A 2,800-year-old grave of what seems to be a nuclear family, a child buried with its parents, has been discovered in the Phoenician port city of Achziv. The child had been interred wearing a necklace made of precious beads made of gold, silver, agate, amber and carnelian.
Together with the family’s remains, the archaeologists also found a bronze bowl and seven intact decorated vessels. The quality of the child’s necklace and the elaborate nature of the vessels indicate that the family was well off, the archaeologists suggest.
The Old Testament never actually mentions Phoenicians. The only reference to them in ancient sources is in ancient Greek writings, referring to merchants living along the coast of modern-day Lebanon and the northern coast of Israel.
In other words, the “Phoenicians” mentioned by the ancient Greeks were apparently part of the people the biblical authors called Canaanites, or descended from the Canaanites in terms of archaeology, religion and language. There was not much setting these Phoenicians apart from other local Semitic cultures.
Achziv is located near the Lebanese border on the northern coastal plain of today’s Israel. It was a bustling port-city from the mid-16th century B.C.E. to the sixth century B.C.E., the Bronze and Iron ages. When the family was alive, the town was Canaanite/Phoenician, which was the dominant culture along Mediterranean coasts.
The main port city along the coast of what is today Israel was Acre. However, the family’s home town of Achziv seems to have been important enough to arise anew every time it was destroyed.
That seems to have been quite often given the incessant power struggles in the region.
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According to the Old Testament, Achziv belonged to the territory of Asher. The tribe’s inheritance, according to that verse:
“…went on to Ebron, Rehob, Hammon, and Kanah, as far as Greater Sidon. The border then turned back toward Ramah as far as the fortified city of Tyre, turned toward Hosah, and came out at the Sea in the region of Achzib, Ummah, Aphek, and Rehob.” (Joshua 19:28-30)
Not that the Asherites managed to expel the resident pagans (Judges 1:31): “Neither did Asher drive out the inhabitants of Accho, nor the inhabitants of Zidon, nor of Ahlab, nor of Achzib…”
Achziv has been under archaeological exploration of a sort for at least a century. In 1921 the department of Antiquities of Mandatory Palestine learned of illegal excavations, whether by well-meaning amateurs or robbers offering the antiquities for sale in nearby Nahariya. The city’s first rigorous scientific investigation was conducted by Emanuel Ben-Dor in the 1940s, on behalf of the Department of Antiquities in Israel.
The most recent international expedition, directed by Yifat Thareani of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, and Michael Jasmin and Philippe Abrahami of Lyon University in cooperation with the French Office of Foreign Affairs, has been excavating there since 2014.
The grave was discovered in the summer of 2017 when the archaeologists stumbled upon two huge limestone slabs leaning toward west, about 50 centimeters underground. Each was delimited by two standing stones, one to the north and to the south.
Removing the slabs revealed a rectangular feature built of field-stones, exposing the layout of a so-called cist-grave. Its structure is typical of a Near Eastern cist grave, meaning a grave dug in the ground typically surrounded by stones, and sealed by two slabs. Such graves may contain one or multiple bodies, Thareani explains.
Inside this one were the bones of three people: a child aged between three to five buried with the necklace of precious beads, and two adults, a woman and a man in fetal position. The child’s remains had become heaped and its burial position could not be reconstructed. The putative family’s burial is dated to the ninth century B.C.E.
Based on the necklace and the vessels, including the largest Phoenician amphora of its kind discovered to this date in Israel, the excavators think the individuals were a high-status family.
A wealthy family’s tomb fits the archaeological picture of Achziv as a thriving community over the centuries with several distinguished families, which by the way had four cemeteries in ancient times. In the 1960s, several cist graves were uncovered, one with two bodies buried with cylinder seals, bronze bowls, a bronze double axe, lance heads, and an ivory bowl with lion couchant. Other graves contained pottery, figurines, scarabs, and bronze and silver jewelry, also pointing to wealth.
Some of the graves in Achziv have tombstones engraved with the deceased’s name and in one case his profession, a metal worker. In another case, the name of the deceased appeared on the shoulder of a jar: “Adonimelekh”.
Rising from the ashes
The prosperity of some residents notwithstanding, Achziv was as said destroyed time and again over the ages. One such occasion was in the Middle Bronze Age, roughly 1,550 B.C.E.: the port-city’s earthen walls were breached and the town was sacked. Though the evidence shows layers featuring ash and burning, it is not clear from the archeological record how devastating the attack was.
In any case, the city rose again in the 11th century B.C.E., during the early Iron Age, which lasted from 3,000 years ago to about 1,800 years ago, depending who you ask and served as an important Phoenician anchorage.
Come the 8th century B.C.E., Achziv and Acre were among the fortified cities ruled by the Phoenician king Luli that surrendered to the Assyrian king Sennacherib as he rolled over the Levant in 701 B.C.E. (The family in the newly discovered grave apparently lived more than a century before the Assyrian conquest.)
Other excavations of Achziv over the years found an elaborate fortification system from an earlier time, the Middle Bronze Age; public buildings; and also homes that range over thousands of years, from the Bronze Age through to the Crusader period.
In 2015 the excavators found what may be the only known mold for a supposed death mask, of a man, in what seems to have been a cultic building from the ninth century B.C.E. in the city’s south. The building, of which remained two mud-brick walls and three white plastered stairs that may have led to a second story, also contained several intact vessels, including a carinated bowl, chalices, a cooking pot, a storage jar, a lamp, and a goblet of burnished clay, as well as burnt animal bones. The archaeologists suspect it served a cultic function.
Masks that are believed to be associated with death in some form have been found throughout the sphere of Phoenician influence, including in the cemeteries of Achziv. But nothing like this mold has ever been found before, Thareani says.
Its hollowed-out features still show five chains of curly braided hair, eyebrows, almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, mouth and ears, and a prominent nose. Male masks had painted-on beards. With the aid of Andre Veiner of the Conservation department in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, several masks were made using the ancient mold. “It enabled us to meet a young Phoenician man in person,” Thareani quips.
Six other anthropomorphic clay masks were found by previous expeditions in the graveyards in Achziv: four female and two male in form. The masks, and the unique mold, are smaller than a human face, begging speculation as to how they were used. Some were colored with red wash or red slip and the hair and beard were painted on, in black.
“It is very possible that several aspects of their religion were connected to masks. Obviously they were use in connection with mortuary practices and added in the tomb to join the dead in the otherworld,” says Jasmin, though the precise uses of the mask, by whom (a priest?) and how (on a pole ?) and when (during cultic dances, mortuary processions?) remain obscure, he adds.
It was while trying to better understand the apparently cultic area that the archaeologists stumbled upon the tomb containing the nuclear family, dating to around 800 B.C.E., when Achziv was at its peak and some 100 years before the city surrendered to Sennacherib’s army.
In 701 B.C.E. Sennacherib reduced Achziv to smoldering ruins. It did arise again, renamed Accipu in the Assyrian texts.
About 2,700 years ago, Assyria itself would decline, possibly due to protracted drought combined with overcrowding. And for its part, Achziv exists to this very day, having weathered the armies of Romans, the Byzantines, the Crusaders and the Arabs. But it never would regain its lofty status of the Iron Age.