Cult Fiction: Pagan Relics Don't Mean Tel Burna Was Temple to Baal

Pagan objects were common in ancient Judahite homes and not all animal bones originate in sacrifice, not to the gods at least.

Julia Fridman
Julia Fridman
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A piece of mask found at Tel Burna, seen roughly where it would have fit. Doesn't mean the site was a cultic hub.
A piece of mask found at Tel Burna, seen roughly where it would have fit. Doesn't mean the site was a cultic hub.Credit: Itzhaq Shai
Julia Fridman
Julia Fridman

Not every ancient site sporting a war god or female figurine is a temple to Baal or Anat. Tel Burna, the "cultic complex" sensationalized in the news last month, might be that. Or it might have been somebody's house, says Itzhaq Shai, the Israeli archaeologist directing the dig: “We can’t know for sure yet.”

In any case, the focus on the cultic finds distracted from the main body of evidence, which indicates that Tel Burna was a Judahite stronghold located smack in the middle of two ancient Biblical city giants: the Philistine city of Gath and the Judahite city of Lachish.

Tel Burna, a hillside site in south-central Israel, was occupied for several thousand years, from the Bronze Age to the end of the Iron Age. It was in the kingdom of Judah, King David’s old stomping ground. There is a great deal of evidence that if anything, Tel Burna was the site of a powerful Judahite stronghold, not a cultic hub as some papers - but not the excavator - have claimed.

In contrast to popular opinion and tradition, the Judahites were polytheists, like their Canaanite forefathers. Meaning, ancient Judahite households would likely have had a figurine or two.

Cultic objects: Common in household courtyards

The latest uproar began with an abstract about Tel Burna that Shai, a senior lecturer at Ariel University, submitted to a recent conference of the European Association of Archaeologists. He ended up not attending the conference but was contacted by the press nonetheless.

"I was asked what I found at the site. I said that we seem to have found a big LB [Late Bronze] public building with a cultic area," Shai says. In the press however, the building turned into a "cultic complex" possibly dedicated to Baal or Anat, a Canaanite goddess of war.

What did the archaeologists actually find? While much of the building has yet to be uncovered, it clearly had three big rooms: a kitchen, a storage room and one other, as well as a large courtyard.

In a corner of the courtyard they found two ceramic masks, some plaque figurines and zoomorphic (animal-shaped) vessels, apparently of Cypriot origin, judging by their fine material, and associated with ancient Cypriot ceramics. They also found a small, three-headed circular vessel commonly found in cultic assemblages throughout the Levant and Cyprus.

The excavators also found two man-sized pythoi (large jars), that also originated in Cyprus. They in particular, being enormous, heavy and fragile, inspire Shai to wonder how they got so far inland.

“It would make sense to see them near the coast but they are so out of place in this area," he remarks. If indeed what the archaeologists are unearthing was a house, it evidently belonged to a man of means.

The archaeologists also found a concentration of goblets, chalices, cups and saucers commonly attributed to cultic assemblages as well, matching those found throughout the country in this period.

There were also concentrations of animal bones which could have originated in animal sacrifices. Or in a kitchen.

Hallmarks of a Judahite town

Asked why he chose to excavate Tel Burna, Shai says that after years of excavating the Philistine stronghold of Gath (at Tel es-Safi), he was curious about what the "other side" – the Judahites – were doing at the same time.

"There are all kinds of indications that Tel Burna was Judahite. The casement walls, for one,” explains Shai. The Philistine city of Gath had no such protective casements: evidently it felt strong enough not to need any. The other towns in the area were walled. Khirbet Qeyafa’s wall for example was so big that its excavator claimed the fort had been a stronghold of King David’s.

The archaeologists also found Judahite pillar figurines.

Yet another sign that the town belonged to Judah are archetypal Judahite handles of large four-handled jars found there, made of local clay. The jars are thought to have held either wine or olive oil.

Some handles were decorated, including with a four-winged scarab beetle and another with a two-winged sun disk. Above these markings was the word lmlk ("[belonging] to the king," written in ancient Hebrew script), and below it one of four city names: Sochoh, Hebron, Zif and "Mmsht" (which has never been found). Similar handles have been found throughout all of ancient Judah.

A "lmlk" seal impression. Photo by: Wikimedia Commons

Some handles also had personal seals with names of individuals. One such found at Tel Burna bears the name l’Azar Haggai. The very same name had been found on seals in the nearby site Azekah, and at Gezer, though the design of the seal found at Burna is different.

Archaeologists think the marking on the handles may have been affiliated with some sort of a Judahite administrative system.

The rest of the pottery assemblage is similar to that of the Judahite city of Lachish in that period, which is typical of the identifying pottery of Judah, says Shai. (Lachish Level III pottery is used to date the 8th century BCE because this type of pottery was sealed under a destruction level caused by the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s campaign into Judah in 701BCE.)

Thus all the significant Iron Age finds at the site point to the town being a Judahite stronghold.

Ritual sacrifice - or canteen center

Among the finds in the building were burned animal bones were among the finds in the building . Could they be from animal sacrifice to the gods? Or do they just show where the family cook made lamb stew?

“At this point it’s hard to say whether it was a public place, a patrician's house or a temple," Shai says. Hopefully future excavations will shed light on the buildings' original purpose.

Ultimately the main articles of interest in Tel Burna are not ‘cultic’ items which probably existed in most households at that time, but the town’s various incarnations over the centuries, its location on the border of two giants of the Iron Age, Gath and Lachish, and the weirdly out-of-place imports from Cyprus. And the small window it opens into the past of ancient Judah and its people.

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