The ancient Canaanites living in Gath some 5,000 years ago weren't sacrificing their own livestock to appease the gods. They were importing animals from ancient Egypt, archaeologists have now proven.
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A donkey, as well as some sheep and goats whose remains were found in Early Bronze Age layers at Gath dating to 4900 years ago turn out to have been born and bred in the Nile valley.The discovery at the archaeological site of Tell el-Safi shows that animals were part of the extensive trading relations between the Old Kingdom of Egypt and Early Bronze Age Canaan (circa 2900-2500 BCE).
“That there were trade connections between Egypt and Canaan in the Early Bronze Age is not new. The fact that animals were a part of the trade - and that they went from Egypt to Canaan - is very interesting,” Aren Maeir, head of the excavations in Gath, told Haaretz.
Until now, trade in animals themselves had been known only from later periods (the Middle Bronze Age), and usually it went in the other direction – from Canaan to Egypt. This is the first concrete evidence of Canaanites importing Egyptian animals, let alone that early.
It bears adding that evidence of animal sacrifice, on the other hand, was anything but rare: vast amounts of sacrificial animal remains, also dating from 5,000 years ago, had been found at Megiddo.
Jawbone of a donkey
In Gath, one of the sacrificial animals, a complete donkey, was found beneath the foundations of a building.
“It appears that the donkey was a 'foundation deposit' placed before the building of a residential house. Similar deposits and/or ritual sacrifices of donkeys are known from other Early Bronze sites in Israel, and from various Ancient Near Eastern sources (including the bible)," says Maeir.
(It bears adding that ancient Jews – who apparently did not exist 5,000 years ago as a distinct people, but came later – did not sacrifice asses, on the grounds that they were unclean animals prohibited for consumption anyway.)
The specific animal, after being killed, had its head was tied to the body, and was then it was placed in a pit.
The origin of the donkey was ascertained by isotopic analysis of its teeth, which enables comparison of trace elements in bones without destroying them. The results clearly showed that the sacrificial ass had not been born and raised locally at Gath, but was imported and lived in the Canaanite city only briefly before its death.
Four goats and a sheep also found in the Early Bronze age layer at Gath were analyzed and were shown to have also been born and bred in the Nile valley.
Why these animals were brought from Egypt to Gath is anybody’s guess. “The why is not clear. We do know that the donkey was originally domesticated in North Africa a few centuries before, so perhaps Egypt was still a major source of donkeys in general,” Maeir speculates, and adds, “We have evidence of objects of various origins (Egypt, various parts of Israel and the southern Levant). As the site is one of the largest in the region at the time, we assume that the city had an important role in trade between the various city states at the time - just as it did in later periods, during the Iron Age I-II, for example.”
Also, he points out, donkeys played an important social and symbolic role in the Ancient Near East.
The real ships of the desert
Donkeys were domesticated in North Africa sometime in the late 5th or early 4th millennium BCE. In the Early Bronze Age, donkeys were used to pull caravans in the land trade between Egypt and Israel, and in Mesopotamia too. (Camels first appeared in Middle East from Asia, and began to ply the desert trading routes, in the middle of the Iron Age, in around 900 BCE).
The importance the donkeys were ascribed in the Early Bronze Age economy of Gath is attested by several donkey burials and donkey related-objects that have been found.
“Donkeys were considered an important animal in the Ancient Near East. In fact, a donkey was a status symbol in many cases - very different from its image today,” Maeir told Haaretz.
While donkeys are usually thought about in economic terms, they also had other important aspects - such as religious symbolic significance.
While it is true that Israelites as such (who developed as a people somewhat later) did not sacrifice asses on the grounds that they were unclean, in pre-Judaic times, asses were very much led to the altar (Exodus 13:13).
In fact, asses were hailed and sacrificed to the gods throughout the Near East. In Middle Bronze Age Mari texts, donkeys are sacrificed as part of the signing of treaties. In Late Bronze Age Ugarit, 70 asses were dispatched as part of the god Baal's funeral.
In Egypt, the ass is one of the symbols of the god Seth, the god of Chaos. In the Old Testament, the son of the founding father of the city Shechem is named hamor, which means donkey in Hebrew (Gen. 33:18-43:31). Moreover, a donkey is given the power to talk by god in the story of Balaam (Num. 22). The donkey has fallen a long way since being an object of veneration all those thousands of years ago.
Excavations at Gath will continue this summer, focusing on the lower city and the area of the gate discovered last year.
This collaboration by a team from Grand Valley State University, Michigan, the University of Connecticut, University of Manitoba, Ariel University and Bar-Ilan University was funded by a grant to Haskel Greenfield and Aren Maeir, by the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council.