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Qatna Elephant Bones

17 November 2022
Ancient history, Archaeology

At SIS we know that dynasty 18 pharaoh Thutmose III claims to have taken part in an elephant hunt in Syria. We have even had articles published that mention early to mid Holocene fauna in the Levant. Excavations at the royal palace of Qatna have been ongoing since 1999 [or at least until the Syrian wars broke out a few years ago]. The archaeologists were Syrian and German and concern a couple of rooms in the NW wing of the palace that was sealed off at some stage. The palace itself was destroyed roughly at the time of Amarna. The contents are remarkably well preserved, we are told [see article in Academia web site]. The two rooms contain the bones of elephants, and little else. One of them is just 3m by 3m and the other is even smaller. The bones are said to belong to the now extinct Syrian elephant – a subspecies of the Asian elephant. It is thought they were hunting trophies in which the kings of Qatna indulged, and brought back to the palace. Thutmose III famously hunted elephants somewhere in Syria. The most probable habitat in the MB period is thought to be the Upper Orontes valley and the upper Litani river valley – possibly even the lower Orontes valley. No mention of the Jordan valley.

Elephant hunting was popular in the LB period, and more texts have survived from this period to tell us about it. Bones of elephants have been found at Alalakh as well as Qatna. However, the middle Euphrates valley was probably also a suitable habitat for these animals, and its tributaries such as the Balikh and Khabur river valleys. Tiglath Pileser I, for example, hunted and killed ten elephants on the Upper Balikh river. He also took four live elephants back to Assyria for his menagerie. The prize in hunting elephants, we may imagine, like today’s elephants, was their ivory tusks. They had a high value as a carving medium and were used to decorate royal paraphernalia. Elephants seem to have disappeared by the Iron Age. Why?

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