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The Mystery of Pre-Historic Shark Teeth Found in a Jerusalem Basement

A treasure trove of fossilized shark teeth found in Judea and dating back to the Cretaceous Period may raise more questions than it answers – but who doesn’t love a good mystery?

(CN) --- Researchers found a cache of fossilized shark teeth dating back to the time of the dinosaurs in a village near Jerusalem, but exactly why the teeth were there and what they were used for remains an open question.

Researchers discovered the teeth in a 2,900-year-old Iron Age archeological site, dating to shortly after the death of King Solomon, about 50 miles from where one may have expected to find such a trove. The teeth themselves date back to the Late-Cretaceous period, about 80 million years ago, but with no visible signs of wear or drilled holes, obvious use-cases like tools or jewelry get thrown out the window.

An international team of scientists from Germany, Israel and Egypt described the unique find in a study published last December in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. Thomas Tütken, lead author of the study, will present the group’s findings at the upcoming Goldschmidt Conference, which will be held online again this year in the coming weeks.

"We found 80-Million-year-old fossil shark teeth in archaeological context among thousands of archaeological fish remains in different sites of Israel that seem to have been moved from their original find context by humans to these cultural layers,” said Tütken, a paleontologist at the University of Mainz in Germany, in an email. “It was completely unexpected to find such fossil shark teeth in Iron Age strata in which over 10,000 archaeological fish remains, including shark vertebrae, were found that represent about 3,000 year-old human food remnants."

Tütken’s team has since discovered a number of other curiously unexplainable finds across different parts of ancient Judea, which they’re still working to unravel. In the days of horse-drawn carts, 50 miles was a vast distance, meaning these teeth were likely quite valuable to whoever transported them such a distance.

The authors hypothesize that shark teeth may have been collected and traded in ancient times, much like today, merely for the sake of owning something cool.

The teeth were discovered in what was the basement of an Iron Age house in the City of David, among the oldest areas of Jerusalem, located in the modern-day Palestinian village of Silwan. They were found among pottery sherds and fish scraps, leading researchers to initially believe they came from the same time period --- until someone reviewing their initial find provided a valuable new clue.

"We had at first assumed that the shark teeth were remains of the food dumped nearly 3000 years ago, but when we submitted a paper for publication, one of the reviewers pointed out that the one of the teeth could only have come from a Late Cretaceous shark that had been extinct for at least 66 million years,” Tütken explained in a related statement.

“That sent us back to the samples, where measuring organic matter, elemental composition, and the crystallinity of the teeth confirmed that indeed all shark teeth were fossils. Their strontium isotope composition indicates an age of about 80 million years.”

Tütken said this confirmed that all 29 fossilized teeth found at the site originated during the Late Cretaceous, the same time period as dinosaurs. He concluded that rather than being weathered out of the bedrock, it’s more likely they were transported there, possibly from as far as 50 miles away in the Negev Desert, where researchers have uncovered similar fossils.

The researchers determined that the teeth originally belonged to a number of different species of shark, including the extinct Squalicorax, which lived during the Late Cretaceous and grew to a staggering 15 feet long. They were able to use that as a reference point to date the rest of the find.

The team employed a number of techniques to narrow down the age and origin of the teeth, including strontium and oxygen isotope analysis, x-ray diffraction and trace element analysis, demonstrating the value of tackling a problem like this from a variety of angles.

That said, we’ll probably never know for certain how those teeth came to wind up in someone’s basement, or why they were valuable enough to transport a relatively far distance across a desert.

"Our working hypothesis is that the teeth were brought together by collectors, but we don't have anything to confirm that,” Tütken concluded in a related statement. “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 jewelry. 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. This was a period of riches in the Judean Court. However, it's too easy to put 2 and 2 together to make 5. We'll probably never really be sure."

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