Second breakfast is one long table covered in a blue cloth, laden with boiled eggs, yoghurt, labneh, olives, cut vegetables, hummus, fruit, and something special—one day pancakes, another day fried eggs. All fifty of us come in from every part of the tel, dusty, hungry, and thankful for a chance to rest and eat after three hours of hard work.
This morning, as we munched on our nectarines and cucumbers, one of the young students working on the other side of the dig (from me) told us excitedly she had found Egyptian faience with hieroglyphs on it. Our end of the table was all abuzz! Soon, she had her phone out, showing us images of the tiny relic from every angle. We oohed and aahed over its lovely blue color, “Egyptian blue,” said one of the students, who had just been studying this very thing.
“Is it a bead?” I asked.
“No,” she replied, “they think it’s a scarab.”
What I found out later, after a quick internet search, is that scarabs were very popular throughout the Levant in the Middle Bronze age, which is one of the layers we’re excavating. They were often drilled from end to end in order to be worn as a bead, or as a swivel ring. The hieroglyph on the flat side could act as a personal, or administrative seal. They were also considered amulets, with some connection to the Egyptian god Ra, and also Khepri.
A couple of days ago I had mused over what seemed a strange anomaly to me. In amongst all the slag from the industrial-sized iron forge, and iron works that’s currently being excavated here, are scattered little monkey amulets (Thot, the Egyptian god associated with protecting and empowering metallurgists) and scarabs. For one thing, such artifacts are a long way from home, and even though Akko was a significant international trade center, still, Egyptian gods were not local, and might not have been seen to have spiritual jurisdiction.
For another thing, the Assyrian armies had recently conquered Akko, and were now preparing to conquer all Egypt, hence the many iron weapons, such as arrow heads, that have been unearthed. Doesn’t that seem incongruous? Why would there be Egyptian objects found among a group that fully intended to crush Egypt?
So, I asked one of our resident archaeologists, an ancient history expert. The answer made so much sense, remembering that people are people.
The Phoenicians, who lived in Akko, had centuries of experience hosting people from all the surrounding cultures in the Mediterranean. Though the Phoenicians worshiped their own gods, they graciously made room for other cultures to feel comfortable worshipping the gods of their homelands. Phoenicians also appreciated the art and culture of other peoples, so it was actually not at all unusual for Phoenician iron workers to tuck a little Thot amulet in their robe, or for someone to wear a scarab amulet seal. Actually, not just the Phoenicians, but also other culture groups throughout the ancient middle east appreciated these Egyptian talismans.
When the Assyrians subjugated Akko’s residents (the ones that survived, that is), they co-opted all of Akko’s industries for themselves—the glass works, the iron works, agriculture, fisheries, all of it. So, Phoenician metallurgists were made to hammer out Assyrian weapons for a war they surely wanted no part in. They loved Egypt, and had a long-standing trade relationship with them.
As my heart ached for the Phoenician people I was reminded of two stories from the New Testament. In one of them, a Phoenician woman (was she from Akko?) became one of only two people who were praised by Jesus for their great faith. The other story was when Jesus said it would be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon (Phoenician cities) on the day of judgement, than for those who rejected Him.
I took great comfort in remembering the quality of God’s mercy, grace, and love.
What a story this tiny blue scarab was waiting to tell us, as it lay hidden in the earth for thousands of years.
[Cover Photo: Walters Art Museum [Public domain]