An enigmatic sculpture of a king's head dating back nearly 3000 years has set off a modern-day mystery caper as scholars try to figure out whose face it depicts.
The 5cm sculpture is an exceedingly rare example of figurative art from the Holy Land during the 9th century BC.
Exquisitely preserved but for a bit of missing beard, nothing quite like it has been found before. While scholars are certain the figure wearing a golden crown represents royalty, they are less sure which king or kingdom.
Archaeologists unearthed it in 2017 during excavations at a site called Abel Beth Maacah, located just south of Israel's border with Lebanon, near Metula. Nineteenth-century archaeologists identified the site, then home to a village called Abil al-Qamh, with the similarly named city mentioned in the Book of Kings.
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During the 9th century BC, the town was situated in a liminal zone between three regional powers: the Aramean kingdom based in Damascus to the east, the Phoenician city of Tyre to the west, and the Israelite kingdom, with its capital in Samaria to the south.
Kings 1 15:20 mentions Abel Beth Maacah in a list of cities attacked by the Aramean King Ben Hadad in a campaign against the Israelite kingdom.
"The site may have shifted hands between these polities, more likely between Aram-Damascus and Israel," said Hebrew University archaeologist Naama Yahalom-Mack, who has headed the joint dig with California's Azusa Pacific University since 2013.
Yahalom-Mack's team was digging through the floor of a massive Iron Age structure in 2017 when a volunteer struck pay dirt. The layer where the head was found dates to the 9th century BC, the epoch associated with the rival kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
The bearded figure's hair is pulled back in thick locks that cover the ears, and is held in place by a striped diadem of gold. Its hairstyle looks similar to the way ancient Egyptians depicted neighbouring Near Eastern peoples in art. Yahalom-Mack posited it could be kings Ben Hadad or Hazael of Damascus, Ahab or Jehu of Israel, or Ithobaal of Tyre, all characters appearing in the biblical narrative.