Ancient Judeans Wrote Torah Scrolls on Gazelle Hide, Archaeologists Find

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Gazelle bones: The white one on the right is modern, the left one is Roman-era, found at Shikhin
Gazelle bones: The white one on the right is modern, the left one is Roman-era, found at ShikhinCredit: Ran Bouchnik
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom

Archaeologists excavating the ancient Jewish village of Shikhin in the Galilee encountered a mystery: a strangely large proportion of the animal bones were from wild gazelles. It was far greater than the proportion of gazelle remains found at any other archaeological site in Israel, from that time of about 1,900 years ago, or earlier. Or later. What was the strange predilection the ancient Jews of Shikhin had for gazelles?

Some were surely eating of the gazelle, which is perfectly kosher when slaughtered by ritual. But the people of Shikhin also had plenty of domestic flocks: sheep, goats and cows. It seems, the archaeologists concluded, that the Jews of Shikhin had developed a robust industry of curing gazelle hide for parchment, including for Torah scrolls.

Dining habits in early Shikhin

In Roman times, the Jewish village of Shikhin, also known as Asochis or, nowadays, Shukha, was known for its pottery, as revealed by passages in the Mishnah and Talmud. Indeed, recent excavations in the town found an abundance of types of pottery lamps and decorated oil lamps.

Naturally, as happens when excavating a residential area, the archaeologists also found animal bones. But that strangely large proportion hailing from the local gazelle was baffling: The project's zoological archaeology expert, Dr. Carole Cope, estimates the proportion of gazelle remains among the Shikhin animal bones at 13%. The norm at other sites is more like 5%.

"There were much more deer bones in Shikhin than at any other site in Israel, especially any Jewish site from the time," says Prof. Mordechai Aviam of the Kinneret Colleges Institute for Galilean Archaeology, who has been directing the digs with Prof. James Riley Strange of from Samford University, Alabama.

Even when compared with sites from the earlier Bronze Age and Iron Age, when people had been cultivating flocks for thousands of years but still hunted for some of their meat, the proportion of gazelle bones at Shikhin is big, Aviam says – noting also that the gazelle run really fast, which is a nice way to say they are a terrific pain to chase down. So appetite alone could hardly explain the spike in gazelle hunting.

One of the rooms in which gazelle bones were found at Shikhin, 2018Credit: Shikhin Excavation Project

Consider the gazelle

The gazelle is indigenous to the region and was appreciated in ancient times not only for its speed but for its gracile beauty. The ancient Hebrews alluded to it frequently in the scriptures (Song of Solomon 2:17; 8:14, 2 Samuel 2:18, 1 Chronicles 12:8)

Hurry, my dear one, and be swift like a gazelle, Or a young stag, Upon the mountains of spices – Song of Solomon 8:14

Dr. Mordechai Aviam.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Also, if one can catch a gazelle, it tastes really good. But the rub is, at about the same time the spike in gazelle remains appears in Shikhin, the rabbis were trying to discourage hunting for meat, Aviam says.

It isn't that the rabbis were early vegetarians. The problem was that hunting with bow and arrow or spear could harm the animal in ways that would render it non-kosher. Not least, it would likely die from its injuries before being "properly" slaughtered. If one must catch a wild animal, for supper or whatever purpose, the rabbis recommended nets.

The people of Shikhin had other options. The sheep, the goat and the cow had been domesticated thousands of years. In the 1st century C.E., the Torah was written mainly on parchment made of sheep or goat skin. Later, leather would also be used. Part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, including the Book of Isaiah version found at Qumran, were written on bovine hide.

Apparently though gazelle hide was considered finer, and since gazelles hadn't been domesticated but had to be hunted, their pelt probably cost more. The villagers could have had a tidy sideline in selling the pelt after eating the animal.

A gazelle in modern Israel: Still kosherCredit: \ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

They may have been an enterprising lot in Shikhin. A  workshop for making oil lamps dating to the first and second century C.E. was identified last year: it appears to have been operated by a Judean rebel who fled the Romans, and set up a new life in the Galilee.

King Solomon's table, or library

Most of the indigenous mammals mentioned in the bible are extinct in modern Israel, such as the lion. Not so gazelles, but although they still exist in the Galilee and Golan Heights, they are under pressure from habitat encroachment by people – and they remain hunted to this day.

Culinary tastes change vastly over the eons. Most ancient recipes would range from the objectionable to the obnoxious according to modern tastes. But we still find gazelle tasty. And kosher.

Under Jewish tradition, gazelles may be eaten (Deuteronomy 12:15,22, 14:4, 15:22). The animal also constituted one of the regular delicacies on King Solomon's sumptuous table (1Kings 4:22-23). But Solomon, if he existed, lived well over a thousand years before the people of Shihkin, by which time the rabbis had begun frowning on animals hunted with weapons.

Perhaps the people of Shihkin were ignoring their rabbis and ate gazelles with abandon. But the theory that they were selling their skins finds support in the Talmud, describing Hiyya, a rabbi who moved from Babylon to the Galilee in the late 2nd century or early 3rd century (even though that's a century or two later than the date of the Shikhin bones).

Said R. Hiyya to R. Hanina, ‘I went and sowed flax, made nets, trapped deer, the meat of the deer I gave to orphans, from the skins I made scrolls, on which I wrote the five books of Moses. I went to a town and taught the five books to five children, and the six divisions of the Mishnah to six others. Then I told them, Until I return, teach each other the Pentateuch and the Mishnah. And that is how I prevented the Torah from being forgotten in Israel’ - (b. Ketubot 103b; Neusner translation).

Dead Sea Scrolls: Many were written on skin parchmentCredit: Emil Salman

Aviam thinks that shows gazelles were hunted in the Galilee for their hides, to make Torah scrolls. The parchment would may also have been used to make mezuzahs and amulets, he thinks.

In any case, Rabbi Hiyya's comments  suggest that hunters used nets rather than weapons so that the animals could be slaughtered in a kosher manner.

The laws of shechita, as kosher slaughter of birds and ruminants is called in Hebrew, were not handed down by Moses, but were shaped by the rabbis in debate over time, starting in about 200 C.E. The form of slaughter as practiced for centuries is to cut the animal's throat – crucially, severing both the trachea and esophagus - with an extremely sharp knife, in one back and forth motion, to preclude suffering to the animal insofar as possible.

Any deviation from the exact practice renders the animal unfit for eating, and it is abundantly clear why death by spear or arrow would transgress against these rules.

Gazelles trotting down the road at Shikhin, 2018Credit: Shikhin Excavation Project

Shikhin was near Sepphoris, which was one of the Galilee’s two Jewish capitals (the other was Tiberias). Sepphoris, with its academies and renowned rabbis, could have provided a reason for Shikhin’s residents to develop the production of fine, and mainly expensive, gazelle parchments, Aviam says.

Dr. Ram Bukhnik, a zooarchaeologist with the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology, notes that some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written on parchments made from gazelle and ibex hides. "Jewish sources from later periods recommend gazelle skins for parchments because they are soft and well-suited for writing on,” he says.

The Pliny theory

Why would people use untanned skin to write on at all, for millennia after the invention of papyrus paper?

For one thing, it was hardier. There is a reason we wear shoes made of leather, not paper. For another, both sides could be written on, which was not the case of papyrus.

The Jews may have had to resort to non-paper for their writing afters Egypt prohibited its export in about 190 B.C.E., according to the historian Pliny. Following that, leather parchment was invented in Pergamon. In fact the word "parchment" is believed to have stemmed from the name of that Greek city.

The Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah, which was written towards the end of the second century B.C.E. i.e., roughly at the same time as the pharaoh's export ban, was written on leather.

Lambskin is also prized for parchment, Cope says. Indeed, many of the butchered sheep found at Shikhin were young, going by the bone evidence. That too supports the hypothesis that the town was home to a brisk parchment production industry almost 2,000 years ago.