2,000-year-old gem seal depicting Greek god Apollo found under City of David

Although Apollo is an Olympian deity of the Greek and Roman cultures, it is highly probable that the person wearing the ring with Apollo’s portrait was a Jew.

Seal with the image of Apollo. (photo credit: ELIYAHU YANAI/CITY OF DAVID)
Seal with the image of Apollo.
Researchers discovered a gem seal featuring a portrait of Apollo in the drainage channel of the City of David late last month. It was found in archaeological soil that was removed from the foundations of the Western Wall during work on the Archaeological Sifting Project in Tzurim Valley National Park.
The excavations were carried out under the auspices of the City of David and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
The gem features an engraved portrait of the god Apollo. According to researchers, this surprising and rare find is only the third secured gem sealing (intaglio) from the Second Temple period to have been discovered in Jerusalem.
The gem is cut from dark brown jasper and has remnants of light yellow, brown and white layers. In antiquity, jasper was considered a precious stone. The gem sealing was embedded in a ring, and it dates from the first century CE (Second Temple period).
The oval-shaped gem is 13 mm. long, 11 mm. wide and 3 mm. thick. Because it is an intaglio – having a design carved into the upper side of the stone – its main function was a seal to be stamped on soft material, usually beeswax, for use as a personal signature on contracts, letters, wills, goods and bundles of money.
The intaglio features an engraving of Apollo’s head in profile to the left, with long hair flowing over a wide, pillar-like neck, large nose, thick lips and small, prominent chin. The hair is styled in a series of parallel lines directed to the apex and surrounded by a braid above the forehead. One line of hair marks a strand that covers the ear; long curls flow over part of the neck, reaching the left shoulder. Thin diagonal lines at the base of the head mark the upper end of the garment and the body.
Although Apollo is an Olympian deity of the Greek and Roman cultures, it is highly probable that the person wearing the ring with Apollo’s portrait was a Jew, according to the researchers, archaeologist Eli Shukron, Prof. Shua Amorai-Stark and senior archaeologist Malka Hershkovitz.
SHUKRON, who conducted the excavation in which the gem was found, said in a press release: “It is rare to find seal remains bearing the image of the god Apollo at sites identified with the Jewish population. To this day, two such gems [seals] have been found at Masada, another in Jerusalem inside an ossuary [burial box] in a Jewish tomb on Mount Scopus and the current gem that was discovered in close proximity to the Temple Mount.
“When we found the gem, we asked ourselves: ‘What is Apollo doing in Jerusalem? And why would a Jew wear a ring with the portrait of a foreign god?’ The answer to this, in our opinion, lies in the fact that the owner of the ring did so not as a ritual act that expresses religious belief, but as a means of making use of the impact that Apollo’s figure represents: light, purity, health and success.”
Amorai-Stark, a researcher of engraved gems, added: “At the end of the Second Temple period, the sun god Apollo was one of the most popular and revered deities in Eastern Mediterranean regions. Apollo was a god of manifold functions, meanings and epithets. Among Apollo’s spheres of responsibility, it is likely that association with sun and light – as well as with logic, reason, prophecy and healing – that fascinated some Jews, given that the element of light versus darkness was prominently present in the Jewish worldview in those days.”
“The fact that the craftsman of this gem left the yellow-golden and light brown layers on the god’s hair probably indicates a desire to emphasize the aspect of light in the god’s persona, as well as in the aura that surrounded his head,” he said. “The choice of a dark stone with yellow coloring of hair suggests that the creator or owner of this intaglio sought to emphasize the dichotomous aspect of light and darkness and/or their connectedness.”
The Archaeological Sifting Project at Tzurim Valley National Park, sponsored by the City of David and the Nature and National Parks Authority, is a large-scale archaeological project that offers the public an opportunity to experience and appreciate archaeological activity without the need for advanced training or specialized knowledge.
The sifting has been supervised closely by archaeologists. It allows participants to become “archaeologists for a day” as they process archaeological material unearthed in City of David excavations, where they often find ancient treasures. The findings discovered thus far in the project include an imprint of King Hezekiah, coins from different periods, arrowheads and jewelry.
Due to the current nationwide closure of tourist sites, the site is closed. But it will be reopened to the public as soon as conditions permit.