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Juan V. Fernández de la Gala, Forensic Anthropologist and Zooarchaeologist, Associate Professor of History of Medicine, Universidad de Cádiz, Spain,

SUMMARY: Professor Tabor’s team has recently explored a first century Jewish tomb found in Jerusalem. One of the ossuaries showed a nicely carved icthyomorphic design on its front façade that Professor Tabor interpreted as Jonah’s whale and suggested that it was related to the closest followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

The finding has provoked an increasing interest in mass and professional media. In the last days, some archaeologists have already questioned Tabor’s interpretation and its consequences. Dr. Fernández de la Gala, professor of History of Medicine at the University of Cádiz (Spain), a forensic anthropologist interested in zoological symbolism in funerary contexts, has analyzed and discussed the case and proposes that a reasonable  interpretation of the drawing is that is a funerary neck amphora instead, as other scholars have also indicated.


To begin with, it is completely out of my aim to discuss here if the Talpiot tombs are or are not related to Jesus of Nazareth or his closest followers. We probably need more archaeological evidence and more effort to analyze them rigorously, keeping the research as far as possible from sensationalism or from any kind of dogmatism.

Professor James D. Tabor from North Carolina University has recently explored a sealed tomb in Jerusalem with the technical help of a robotic camera. Among several findings of interest, one of the ossuaries [1.]  placed in one of the nine niches (or kokhim in Hebrew) showed a nicely carved icthyomorphic drawing on its front side. The skilled handling of the robotic arm has permitted an original approach to the tomb and has provided the scientific community with some relevant photographs to study and discuss. I am sure they will encourage the necessary dialogue and, perhaps, some impassioned arguments as well, that will lead all of us at the end to a more accurate comprehension. I sincerely feel grateful for those enjoyable pictures that Tabor’s team has provided us in such an ingenious way. At the same time, I feel tempted to make some comments, especially from the zooarchaeological and symbolic aspects, despite the cultural complexity regarding the inception of Christianity and its controversial links to the Jewish world.

I would like to discuss the pictures below taken from James Tabor’s paper that appeared recently at Figure 1 is a shot taken during the robotic camera exploration. Figure 2 is a close-up view of a replica.

Figure 2: Replica close-up

Figure 1: Robotic Exploration Shot

In his work the author opts for a zoologic interpretation. He suggests that the figure is a whale, noting how the prophet Jonah was swallowed by a “large fish” and then, after three days and three nights, was vomited alive onto the beach (Jonah 2: 1-11)[2]. Professor Tabor proposes that the circle we can see just in the mouth of the whale is indeed Jonah´s head. He thinks we can even see the prophet’s arms and legs still inside the whale. Without any special effort, the icthyomorfic drawing seems to be a whale, certainly, and a modern zoologist could even identify it as a rorqual, taking into consideration its acute muzzle (rostrum), and the biogeographical fact that several rorquals of Balaenoptera genus were common along the Mediterranean coasts[3].  We are, therefore, allowed to suppose that whales were familiar to the cultural background of the draftsperson, whoever he was. The relatively big size of the “fish”[4], generously occupies the whole half of the ossuary. The graceful pectoral fins and the horizontal caudal fin are, I think, three useful clues that can reasonably support this interpretation.

But there are in my opinion, at least, nine incongruities that we cannot elude at all:

1)      The lack of fish eyes. In its most schematic representation, fish are usually reduced as two opposite arcs crossing each other at both ends. Sometimes in those representations, the caudal fin could even remain uncompleted and scales could be absent in many cases. Instead, eyes themselves have a strong symbolism to suggest a fish, because of being one of the most relevant anatomic references beside a fusiform biological shape. The absence of a well depicted eye in that case deducts a big part of its credibility as a fish representation. Even though whales do not have conspicuous eyes and we classify them among mammals nowadays, we need to interpret the drawing through the cultural prism and usual symbolism of people from the first century, that is, as whales being real fish.

2)      The disharmony of the characters.  It seems to me paradoxical, too, the diverse way in which the two characters, whale and man, have been graphically solved. While the supposed whale shows a decorative profusion of details, the supposed man, who appears to be the main character, has been reduced instead to an irregular circle with some not well connected stick-like marks.

3)      In the same way, the well-proportioned body of the supposed fish contrasts openly with the big-headed man.

4)      The total absence of anatomic elements in the human face makes hazardous his identification as human. Tabor justifies this lack referring to the literal text of the Jonah prayer: “the abyss enveloped me; seaweed clung about my head” (Jonah 2, 6).

5)      Even when the preservation of the figure makes this part of the carving hard to perceive, some of the stick-like marks of Jonah’s supposed arms and legs seem to continue all along the head of the whale, forming not an anthropomorphic design, but probably an arborescent or reticular image instead.

6)      The different appearance of scales and their compartmentation in blocks. The supposed scales have been graphically represented in very different styles. They look strangely diverse in shape and texture. And they are shown by blocks or compartments clearly divided transversally all along the “fish” body.

7)      It remains unexplained why the draftsperson decided to use the same carving texture for the caudal fin, for Jonah’s head and even just for some scales.

8)      In the same way, the whale position (head down) is atypical for a “fish” and it is just the opposite to suggest that it is putting Jonah alive on the surface, onto the beach, according to biblical text.

9)      And finally, it is difficult to harmonize a whale vomiting a man with the fact that the animal jaws apparently remain firmly closed.

Taking all these perplexities into consideration, we want to suggest a neck funerary amphora as a more reliable interpretation, that is also a very traditional decorative motif in Jewish ossuaries. From this point of view, the drawing, with all its peculiarities and its decorative pattern, becomes very obvious, as we try to show in figure 3:

1)      The vertical position of the drawing does not need any explanation.

2)      Pectoral fins now become the amphora handles.

3)      The segmentation in different panels or decorative levels of the neck and the body of the vessel is common in this kind of pottery.

4)      The ornamental pattern does not resemble scales, but just geometric decorative elements, as it was usual in geometric attic amphorae, for instance.

5)      The use of the same carving pattern or texture for the rim, the foot of the amphora and for some of its decorations (marked in grey) becomes now more evident: the draftsperson tried to reflect that both parts were in the same colour as in the original vessel, probably black, as it used to be in that kind of pottery.

6)      The exploration shot does not permit us to guess the decorative pattern of the body, whose grooves seem to take part of an arborescent or reticular drawing.

Figure 3: The drawing deduced from the robotic exploration shot (left). The areas with the same carving texture have been underlaid with grey colour. Right: A hypothetical reconstruction of the funerary neck amphora.

Likewise, some scholars have proposed an unguentarium or a krater as an equally reliable hypothesis. Perhaps the geometric decorations at neck level, the general proportions and the pretty well defined shoulders suggest that the carving resembles an amphora rather than any other kind of vase. It is obvious that we do not have the real container, however, but just a very personal and subjective interpretation of it instead.

Finally, only two more short comments about Professor Tabor’s paper. Firstly, to advise that the ossuary, named the “child’s ossuary”(page 31, figure 5), paradoxically contains inside the remains of an adult. All the bone fragments that I reach to see (several cranial bones, ilium, scapula, ribs and lumbar, thoracic and cervical vertebrae) seem to belong to an adult. For instance, a really big lumbar vertebra in the foreground (orange arrow) shows a transverse body diameter that reachs at least 5 cm.

Figure 4: The “child's ossuary” (sic). The orange arrow shows an adult lumbar vertebra.

Figure 5: John Dory (Zeus faber), from Murre Techniek website fish translator

Secondly, perhaps I may shed some light on the fish called zaeus by Plinius[5], cited on page 15 of Tabor’s paper and related to the Greek inscription on ossuary 5:3. According to references I am aware of, it is known among zoologists as Zeus faber. In English it is called a “Peter’s Fish”, “Saint Pierre Fish” or “John Dory”, but in the South of Spain we know it as pez de San Pedro or gallo and more infrequently gallopedro or pejegallo. We usually prepare it as fish in bread-crumbs. I can assure that, as in Plinius days, it continues to be one of the gastronomic delights all along the Bay of Cádiz, from where I am just writing these lines, in fact.




BAUCHOT, M. L. and PRAS, A. (1993): Guía de los peces de mar de España y de Europa. Barcelona, Omega: 118, 128.

BURTON, Maurice (1978): Guía de los mamíferos de España y de Europa. Barcelona, Omega: 240-253.

CARWARDINE, Mark (1995): Ballenas, delfines y marsopas. Manual de identificación. Barcelona, Omega.

DUGUY, R. and ROBINEAU, D. (1987): Guía de los mamíferos marinos de Europa. Barcelona, Omega.

FIGUERAS, Pau (1983): Decorated Jewish Ossuaries. Documenta et Monumenta Orientis Antiqui XX. Leiden, Brill.

MELVILLE, Herman (1892): Moby-Dick or The White Whale. Boston, St. Botolph Society.

MEYEROVICH, Eva (1985): Ballena. In: CHEVALIER, Jean and GHEERBRANT, Alain (Eds.) (1985): Diccionario de los símbolos. Barcelona, Herder: 171-172.

NEW AMERICAN BIBLE (2002). Rome, Libreria Editrice Vaticana. [Available online at: . Last accessed date: 9th March 2012].

PLINIO SECONDO, Gaio (1983): Storia Naturale II. Antropologia e Zoologia. Libri 7-11. Torino, Einaudi: 334-335.

TABOR, James D. (2012): A Preliminary Report of a Robotic Camera Exploration of a Sealed 1st Century Tomb in East Talpiot, Jerusalem. Published on The Bible and Interpretation website. [Available online in PDF format at: . Last accessed date: 10th  March 2012].

TABOR, James D. (2012): A Perfume Flask or a Fish? Published on The Bible and Interpretation website. [Available online at: . Last accessed date: 10th March 2012].

TAYLOR, Joan E. (2012): The Talpiyot Unguentarium. Published on ASOR Blog (American Schools of Oriental Research). [Available online: . Last accessed date: 10th March 2012].

TEROFAL, Fritz (1986): Peces de mar. Barcelona, Blume: 78-79.

TORRE GARCÍA, Mercedes de la (2004): Ictionimia portuense. Cádiz, Concejalía de Cultura del Ayuntamiento de El Puerto de Santa María: 206-208.


[1] Ossuary 6, from kokh 3 (i.e., 6:3), according to Tabor’s references, but 1:1 according to Kloner’s map.

[2] Jesus of Nazareth speaks about the “sign of Jonah” in the Gospels as a metaphor for resurrection in Mt 12:29, Mt 16:4 and Lk 11:29-32. There are also specific mentions in the Quran, where Jonah is known as Yunus (10:98, 37:139-144).

[3] Western Mediterranean coasts, at least, as well as the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.

[4] The definitive attribution of whales to mammals was a taxonomic acquisition of the 18th century, in the second edition of Linné’s works, Systema Naturae (1758). Even in Moby-Dick, by the American novelist Herman Melville (1851), the characters keep the term “fish” to designate the whale in their dialogues throughout the text.

[5] “(…) zaeus idem faber appellatus, Gadibus, circa Ebusum salpa, obscenus alibi et qui nusquam percoqui possit nisi ferula vertebratus” (Naturalis Historia IX, 32).

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