House With Phallic Amulets, Frescoes Found in Northern Israel

A 1900-year-old Roman villa sporting elaborate frescoes belonged to imperial worship inspector, the archaeologists speculate.

The actual terra-cotta phallic amulets found in the fill at Omrit: Each is about three centimeters in size and all but one were broken.
The actual terra-cotta phallic amulets found in the fill at Omrit: Each is about three centimeters in size and all but one were broken. Courtesy of Dan Schowalter

A 1,900-year old house uncovered next to a pagan temple site in northern Israel may have belonged to the imperial Roman official overseeing local worship, archaeologists say.

Among the rich finds at the site were elaborate frescoes, dedications to gods and tiny penis-shaped amulets, all but one of which were broken, reports the archaeological team from Carthage College.

The spectacular frescoes found in the villa in Omrit, a town in the northern Galilee, show natural sights: trees, plants, fish and birds.

During the era of Roman control over Israel, Omrit had been famed less for its charms of nature than for what seems to be the beautiful temple King Herod erected there in honor of Augustus Caesar, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, writing during the reign of the Roman emperor Vespasian, around 2,000 years ago (Wars 1: 404-406).

The archaeologists also discovered dedications around the site to other gods: Aphrodite, Zeus, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the earth goddess Ge, and the nymph Echo, none of which are necessarily connected with the worship in the temple.

An aerial view of the ancient Roman site of Omrit, north of the Hula Valley.
Courtesy of Daniel Schowalter

The Romans were not the first to worship at Omrit, though. At the other end of the spectrum, there is evidence for ritual activity long before the early Roman period. A neo-Assyrian cylinder seal from the reign of Sargon II, the discovery of which baffled archaeologists not a little, and a fragmentary Aramaic inscription roughly from the 3rd century B.C.E. Both were found in fill layers in the temple.

Oversight of pagan worship

Omrit was part of the Caesarea Philippi region, also known as Paneas for its huge sanctuary to the demi-goat god Pan by the Banias, today near the border between Israel and Lebanon. Archaeologists have actually been rooting around the ancient town for some 47 years, starting in 1978 by Gideon Forester, followed by Prof. Andrew Overman from Macalester College.

“Omrit sits a little over two kilometers from the Pan cave," Daniel Schowalter, head of the preset excavations, told Haaretz.  "When the first temple was built at Omrit, the Pan Cave in Banias had no formal structures yet. By the time Banias became a regional capital in the mid-1st century C.E., Omrit had been a monumental sacred site for 100 years.”

In fact three temples have been found at Omrit, dating from completely different eras, built one on top of the other. The bottom-most is the most ancient temple, dating to roughly the year 40 B.C.E. In the middle is the shrine dated to the time of Herod, around 20 B.C.E., and the third, latest temple dates back apparently to the first century C.E.

The newly discovered house was unearthed on the northern road leading to the temple complex. Only partially excavated so far, the house contained a courtyard, judging by the way the discovered doorway opens into the rest of the area. The surviving fresco images portray pastoral scenes of trees, plants, and fish, as well as two ducks that appear to be nestling side by side. They seem to have been part of a decorated water installation, possibly a fountain.

Painted fr​esco ​wall with two ducks nestling. Discovered ​inside the water installation, possibly a fountain

Schowalter thinks the house may have been built for a Roman official overseeing the religious activities in the nearby temple.

"Since temples were centers of financial as well as religious activity, it makes sense that there would be Roman officials in the area to supervise those activities,” he explains, but adds that it could also simply have been the house of rich local folk who followed the design styles and love of water features that we know the Romans favored.

Coins, pottery and glass also attest that Omrit was flourishing community in Roman times. It appears to be a major center for agricultural processing, and the excavators have clear artifactual evidence for Christian presence and construction at the site in the Byzantine period too. 

Latin inscription on marble of Marcus Aurelius, discovered during the excavation at the Roman-era city of Omrit in northern Isral.
Dan Schowalter

Warding off evil

The team also unearthed three tiny amulets in the shape of phalluses, which were thought to ward off misfortune during the Roman period.  

“One was complete, two were broken. The complete one was just under three centimeters long and had a hole to accommodate a string. This would indicate that they were originally worn around the neck, or perhaps hung up somewhere,” Schowalter says, adding, “We found them discarded as part of this debris layer. They could have come from anywhere around the site as part of the filling operation.” 

The ancient ground level sloped down to the north of the temple. The building with the painted walls was erected on a level about two meters lower than the floor level of the portico-like building. The builders of the portico had to build very deep foundations on the north end, then bring in huge amounts of dirt, rocks and debris to bring up the ground level. Three terra-cotta phallic amulets were found in that huge amount of fill.

The Romans were not shy of depicting phalluses everywhere – on vases, sculpted in marble, held aloft in gigantic form in public processions, and shown in stage comedies.

This obsession with penis imagery dominated almost every aspect of public life, influencing law, myth, and customs, affecting family life, the status of women, even foreign policy. Rome was known to issued coins embodying conquered territories and peoples as women: male Roman military power defeats a "feminized" nation, such as the commemorative series of the Judaea Capta coins.

An overview of  painted walls found during excavations at Omrit, north of the Hula Valley, in June 2016.
Courtesy of Daniel Schowalter

At a personal level, it was not unusual for Roman boys to wear a protective amulet containing a phallic charm until they formally came of age.

Another find in Omrit was a round stone seal with Babylonian imagery, supporting the theory that the site had been occupied well before Romans arrived. No evidence for building in that period has been found yet. But the town is thought to have remained in use through the Byzantine Period, Umayyad, Mamluk, Crusader, and Ottoman periods – in other words, until quite recently.

The Omrit Settlement Excavations Project is co-directed by Schowalter, along with Jennifer Gates-Foster of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Michael Nelson from Queens College, City University of New York; Benjamin Rubin, an independent researcher; and Jason Schlude of the College of Saint Benedict & Saint John’s University.

Ancient Roman coin minted to commemorate the Roman victory over Judea, portraying Rome as a virile male and Judea as a weeping woman. The legend reads: 'Judea Capta'.
Wikimedia Commons
The reverse of a coin of Constantine the Great showing the wolf and twins, with two stars above. Issued 322-323 C.E.
Dan Schowalter