A A 2,000-year-old carved gem that was once part of a ring has been discovered in Jerusalem. The penny-sized jasper stone probably dates from the first century AD and is carved with an image of the Greek god Apollo. Experts say the ring likely belonged to a Jewish person, a somewhat surprising revelation given that it bears a portrait of an alien pagan deity. All of this begs the question, why would an ancient monotheist wear an image of Apollo?
The engraving shows a profile of Apollo with his characteristic long, flowing hair and prominent nose and chin. The 13mm-long red-brown gem was a seal that was designed to be used to stamp personal correspondence, contracts, and other items that needed to be identified. But, just as signet rings are sometimes worn as fashion statements today, it is possible that the seal ring was worn as jewelry. The stone was found while the soil that was once the base of the western wall of the (Second) Temple in Jerusalem was sifted as part of the City of David National Park sifting project. The Jerusalem temple was destroyed during the First Jewish War (70 AD) when Roman armies stormed the city. This gives archaeologists a better idea of when the gem seal was originally buried.
The discovery of gem seals like this is extremely rare, especially in Jerusalem. Despite Apollo’s presence in the ring, experts say they believe the owner was likely a first-century Jew. Eli Shukron, who oversaw the discovery, hypothesized in a video that the owner did not believe or worship Apollo as a deity, but admired the qualities with which the god was associated. In the ancient world, Apollo was associated with good health, success and light. These are, as Shukron notes, “very conventional” positive attributes.
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While the discovery of these objects is unusual, it is not extraordinary to find ancient Jews incorporating artistic representations of Greek mythology and religion into their decor. As Rachel Hachlili has argued in a series of articles, zodiac signs are sometimes found in mosaics on the floors of ancient Israeli synagogues. These symbols would have been immediately recognized by visitors to synagogues and while their meaning is debated (perhaps they marked the calendar or perhaps symbolized divine watch over the universe), their identification is not up for debate. . Further, as Hachlili wrote, “the fact that the zodiac mosaic has been used multiple times makes it clear that… there must be something unique about this particular design that made the community want to adopt it. . You don’t just order an expensive mosaic on a whim or without thinking.
What the discovery of objects like this gem seal shows, therefore, is that first-century Jerusalem was more diverse and pluralistic than we might have expected. This is not to say that the Jews were not monotheists or that they did not obey the commandments to worship God alone, but rather that they interacted with other religious traditions. It sounds like how modern Christians can attend yoga classes, practice meditation, or wear clothing or jewelry that contains Buddhist or Hindu language or symbols without seeing these things as a threat to their religious identity. The relationship between light and Apollo may well, said engraved gemstone expert Shua Amorai-Stark, have resonated with the Jews because the images of light and dark were prevalent in many Jewish texts of the Second Temple.
For modern viewers who are seeing a carved gemstone like this for the first time, the most astonishing question is “How did they make it?” The piece of jewelry is extremely small, has been handcrafted and has precise tiny details. How could an ancient craftsman – who didn’t have access to magnifying glasses, microscopes, or even a magnifying glass – create something like this? The earliest examples of portable convex lenses date back to the 13th century and have been used to treat age-related vision loss. 16th-century Pope Medici Leo X is depicted holding one in a portrait of Raphael. But what have people done before?
One explanation is that younger artisans may well have been employed to do this work. Myopic vision is increased in children and as a result they may have had the ability to produce this kind of detail on small objects. The problem with this theory is that children would have needed particularly well-developed hand-eye coordination and would have stopped working relatively quickly. Given the cost of a gemstone like this, is it conceivable that this kind of work has been delegated to children?
It was in this context that myopia – or myopia as we tend to call it – was actually an advantage. People with nearsightedness have problems seeing objects in the distance, but can see objects “up close” with more precision and clarity than those with supposedly perfect vision because the object is “magnified” . This magnification is caused by the enlarged size of the eyeball. Throughout much of the Common Era there was a whole range of tasks – from illuminating manuscripts, to carving gems or seals, and making the dies from which the coins were made. been cast – which required not only a steady hand and artistic skill, but an increased ability to see the small details. It is likely that in these settings, people with myopia were highly regarded for their abilities. The fact that myopia is hereditary means that a former craftsman or craftsman could have passed on his skills and his business to his heirs.
Coincidentally, as Leonard Gorelik wrote for Shipping magazine, the well-known British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who was the first to excavate Knossos in Crete and “discover” the Minoan civilization, first visited the island to examine the small seals. His ability to study the details of seals stems, as his biographers note, from his extremely short-sightedness. As late as the turn of the 20th century, myopia offered an advantage to those in certain professions.
For those in the ancient world, myopia could also have compensated for the loss of near vision that results from old age. Dr Ivan Schwab, professor of ophthalmology at the University of California, Davis and author of Witness to evolution: how the eyes evolved speculates that “if people [in the past] with myopia had a special skill, they could even be revered. This is just one of the many ways people in the past rated bodily (disabilities) differently than we do now.
If one sought special treatment from friends or family today, the nearsighted person is out of luck. Not only are myopia rates skyrocketing, but laser technology can now carve precious stones for us.
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