3,200-year-old Pagan Ritual Hall Found in Israel, Archaeologists Confirm

Rare masks, cultic tableware, a massebah and figurines bolster the theory of pagan worship at Tel Burna over three millennia ago, says excavator

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The massebah found at Tel Burna: Picture shows an excavator on the left and a massebah, a standing stone that could have been placed there for ritual or memorial purposes, archaeologists postulate.
Credit: The Tel Burna Archaeological Project
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom

The discovery of masks and more cultic vessels has bolstered confidence that ritual activity was taking place 3,200 years ago at Libnah, a Canaanite city that would become Judahite in the biblical era.

Previously the archaeologists had been uncertain as to whether they had found a cultic site featuring ritual feasting, or simply a house sporting cultic objets d'art. The excavators exploring Tel Burna are not saying they necessarily found a temple per se. But they are now confident: Canaanite ritual festivities happened here.

The city's excavation began in 2009, which is when Dr. Itzhaq Shai of Ariel University and his team discovered a courtyard inside a sturdily constructed, spacious building, 15.8 meters long, built directly upon bedrock. At that point, they could not say what it purpose the building served.

Since then, accruing indications of pagan cultic activity at the spot have included a massebah (a pillar made of stone, associated with worship or memorial activity) found this year, representing a deity or a cultic object; cultic vessels such as goblets and chalices; figurines; zoomorphic vessels, and two ceramic masks.

“The fact that we have a massebah and a concentration of cultic vessels clearly indicates that the activity within this courtyard was not daily life, but ritual practice," says Shai.

That represents an evolution in his position: previously he had cautioned against leaping to conclusions, noting that "not every ancient site sporting a war god or female figurine is a temple to Baal or Anat." Indeed, no representatives of deities have been found, at least yet.

Meanwhile, among the intriguing discoveries this year were three rare, small vessels of Cypriot origin. Residue analysis revealed that each had contained a different kind of oil. The vessels were probably used for ritual libation.

Telltale giant jars and charred bones

In addition, two gigantic pithoi imported from Cyprus, each with a capacity of 200 liters, were discovered along with charred bones of young sheep, goats and pigs.

The presence of imported giant pithoi in and of itself is indicative that Libnah was an important site of worship to the Canaanites in the 13th century B.C.E., Shai explains.

For one thing, the shape and decoration of the pithoi, augmented by analysis of the clay, indicate that the pottery was not made locally.

For another, even empty, each pithoi is very heavy, Shai points out. Libnah was an inland city, not a port, i.e., it had to be important enough for somebody to lug these monster jars from a port inland to the city.

"Since the pithoi were discovered in the same context as the cultic vessels, we assume these were also part of this activity," Shai concludes.

As for ritual feasting at the site, it can be difficult to reconstruct the practice in the Mediterranean over three millennia ago, but ancient texts and other objects discovered in and around the Levant shed light on such pagan worship.

In the case of Tel Burna specifically, the chalices and cup-and-saucer vessels may indicate the use of incense and aromatic paraphernalia, Shai suggests.

The votive vessels and figurines are clearer indications of pagan worship involving offerings. The masks could indicate the starting or ending point (or both) of religious processions, or the presentation of a religious icon, such as a deity, Shai suggests.

(Masks seem to have been used ritualistically in the region going back over 9,000 years. Ones dating from the Late Bronze Age are rare and have usually been discovered in cultic contexts, Shai adds.)

Professor Philipp Stockhammer of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich views the discovery as an opportunity to gain insight into Canaanite rituals, but cautions that the Burna evidence is still barely understood, and more fieldwork need to be done.

“Most of the vessels were found directly on the bedrock, and it is difficult to interpret their relation to the nearby walls. All that I can say at the moment is that Burna seems to have a unique concentration of foreign-related objects used together in the framework of hardly understood offering/ritual practices, and we definitely need to continue the fieldwork there in order to better understand the evidence in Burna and Canaanite ritual practices more general,” Stockhammer says.

City of war and wine

Back in the late Bronze Age, Libnah was a major Canaanite city, home to several thousand people. Its first inhabitants seem to have made their living making and selling wine and olive oil, based on botanical remains, wine presses and agricultural installations.

During the late Iron Age, the city came under Judahite control and expanded (Joshua 10:29-32): "Then Joshua and all Israel with him moved on from Makkedah to Libnah and attacked it. The Lord also gave that city and its king into Israel’s hand. The city and everyone in it Joshua put to the sword. He left no survivors there" Joshua 12 then brings a laundry list of kings defeated by the Israelites, including the king of Libnah.

Archaeological evidence of the Judahic period is categorical: Archaeologists have found pottery jars with the unique jar handles associated with the Judahic monarchs.

The Judahic-era jar handles were stamped either with the Hebrew letters LMLK, loosely translated as "belonging to the King [of Judah]", or with rosettes. These jars were produced exclusively between the late 8th to the 2nd century B.C.E., meaning throughout 600 years. (Part of that time was the reign of King Hezekiah.)

The archaeologists have also exposed fortification walls dating to the period of the Judahite kingdom. The walls were casemates: thin parallel walls with empty space between them that could theoretically be filled with dirt and rocks to create thick city walls when an enemy approached.

During the Judahic period, farming also ramped up, as shown by the presence of barley and figs, and linseed that may have been used in textile production. Nonetheless, grape cultivation seems to have remained the city's main source of income.

Gath fomenting rebellion?

When exactly Tell Burna morphed from a Canaanite city into a Judahite one is not clear. It might have been in the early Iron Age, but there is simply no clear evidence.

Tel Burna was situated strategically between the Philistine city of Gath and the Judahite city of Lachish.

According to Kings 8:22, the ruler of the Judahite city of Libnah rebelled against Jerusalem. There is no hard evidence to support this contention, but theoretically a rebellion could have been supported by Gath, which was the main political entity in the Shephelah region during the early Iron Age II (10th-9th centuries B.C.E.)

“I agree that during most of the Iron Age, the site was probably part of the Judahite kingdom," says Prof. Aren Maeir, director of the excavations at Gath. But nothing has been found yet that could shed light on the nature of relations between the two cities.

That Libnah suffered an evil fate was revealed in the 2017 summer season. the excavators uncovered a destruction layer outside the fortification walls.

The destruction debris contained smashed vessels and carbonized material, on which the archaeologists might be able to conduct accurate C-14 dating.

Based on the ceramic remains, the excavators believe the city was destroyed in the early days of the Judahite Kingdom, that is, the 10th century B.C.E. what is traditionally ascribed to the Solomonic era) accurate assessment remains pending.



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