The city of Jericho was wealthy and well connected long before its walls came tumbling down in an attack that has been associated with a well-known passage in the Bible.
A joint Italian-Palestinian team has been conducting archaeological digs at the site of Tell es-Sultan, 13 miles northeast of modern Jerusalem in the West Bank, since 1997. During their latest excavation season, the team made an extraordinary discovery in a home occupied some 5,000 years ago—five mother of pearl shells, stacked one on top of the other, that could only have come from the Nile.
Two of the shells still contained the residue of a dark substance, which a laboratory analysis identified as manganese oxide. That powdered mineral was the main component of a cosmetic known as kohl, used as an eyeliner in ancient times.
Researchers think the powder probably came from the Sinai Peninsula, where manganese mines that the ancient Egyptians once exploited have been found.
“The discovery confirms a close commercial relationship, already in the early third millennium B.C., between the ancient city in Palestine and Egypt,” says lead archaeologist Lorenzo Nigro of the Sapienza University of Rome. “It also shows the rise of a sophisticated local elite in Jericho.”
An Ancient, Connected Oasis City
The city of Jericho, in what is today the West Bank, grew around an abundant spring. As far back as 10,500 B.C., people began to gather at this oasis. Eventually they settled down, cultivated crops, and domesticated animals.
At the beginning of the third millennium a fortified city arose, and then a ruler’s palace. The city’s most precious resource, its constant supply of fresh water, made it prosperous and allowed it to trade for luxuries from other lands.
The latest excavation season also revealed evidence of continuing ties between Jericho and Egypt several centuries later than the cosmetic find—a unique burial dating to about 1,800 B.C., the time of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom.
Unlike earlier excavations, which have uncovered groups of wealthy graves, very likely royal, in the area encircled by the palace walls, the Italian-Palestinian team found a distinctly different burial right below the palace floor, an indication of special status.
This elite burial chamber held the remains of two people—a nine- or 10-year-old girl adorned with jewelry, and an adult female who was presumably an attendant. The bones of two young sacrificed animals—a gazelle and a goat—as well as six pottery vessels were also discovered by the archaeologists.
The most interesting vessel was a small black burnished jug that was found next to the skull of the younger female. It contained a perfume or an ointment and may have been left in this spot so the deceased could smell sweet aromas throughout eternity.
The young aristocrat’s ornaments included two pairs of bronze earrings, a bronze bracelet, a bronze pin on the left shoulder that probably closed her robe, a bead necklace with a carnelian set between pairs of rock crystals, and a bronze signet ring with a local type of scarab that was inscribed with protective signs.
A second stone scarab, resting on the girl's chest, bore hieroglyphics that testify to Egypt’s cultural influence on Jericho’s elites.
Two signs on the scarab, ‘dj and mr, represent a well-known Egyptian title “administrator of canals.” Dating back to Egypt’s Old Kingdom (2,575-2,150 B.C.), the title may have been appropriated by the rulers of Jericho some three centuries later. The title would have been especially appropriate in this city, where people had learned to harness the agricultural power of water—and benefited greatly from that—as the ancient Egyptians had also done.
Two more signs on the scarab, a crouching lion and the sun rising over a hill, represent rw and ha, which form the name Rwha, or Ruha. No such personal name has ever been identified among Egyptians or the local Canaanite population, says Nigro, but it may well have been the ancient name of Jericho. If that’s the case, this young royal was likely laid to rest wearing a scarab that bore the title of the city’s ruler.
The end of this thriving, international era at Jericho came in about 1,550 B.C., when a violent attack reduced the city to a heap of smoldering ruins. The city would not be rebuilt until several centuries later, and its destruction was so violent that it became embedded in the collective memory of the Canaanite peoples, resounding in the biblical narrative of Joshua and his destruction of the city according to God’s command.