A Perfume Flask or a Fish?

By James Tabor
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
February 2012

To read this article in its entirety, we have presented it here in PDF format.

Comments (16)

The sounds of silence....so let me break it here. There has been a lot of discussion this past week about our image being something other than a fish/Jonah image. The problem is so far as I know I have not seen a single response to our arguments that it is a fish. What we get are people, even qualified academics, who just say, "I am not convinced" or "the evidence is just not there." They don't give their reasons. In fact, the only reason I have heard from anyone that this image is not a fish is that it is pointed down. I find that one rather amazing, see my comment (#28) on my other post--Preliminary Report on the tomb investigation where I address that. What I hope we might see here is people willing to really engage the question with specific points. I lay out my argument here. I find it persuasive. So what is incorrect about what I say, and what do I not say that might be added and contribute to a good discussion? If we can have that sort of quality discussion here then believe me, it will be rare, but such an exchange would contribute immensely to the question of evaluating the Talpiot tombs. It is not going on elsewhere, let's see if it can happen here.

#1 - James D. Tabor - 03/04/2012 - 23:28

I must commend Prof. JT for getting rid, once and for all, of the “fish is a tower idea.” I mean Joan Taylor, not James Tabor. Clearly, she’s a woman of authority so when she dismisses the tower and the amphora, other academics fall into line. Prof. Rollston, for example, has done the equivalent of a nephesh u-turn on that great archaeological highway giving up his theory in favor of the “unguentarium.”

Now we have the “unguentarium” theory. Let me say from the outset that I’m not for using words that most people don’t understand. It creates the veneer of specialization, puts people off and makes them doubt their own eyes. Let’s face it, at the end of the day, “unguentarium” are what we get our wives for Valentine’s Day i.e., we’re talking perfume bottles. So the question is; is Prof. Taylor right? Is our fish a perfume bottle? I think not. Let’s look at the evidence.

Prof. Taylor supplies three photographs. The first is a “spindle-bottle” from somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean that pre-dates our tomb by at least three centuries. So it’s not from Israel and it’s not from a 1st century Jerusalem tomb. What exactly does it have going for it? The top is thin whereas the image in our tomb has a top that looks exactly like what it is i.e., a giant fish tail.

The second image is an Alabastron. It’s also Eastern Mediterranean, but it’s getting closer to our date. It only pre-dates our tomb by a couple of hundred years. However, I must admit that it does look more like a fish. The relevant question is; so what? I can point to hippopotamus images on ancient Egyptian tombs. I can also find Egyptian make-up kits from within 500 years of those images that are made to look like hippos. Does that mean that the hippo images on Egyptian tomb walls are not hippos? Should I now be looking at Nilotic scenes on Egyptian tombs and instead of hippos be imagining make-up kits? I don’t understand the point. You can find on Google images clouds that look like fish. Does that mean that there’s a cloud on our ossuary? Furthermore, at the end of the day, the Alabastron, which looks to be made of glass, proves the opposite of what Prof. Taylor wants to prove. The devil is in the details. Namely, the little protrusions at the top of the bottle are little for a reason – if they were longer they would break. On our image, the fins are wide at the extremities and thin at the point where they connect with the body of the fish. If it was a perfume bottle, the protrusions would snap. No one would make – or could make – a perfume bottle like that.

As for the “bubble shape” perfume bottle, Prof. Taylor has now reached for an Italian bottle from 1st century CE. Right time, wrong country. Also, our image ends with a giant bubble. This ends in a point. So what’s the point?

Prof. Taylor is aware that none of her perfume bottles are balancing themselves on a giant ball, as in our image. The way she deals with this is by saying that “the mysterious blob” is actually “nard” that poured out of the perfume bottle and congealed below it. Wow! Talk about a connection with Mary Magdalene; suddenly – instead of a fish – Prof. Taylor sees an alabaster jar with nard pouring out of it on our ossuary. This would be unprecedented and, next to the Jesus tomb, quite sensational. I wish it were true, but it’s not. And why would someone want to carve one on an ossuary? Prof. Taylor simply states “seeping perfume expresses an appropriate wish for a tomb.” Appropriate in what way? Is she suggesting that someone’s carving a perfume bottle on an ossuary as a way of symbolically dealing with the decay of their loved one? A bit macabre and unsubstantiated. There is no “unguentarium” image on any ossuary that I know of.

- continued -

#2 - Simcha - 03/05/2012 - 05:40

There are, indeed, glass perfume bottles found in 1st century Jerusalem tombs. See for example: http://www.ancientresource.com/lots/roman/roman-glass.html, or http://dqhall59.com/israelphotosIV/jarofointment.htm. When you look at the photos, what becomes obvious is that there is no unguentarium that looks remotely like our fish.

At the end of the day, I think there is a principle in British common law that serves us well i.e., if it quacks like a fish, and flaps like a fish, and waddles like a fish – it’s a fish!

Simcha Jacobovici, Filmmaker
Professor, Huntington University

#3 - Simcha - 03/05/2012 - 05:40


The best thing you say is this: "I’m not for using words that most people don’t understand."

Most scholars are jealous because they aren't smart enough to convey complex ideas in language that anybody can understand.

Keep up the good fight.

#4 - Pablo - 03/05/2012 - 16:11

I posted a reply here:


Also see Bob Cargill's analysis of the digital manipulation of the photos here:



Thomas Verenna

#5 - Thomas Verenna - 03/05/2012 - 17:13

How about a few facts here on the image and how it was presented to the world:

1. The image is shown and described in proper orientation in our book (pp. 84-86).

2. All the experts involved were given unlimited access to untouched photos.

3. My article at bibleinterp.com covers the orientation of the image on the ossuary and although the photo that should have been portrait was put landscape by the guy who did the PDF--he thought he was saving space--the article itself even makes a point about the orientation--i.e., Jonah being spat onto land (p. 21 bottom and following) and the photo was corrected when someone pointed it out.

4. At the Tuesday 11am press conference, which was the first public view of things, the replica ossuaries were on display with dozens of reporters snapping photos, showing clearly the orientation of the image on our blowups as well as on the replica ossuaries and they had a press package that had the CGI image printed in portrait mode.

So, any implication that we somehow put out the image turned the wrong way in order to make it look more like a fish is simply wrong. Anyone who did even a minimum of reading before advancing theories as to what the image might be after less than 24 hours would know how the image was oriented and take that into consideration.

#6 - James D. Tabor - 03/05/2012 - 21:34

I am not an academic, just a person who is interested in biblical archaeology. Having seen the photos of the ossuary, to me, it is clearly a fish with something that looks like a stick man coming out of the mouth. I dont see how or why people cant see what is so obvious. as for meaning and interpretation, I'll leave that up to the experts.

#7 - Larry Williams - 03/06/2012 - 04:27

Thanks Larry, I agree of course and I appreciate your take on it. Even though lots of folks have said they can't see the stick figure it is totally clear, in terms of two arms, two legs...oh well, what can I say?
So far other than Robin Jensen, who had taken it as a fish and even a Jonah image when we first interviewed her, I think Steven Fine, who thinks it is a tower is the only art historian who has commented. We consulted with several more, all of whom agreed it was a fish--even a Jonah image. I think they are both preparing something formal but neither of them are fond of the biblioblogging world as a medium.

#8 - James D. Tabor - 03/06/2012 - 22:43

I do a bit of fishing. Allow me to comment as a person who has had hundreds of fish in his hands. This simply looks like a fish. It is not perfect and there may have been some artistic license at work, but it looks like the kind of thing that an amatuer artist would produce.

I think we need to take a serious look at the obvious features of fish anatomy in the image, such as the mouth, gills and fins, especially the back fins. You will notice that they are asymmetrical. Many fish have this feature of asymmetrical fins, they are called heterocercal, if the largest part of the fin is on top and reverse heterocercal if the largest part points downward. I haven’t seen anyone propose that a tower or perfume bottle would have such a asymetrical visual appearance. So, it is clear to me that this is the image of a fish, drawn by someone who knows what a fish looks like. Perhaps the artist did a bit of fishing too.

The image on the side of the ossuary is incomplete, so we can not be as sure it is a fish, but what we see sure looks like a fish too. It sure does not look like (part of) a tower or perfume flask. We also see more small fish like images in the scene above the "Jonah" fish. So what are the chances that all of these images that look like fish are in fact something else. It just doesn't pass the smell test.

#9 - Jerry Lutgen - 03/07/2012 - 04:51

Correction, when I say urn or flask or vase it all pertains to the alleged perfume flask.

#10 - Michal - 03/17/2012 - 17:55

The Biblical book of Jonah and more recently the sign of Jonah has been the focus of my research for the past 20years and this is certainly plausibly the Jonah fish and fits very well in terms of the sign of Jonah. What an exciting discovery.

#11 - Christine Gunn-Danforth, PhD Biblical Studies; PhD Communication - 04/13/2012 - 03:44

With regard to the Jonah/fish-interpretation-ossuary, I would like to share my opinion and how it developed. When I first saw it, it appeared to be a fish with a bubble sticking out of its mouth. The bubble bothered me because it looked out of place, like "Where was the artist going with the bubble?". (I wasn't thinking of the story of Jonah.) Then, I read various interpretations of it and looked up Internet images of "jonah" and "whale" and learned that depictions often show seaweed around his head. Then, I took a closer look at the bubble and saw the markings spotted around it and on it. Then, I read the book of Jonah in the OldTestament to verify that the seaweed was around his head. Then, I re-read a NewTestament quote of Jesus about the sign of Jonah. Then, I watched the documentary about seeing inside the tomb on the Discovery channel. Today, before sunset, I finished reading The Jesus Discovery book. If the image on the ossuary isn't Jonah and the fish, then why would the artist have chiseled a vase balancing on a ball, an upside-down perfume flask, or a mottled perfume dabber?

#12 - Theodora - 05/06/2012 - 01:58

In comment #50 of the discussion of "A Preliminary Report of an Exploration of a Sealed 1st Century Tomb in East Talpiot, Jerusalem," Professor Tabor suggests, "try a simple test...show our image to any child and ask them what they think it might be."

An excellent idea. I tried it out with my own seven-year old daughter. I showed her the image posted at
on my computer screen. (This version shows the object in its
"vertical position" as it appears on the ossuary.)

I was careful to have not spoken to her, or in front of her, about the image so as to avoid biasing her judgement.

She looked at it carefully for a few moments, and then responded, "A fish?"

I would recommend others try this informal experiment as well.

Better yet, perhaps someone could arrange to perform this experiment on a number of young children in a controlled setting, while the entire process is recorded.

Andrew Sills, Ph.D. (Mathematics)
Associate Professor
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Georgia Southern University

#13 - Drew Sills - 05/09/2012 - 23:02

It is interesting that ambergris was thought to be vomited by whales and is also the basic ingredient of perfume. Ambergris was more valuable than gold to ancient people.

#14 - Susan Burns - 10/18/2013 - 14:56

Looks like a fish to me and I'm new to archaeology what a find

#15 - Rodney Campbell - 08/29/2016 - 22:38

Having read The Jesus Discovery I think it is a fish. Since Jonah was the sign Jesus spoke of, this would put his crucifixion on Wednesday. He would have spent Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday night in the tomb. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday during the day would have been spent in the tomb. Resurrection would have been shortly after sunset on the sabbath. This would fulfill Jesus' statement of spending three days and three nights in the tomb.

#16 - Cletus Piper - 09/18/2018 - 20:08

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