Score one for terrible weather. After years of drought, it’s been raining hard in Israel this winter, sending trash cans floating down flooded streets, cleaning our windows and washing away millennia of dirt buildup on horse figurines.
The storms in the last days have exposed not one but two such clay figurines, complete with bridles and bits, if not bodies, in two completely different areas of northern Israel. One has been dated to at least 2,800 years ago, the time of the Israelite Kingdom, and the other to the Hellenistic period at least 2,200 years ago.
While horse statuary has been found in the region before, these are the best-preserved and finest found so far, says archaeologist Ayelet Kedar-Goldberg of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
In fact, she found the older statuette not during an intrepid excavation of some exotic site but while mushrooming with the kids. Her daughters noticed it peeping from the sodden ground not far from Kfar Ruppin in the Beit She’an valley (that’s as specific as the IAA will get).
Mushrooms they did not find, but discovering the ancient artifact was presumably a comfort to the fungus-less family, especially after Kedar-Goldberg realized on the spot that the fragment was part of an Iron Age II figurine dating to the Israelite period (from about the ninth to seventh centuries B.C.E.).
Never mind that both are broken fragments: they are also unmistakably horses – not, say, donkeys. Close observation shows the statue to have red stripes marking the reins and bridle. One can also see the left hand of the rider, also colored red.
The other, later, horse figurine washed out by the rain was found by a passerby, Michael Markin, at Tel Akko (aka Acre). It dates to the later Hellenistic period (roughly the third or second century B.C.E.). This horse also clearly shows the reins and harness, also painted red.
Hail to the horse’s rider
Horses are not native domestic beasts to the Middle East. The when and where of horse domestication has been quite the archaeological conundrum, but the latest research indicates they were first tamed 5,500 years ago by nomads called the Botai in the Asian steppes. (Earlier theories that Asian nomads called the Yamnaya domesticated the first horses seem to be wrong; the Yamnaya did ride horses as they spread southeast, but they weren’t first.)
By the time of the Bronze Age, however, horses were not only thronging the region, they were highly prized. The ancient Egyptians had clearly mastered the beast: It wasn’t zebu cows pulling the war chariots they used against enemies and against their rebellious former slaves, the Hebrews – though no archaeological proof of Exodus has ever been found.
Horse-drawn chariots wouldn’t have been much use in stony, hilly Judah or in greener, equally hilly Israel – though according to the Bible, that topographical inconvenience didn’t stop the legendary King Solomon from accruing even more horses than wives (“And Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen,” 1 Kings 5:6).
Nor did it prevent King David from founding a unit of war chariots, courtesy of a vanquished king:
“David smote also Hadadezer the son of Rehob, king of Zobah. … And David took from him a thousand and seven hundred horsemen, and twenty thousand footmen; and David houghed all the chariot horses, but reserved of them for a hundred chariots,” 2 Samuel 8:3-4.
So, we can infer that in ancient Israel and Judah, the horse did not enjoy divine status or people wouldn’t have subjugated them and slashed their hamstrings when peeved. The equine may have been divine in ancient Eurasia and India – or at least used as totem representing a monarch – but not here.
So whose figurines were these and what meaning might they have had?
It is true that horses and horse figurines were all the rage in the Levant 3,000 years ago, says Adi Erlich of the University of Haifa. “Use” of horses had become deeply established in the region by that time, albeit less to pull plows and more for mobility: To get about and visit or conquer the neighbors.
“Horses would have been associated with strength, military might,” suggests Kedar-Goldberg.
Though the ancient Hebrews seem to have had quite the predilection for straying from the one true god, horses were not among the idols they adored, it seems.
In the Mediterranean and Levant, if a horse had meaning it was that you were either filthy rich or a soldier. Horse figures from the late Bronze and Iron Age sometimes bear riders, and almost all do from the Persian period, Erlich says. Also, some of the horse statuary was actually vessels shaped like horses, which you wouldn’t do if the horse was a god.
It is more likely that any given statue depicting horse and rider was designed to glorify the rider, not the steed, Erlich suggests – though owning a horse would have been a distinction in the Levant of yore, something along the likes of owning a Ferrari today. But one doesn’t sacrifice lambs to sports cars.
Erlich adds that the people depicted sitting on horses in the Bronze and Iron Age statues were men. Figurines of women were not rare but were in other contexts, such as fertility and sexuality, and at least some were arguably pagan icons of goddesses. “God’s wife” Asherah, for instance, was commonly worshipped, not only by the Canaanites but by many an ancient Israelite too.
While qualifying that one never knows, Kedar-Goldberg thinks the older horse figurine belonged to a warrior and was buried with him. The area was peopled by both the ancient Israelites and the Canaanites, and their graves abound. But for now we can’t say more about them than that – at least unless the torrents of rain wash the dirt of ages off an inscription, telling us more.