3,500-year-old plate depicting power struggle in ancient Negev discovered

Imri Elia, a resident of Kibbutz Niri, found the small engraved clay plate featuring two human figures near Tel Jemmeh.

Late Bronze Age clay plate engraved with two human figures, Tel Jemmeh, Israel, May 2020
In quiet days, Tel Jemmeh, just a few kilometers from the Gaza Strip border, stands peaceful and bucolic, caressed by the sun and the hot desert breeze. However, millennia ago, the area was the theater of raging battles between local kings and powers. A unique testimony to the brutality of these conflicts was uncovered by chance recently by six-year-old Imri Elya, a resident of Kibbutz Nirim.
In March, Imri went to visit the Tel Jemmeh archaeological site in the Western Negev with his family and spotted an unusual object on the ground: a small engraved clay tablet featuring two human figures, a naked captive held by his arm by another man.
The discovery only measures 2.8 x 2.8 centimetres, May 2020 (Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)The discovery only measures 2.8 x 2.8 centimetres, May 2020 (Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)
The boy’s parents alerted the Israel Antiquities Authority. After analyzing the artifact, which measures 2.8 x 2.8 centimeters, the researchers determined it probably dates back to the Late Bronze Age, around 3,500 years ago.
The object represents a very unique finding, IAA archaeologist Saar Ganor told The Jerusalem Post.
“Nothing similar was ever uncovered in excavations in Israel,” he said. “We are aware that a somewhat similar piece was found in northern Sinai. But we do not exactly know what it looks like, since the excavation was conducted about 100 years ago, and the publication regarding it is not very accurate.”
Tel Jemmeh was first excavated a century ago. The site was first settled in the Chalcolithic period around 6,000 years ago and remained inhabited until the Hellenistic period in the first century BCE.
“The most important period in the history of the settlement occurred during the Middle and Late Bronze Age, which started around 3,500 years ago,” Ganor said.
Scholars identify Tel Jemmeh with the powerful Canaanite city of Yurza, which was mentioned in letters from the period uncovered in Egypt in a site called El Amarna.
“The letters were written in Arcadian, which back then was the international language, like English today,” he said. “We understand that in that period Egypt ruled over Canaan. However, Canaan was divided in city-states, such as Gaza, Ashkelon, Lachish, each with its local king.”
In Tel Jemmeh, archaeologists uncovered the remains of a palace and monumental buildings, supporting the idea that the settlement was home to a local lord who needed the appropriate facilities, he said. About 1,500 people probably resided in the center, but many more likely lived in the fields surrounding it.
“Maybe the tablet tells us a little bit of what happened when those cities fought each other,” Ganor said.
Ganor and the other IAA archaeologists who studied the artifact, Itamar Weissbein and Oren Shmueli, said the artist appeared to have been influenced by similar representations that were common in ancient Near East art.
The creator seemed to have been careful in portraying the differences in ethnic traits between the two men: The captor is wearing a skirt, his face is fuller, and his hair is curly, while the prisoner is much thinner, his arms are tied behind his back with a technique that was depicted on other objects found in Egypt and northern Sinai, in a pose that clearly expresses humiliation and defeat, possibly inspired by what happened in victory parades. The piece might have been part of a larger object.
“This tablet is a small finding but a big story,” Ganor told the Post. “We do not really have so many inscriptions or images to understand what was happening 3,500 years ago. The scene offered by the tablet is brutal and full of ideological meaning."
 Imri Elia, who found the engraved clay plate, May 2020 (Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority) Imri Elia, who found the engraved clay plate, May 2020 (Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)
For his discovery, Imri received a certificate of good citizenship by the IAA.
“Antiquities are our cultural heritage, and each find adds to the entire puzzle of the story of the Land,” Pablo Betzer, an IAA archaeologist from the Southern District, said in a press release. “There is great importance in turning archaeological findings over to the National Treasures Department to be researched and displayed for the entire public to enjoy. The delivery of the tablet to the Antiquities Authority indicates value education and good citizenship on the part of Imri and his parents. Well done!”