Thursday, September 17, 2009

UW student discovers precious gemstone engraved with a portrait of Alexander the Great.

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A University of Washington student on an archaeological dig in Israel has unearthed the find of a lifetime — a gemstone engraved with a portrait of Alexander the Great.

By Nick Perry

A University of Washington student on an archaeological dig in Israel has unearthed the find of a lifetime — a gemstone engraved more than 2,000 years ago with a portrait of Alexander the Great.

The carnelian stone, less than a half-inch long, is believed to date from soon after Alexander conquered the region in 332 B.C. Likely once part of a signet ring, the stone was found in the Tel Dor excavation site on Israel's northwest coast.

"This is an incredibly rare find," said Sarah Stroup, a UW associate professor of classics who led the team of 20 students for the summer dig. "The carving is of the highest quality that could have been done in that period."

Stroup said the ring was likely a status symbol, once worn by a wealthy resident. Its unearthing adds to the historical record by challenging the assumption that the coastal region was populated by simple folk who weren't hip to the Greek aesthetic, Stroup said.

It also indicates that the Greek king may have been revered — rather than reviled — by at least some of those he conquered.

The fact that the stone was found during a controlled excavation helps give it a more precise and useful history, Stroup said, unlike some similarly engraved stones that were found before modern archaeological methods were in place, or were acquired through the black market.

University of California at Berkeley professor Andrew Stewart, an expert on Alexander the Great, said that while coins depicting Alexander are relatively common, there are perhaps just two or three dozen carved stones with his image dating from pre-Roman times.

Stewart said he is puzzled by Alexander's headdress, which is something he's not seen depicted on the king before. It appears to be made of metal with a ribbon running down to the nape of his neck, Stewart said. He doesn't think Alexander ever wore such a piece, which is likely an embellishment added by an artist working after the king's death in 323 B.C. The gem is priceless, Stewart added.

"This is a very nice discovery, and one that's very hard to make, given that this kind of thing can escape very easily," he said, referring to the stone's tiny size. "It's a very useful addition to our corpus of Alexander images."

Megan Webb, the student who made the discovery, could not be reached Tuesday. Stroup said Webb majored in ceramics at Philadelphia University and was picking up some summer credits at the UW Tel Dor Field School while applying to graduate schools.

Students were attempting to define the edges of a room in a Hellenistic-era building when Webb, who was working with a trowel, spotted the gemstone, Stroup said. It has been cleaned and is on display at a local Israeli museum.

The UW team found the stone in mid-July and returned to the U.S. early last month.

The discovery was announced Tuesday by two Israeli universities that were also involved in excavating the Tel Dor site.

"Never in all my years excavating have I ever seen anything like this come up from the ground, and I don't ever expect to again," Stroup said.

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