Biblical Archaeology Review 41:6, November/December 2015

What Is It?

A. Potter’s wheel

B. Millstone

C. Weight

D. Cart wheel

E. Decorative eye

Answer: (E) Decorative eye

During the Hellenistic period, some ships were decorated with marble disks painted to look like human eyes. The ships’ eye decorations (ophthalmoi) were attached to the bow or hull. While their exact purpose is unknown, some speculate that they provided divine insight or protection from danger, keeping evil forces—and envy—at bay.

This marble disk was discovered in shallow water near the shore of Yavneh-Yam, the only anchorage between Jaffa and the northern Sinai coast in antiquity. Although no remains of the ship itself have been found, the disk likely came from a fifth- or fourth-century B.C.E. shipwreck—based on other artifacts found in the shipwreck assemblage.

Weighing 3.3 pounds and measuring 7.6 inches across and an inch thick, the disk was painted with eight circular bands of different colors (see diagram, below) to resemble the different parts of an eye.1 Seven lines, separating the different bands, are still discernible.

Parallels have been found throughout the eastern Mediterranean. These marble disks were likely used on merchant ships. Larger, oared galleys were decorated with larger, almond-shaped marble eyes.

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