph of human ingenuity could there be than to collect their most fearsome attributes?