King Herod the Great bathed in locally made calcite-alabaster bathtubs

Though most high-quality calcite-alabaster items here were thought to be made in Egypt, a new multidisciplinary Israeli study shows otherwise.

Outside Herod’s Gate (photo credit: REUTERS)
Outside Herod’s Gate
(photo credit: REUTERS)

King Herod the Great, king of Judea in the second half of the first century BC, is well known for his grandiose building projects, abundant wealth, political power and relentless pursuit of the  opulent Roman lifestyle.  Among the few archaeological artifacts found which give a peek into his private life are two of his personal calcite-alabaster bathtubs found in the palace of Herodium and his Kypros fortress near Jericho.

Though never scientifically tested, archaeologists have until now assumed that all calcite-alabaster vessels found in the Southern Levant (modern day Israel and Palestine) had been made with foreign alabaster mainly from Egypt. A recent Israeli study published in the journal Nature scientifically refutes the hypothesis.

For the first time, the study allows the distinction to be made between calcite-alabaster originating in Israel from that originating in Egypt, the main source of calcite-alabaster in ancient periods. It confirms that calcite-alabaster objects, such as Herod the Great’s calcite-alabaster bathtubs were made locally.

The research was conducted as part of Ayala Amir’s MA thesis at the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, supervised by Prof. Boaz Zissu and Prof. Aren M. Maeir, of Bar-Ilan University, and Prof. Amos Frumkin, of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem Institute of Earth Sciences.

“Because Herod was known to use only the highest quality raw materials for his building projects, such as importing marble from Italy, it had been expected that he would have used the finest calcite-alabaster from Egypt for his own personal royal items,” said Amir. “But we discovered that in fact he used very high-quality, locally-quarried calcite-alabaster for his bathtubs. It was very exciting and surprising.”

For many years it was assumed that there were no sources of high quality alabaster in Israel, added Maeir.

Indeed, from the Middle Bronze Age, Egypt played a crucial role in the appearance of calcite-alabaster artifacts in Israel, and the development of the local gypsum-alabaster industry. The absence of ancient calcite-alabaster quarries in the Southern Levant led to the assumption that all calcite-alabaster vessels found in the Levant originated from Egypt, while poorer quality vessels made of gypsum were local products.

Several years ago Zissu, an expert in cave archaeology and underground cave complexes, conducted a survey of the Te’omim cave near Beit Shemesh. Within a very deep part of the cave he discovered an ancient quarry for calcite-alabaster, which turned out to be a previously unknown source for very high quality calcite-alabaster in the Land of Israel in antiquity.

 Visitors look at the mausoleum at Herodium, where Herod's fortress palace once stood, south of Bethlehem. (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN) Visitors look at the mausoleum at Herodium, where Herod's fortress palace once stood, south of Bethlehem. (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

He suggested his student Amir take on the project of analyzing the calcite-alabaster comparing samples there with samples of ancient and modern calcite-alabaster Egyptian vessels, including Herod’s bathtubs.  

Analytical data were first collected from a wide range of samples of two well-defined sources of calcite-alabaster from Egypt and modern-day Israel. The Egyptian sources included both ancient and modern calcite-alabaster samples. The ancient samples were obtained courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. These ancient vessel remains were collected by the Austrian archaeological expedition to Giza in the nineteenth century CE.

The modern Egyptian artifact, made of geological-sourced calcite-alabaster, was bought in a market in Cairo, Egypt in 2013. The calcite-alabaster from Israel included raw material from the Te’omim cave quarry, stone chips found in the cave near the quarry, and chips and a stone block made from raw material carved to a cube, but not yet used to make a vessel from Umm el-‘Umda –an archaeological site near the Te’omim cave.

Additional samples were collected from a speleothem – otherwise known as stalactites or stalagmites – in Natuf cave located in Wadi en-Natuf in western Samaria.

 Herod’s calcite-alabaster bathtub found in Kypros fortress  (credit: Prof. Amos Frumkin, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) Herod’s calcite-alabaster bathtub found in Kypros fortress (credit: Prof. Amos Frumkin, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

It is impossible to determine the source of calcite-alabaster artifacts by traditional archaeological methods, and petrographic analysis – a microscopic study of rocks and the main method used to determine the source of Israeli calcite-alabaster – shows wide variability in texture, depending on its depositional environment, so also could not be used to identify the source of the bathtubs.

Therefore a multidisciplinary approach was developed to analyze the source of calcite-alabaster used for Herod’s bathtubs.

“The multidisciplinary approach adopted in this study provides information concerning both the composition and crystalline structure of calcite-alabaster and is significant for understanding and interpreting archaeological findings,” said researcher Amir. “Combining analytic methods with archaeological studies may provide new and fascinating information that could not be obtained by traditional archaeological techniques and enable us to determine the origin of other calcite-alabaster artifacts with much greater confidence.”

“You usually think that if it is calcite-alabaster it will be from Egypt but then we ran it through all the analysis and saw that on one (analysis) the results showed that it was from Israel, and then, wow, you see on another one that it is from Israel, and then wow, the other and the other – that all the results were compatible with the Israeli calcite-alabaster,” she added.

The study was supported by grants from the Israel Science Foundation and the Israel Ministry of Science and Technology. It is an outgrowth of the research project “Ancient Quarry of Calcite Cave Deposit (‘Bahat’) in the Jerusalem Hills: Archaeological and Environmental Significances” funded by the Israel Science Foundation and directed by Prof. Boaz Zissu, of Bar-Ilan University, and Prof. Amos Frumkin, of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

First the calcite-alabaster samples from Israel and Egypt were analyzed with the assistance of Prof. Gil Goobes and Prof. Amnon Albeck, of the Department of Chemistry at Bar-Ilan University using four analytic methods, most of which have not been previously used, to determine their origin: inductively coupled plasma (ICP) analysis, routine infra-red (IR) spectroscopy, 1H- and 31P- solid state NMR (ssNMR) experiments and C and O stable isotope ratio analysis to determine their composition and their crystalline structure.

These four methods with the complex names are basically ways of isolating different elements within the stone, which when compared to the samples from known origin can help determine the source of the sample being studied.

For example, the NMR looks at the shape of the spectrum of hydrogen in the sample which can provide information on how water molecules are arranged within the calcite-alabaster, another method searched for differences in trace elements of different minerals or metals that can distinguish between the two source materials.

The same methods were then applied to samples from two of Herod the Great’s royal bathtubs from Herodium and Kypros which were made of finely worked calcite-alabaster. The results unequivocally indicated that the bathtubs were quarried in Israel and not in Egypt.

“All four analytical methods applied in the study provided consistent results, clearly distinguishing the Israeli from the Egyptian calcite-alabaster for the first time,” said Albeck of the findings. “We were very happy to find this result, because even though (it was discovered that) an Israeli quarry existed in the Judean Hills, Herod may still have wanted to get the best materials for his bathtub in Egypt or Turkey. So it was very nice to see that they were carved here.”

They are now working on using their analysis method to determine the source of other calcite-alabaster vessels found in Israel, he said, noting that the method can be applied to other materials as well.

“These results attest to the fact that the calcite-alabaster industry in Judea in the second half of the first century BC was sufficiently developed and of high enough quality to serve the luxurious standards of Herod, one of the finest builders among the kings of that period,” the researchers concluded in their report.

“The very fact that we can do something like that analysis study is quite cool,” added Maeir. “It also shows that there was a high quality stone industry in Judea during the time of Herod, and it was high quality enough that it served someone as demanding as Herod who wanted only the most luxurious, fancy objects of Roman culture. It is somewhat surprising because usually we have thought that all the experts, the architects, the craftsmen were not from Judea, but it seems that in fact the people were from here.”