Ancient shark-tooth collection uncovered

Scientists have uncovered an unexpected collection of fossilised shark teeth buried in a basement in ancient Jerusalem, in the modern-day Palestinian village of Silwan.

The 29 teeth were discovered in a filled-in basement from the time of King Solomon, buried with pottery and food waste such as fish bones.

“We had at first assumed that the shark teeth were remains of the food dumped nearly 3000 years ago,” says lead researcher Thomas Tuetken from the University of Mainz in Germany. “But when we submitted a paper for publication, one of the reviewers pointed out that one of the teeth could only have come from a Late Cretaceous shark that had been extinct for at least 66 million years.”

Further analysis revealed that the shark teeth were indeed fossils, and radiometric dating using strontium isotopes indicated an age of 80 million years.

The fossilised shark teeth came from several different species, including some from the extinct group Squalicorax, which grew to between two and five metres in length and would have swum in the oceans during the last era of dinosaurs.

Artist's impression of a squalicorax shark.
Artist’s impression of a Squalicorax shark. Credit: Dimitri Bogdanov

The teeth wouldn’t have been found naturally at a cultural site, suggesting they must have been unearthed elsewhere and moved. Similar fossils have been found in situ at a site 80 kilometres away, and the researchers suggest that someone transported them as part of a collection, though it is difficult to confirm this.

“They were probably valuable to someone,” says Tuetken. “We just don’t know why, or why similar items have been found in more than one place in Israel.

“There are no wear marks which might show that they were used as tools, and no drill holes to indicate that they may have been jewellery. We know that there is a market for shark’s teeth even today, so it may be that there was an Iron Age trend for collecting such items. We’ll probably never really be sure.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

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