It is a truth universally acknowledged that researchers rarely miss an opportunity to pooh-pooh their colleagues’ theories – and that is evidently even truer when actual feces may be involved.
A few years ago, archaeologists digging at Lachish, an ancient settlement in today’s southern Israel, announced the discovery of a small shrine nestled in the city’s monumental gate complex. The shrine had been defiled by the installation of a stone toilet seat and was then sealed, the archaeologists deduced.
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The discoverers, who reported their find and interpretation in 2016, linked the 8th century B.C.E. find to the biblical stories about King Hezekiah, the Judahite monarch said to have led a religious reform to stamp out idolatrous cults and centralize worship at the Temple in Jerusalem.
In recent months, a slew of studies has been published in academic journals, some defending the original interpretation of the so-called Lachish gate shrine and some challenging it.
For some scholars, the site was indeed a small temple but it was never desecrated because the enigmatic perforated stone block found there was not a toilet seat. Other experts entirely dismiss the idea that the gatehouse room was used as a shrine and suggest its function was entirely secular, perhaps connected to water management.
Behind this somewhat technical dispute lies the much broader debate on how much of the Bible is a true story and whether archaeologists in Israel are sometimes too keen to interpret their finds as evidence of the holy text’s historicity.
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Lachish was once one of the most important cities in the Kingdom of Judah. Located 50 kilometers southwest of the capital, Jerusalem, it was the main settlement of the Shephelah, the hilly lowlands that were the kingdom’s breadbasket. This importance was reflected in the magnificence of Lachish’s entrance, a towering six-chambered gate, which was one the hallmarks of royal architecture in the First Temple Period.
The gate, along with the rest of the city, was destroyed in 701 B.C.E., when the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, invaded Judah to put down a region-wide revolt led by Hezekiah.
Gates were common spots for religious activity throughout the ancient Levant: travelers would often make an offering and pray for protection before leaving the safety of the city walls, or give thanks upon returning. Places of worship have been found at ancient gates across the region, from Khirbet Qeiyafa, which is near Lachish, to Bethsaida and Tel Dan in the north, archaeologists note.
Back in 2016, an expedition by the Israel Antiquities Authority excavated the three southern chambers of the gate to Lachish. The innermost of these contained some puzzling finds. It appeared to have been divided into two spaces: an outer and an inner room.
This smaller space housed a niche in the back wall as well as an installation made of large stone blocks, which the archaeologists interpreted as two horned altars – a sort of double altar – the one next to the other.
Horns on the corners of altars were typical of ancient Israelite shrines, but in this case there was only one protuberance that could be said to resemble such a feature. The other seven corners of the two purported altars appeared to have been struck with a blunt object, possibly to eliminate the horns, say lead researchers Saar Ganor, the IAA’s chief archaeologist for the Ashkelon region, and Igor Kreimerman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The final surprise was the discovery, in a corner of this inner chamber, of a pit that housed a large stone, fashioned in the shape of a seat with a hole in the middle.
In the outer part of the chamber the archaeologists also found a layer of destruction, including broken pottery and arrowheads, which dated to the Assyrian attack. But no such signs of violence were found in the inner room, which the archaeologists believe had been sealed before Sennacherib’s onslaught.
All the evidence suggested that this chamber initially functioned as a shrine, with the inner space that housed the altar and niche serving as a diminutive holy of holies, Ganor and Kreimerman concluded.
If you are wondering which deity was worshipped there, we do not know. Archaeological evidence has shown that the ancient Israelites had a main deity, Yahweh, the God of the Bible, but also believed in other gods. One of these other deities, Asherah, was thought to be Yahweh’s wife.
Although we can never be sure, the presence of the double altars at Lachish may suggest that this shrine was dedicated to this divine couple who sat at the top of the ancient Israelite pantheon.
And what about the apparent damage to the double altar, the strange stone seat with the central hole, and the sealing of the holy of holies?
These were all elements that could be linked to the reforms of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4), who, like other righteous kings, is described as breaking altars and idolatrous images while focusing the cult of the God of Israel at the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Bible states that Hezekiah didn’t just crack down on polytheistic cults, especially Asherah’s, but also removed altars that were dedicated to Yahweh himself, stating that the God of Israel must only be worshipped at the Temple (2 Kings 18:22). So the shrine at Lachish, even if it was solely dedicated to Yahweh, would have been a prime target of this reform.
Removing the horns from the altar was a typical method to deface such an artifact, as described also in the Bible (Amos 3:14), Ganor and Kreimerman reasoned. As for the perforated stone seat, based on similar objects from the same period that were found in Jerusalem, they interpreted it as a toilet seat and suggested it had been installed in the shrine to defile it.
This custom is also documented in the Bible in connection to a campaign against the cult of Baal led by King Jehu, who reigned over Judah’s neighbor, the northern Kingdom of Israel, about a century before Hezekiah’s time. As part of Jehu’s monotheistic reforms, the king’s officials “demolished the sacred stone of Baal and tore down the temple of Baal, and people have used it for a latrine to this day.” (2 Kings 10:27).
The feces-slinging begins
If Ganor and Kreimerman’s theory is correct, the Lachish shrine would be a rare piece of evidence confirming one of the many cultic reforms mentioned in the Bible.
There are several such campaigns ascribed to kings of Israel and Judah – from Jehu to Hezekiah to his successor Josiah – but so far the only archaeological proof unearthed relates to Hezekiah’s reform. An altar at a shrine in Be’er Sheva was apparently dismantled in this king’s time and some scholars believe the temple in Arad was also closed during his reign.
The Lachish shrine would thus considerably add to this small body of proof attesting to Hezekiah’s religious zeal.
Not so fast, say other scholars. This reading of the site is “unacceptable,” according to David Ussishkin, a retired archaeology professor from Tel Aviv University, who last month published his own analysis in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research.
The space excavated by Ganor and Kreimerman cannot be linked to Hezekiah’s reforms because there is no evidence that it was used as a shrine, says Ussishkin. The archaeologist is intimately acquainted with Lachish, since he led a dig there in the 1970s, uncovering the three northern chambers of the gate, which are symmetrical to those that were more recently explored.
In his view, the supposed eight-horned double altar shows no signs of damage from iconoclastic fury – in fact it is not an altar at all, but simply a partition made of roughly dressed stones covered in plaster.
“The whole link to Hezekiah’s reform depends on this being a shrine,” Ussishkin tells Haaretz. “If there are no altars, there is no shrine.”
He does not offer a specific interpretation of the mysterious stone seat, but notes that the symmetrical chamber that he excavated in the northern part of the gate also had similar partitions and contained a large stone, albeit one with a deep depression rather than a complete perforation. Ussishkin believes that the two gate chambers were not shrines and may have been used for storage or some purpose connected to water management.
Speaking to Haaretz, Ganor and Kreimerman reject Ussishkin’s conclusions about the altar.
“In every corner there are signs that the horns were cut off,” Ganor says. “I think Ussishkin didn’t look at the pictures carefully enough.”
Leaving aside the controversy over the contested double altar, there is still much evidence that the recently discovered room was used as a shrine, Kreimerman maintains. The niche on the back wall was typical of places of worship, likely housing a standing stone or other sacred object, and the excavators uncovered dozens of ceramic bowls and oil lamps in the chamber – a pottery assemblage that also points to cultic activities, he says.
Another study, representing a midway view between that of Ussishkin and his colleagues, was published last year by Sabine Kleiman in the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.
Kleiman, a researcher at Tubingen University, accepts that the space was indeed a shrine, but does not see evidence that it went out of use before the Assyrian attack or that it was defiled by a toilet.
Several similar perforated stone seats have been found in Jerusalem, but their identification as latrine seats is not necessarily clear, Kleiman writes. In one case, traces of fecal material in the sediments below such an artifact did suggest it was a latrine, she says, but another, similar stone was found surrounded by cultic objects and most probably had a very different function.
Since the sediments in the pit under the stone from Lachish also tested negative for fecal residues, it is possible that here too the artifact was not connected to bodily functions, but was part of the cultic activity of the shrine, perhaps serving to pour a sacred offering of oil or other liquids, Kleiman suggests.
Ganor and Kreimerman reject this hypothesis as well. “Look at the picture and tell me that it’s not a toilet,” Ganor tells Haaretz. “We are happy that there is a debate because that’s what pushes research forward, but for now we stand by our conclusions.”
The lack of human leavings under the stone artifact merely suggests that the toilet was installed purely for symbolic purposes and was never actually used, Kreimerman adds. The closure of the shrine was probably imposed by officials sent from Jerusalem and the local inhabitants would have frowned upon doing their business in a place they had considered sacred for so long, he says.
Perhaps, when the Assyrians showed up a few years later and destroyed the town, some of the locals “thought this was happening because that fanatic Hezekiah had defiled their shrine,” jokes Yossi Garfinkel, a professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University. Garfinkel last month published a study arguing in support of Ganor’s and Kreimerman’s interpretation of the site in Strata, the journal of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society.
Besides academic one-upmanship, the fierce debate is very much about the connection between archaeology and the Bible, and the loaded question of whether the holy text is entirely mythological or not, Garfinkel says.
The Lachish gate shrine doesn’t signal that the Bible should be taken literally, that the story of Jehu’s toilet-aided desecration of the temple of Baal is history or that all the details of Hezekiah’s reforms are accurate, he opines. It does however show that, at the very least, the text correctly reflects the religious beliefs and customs of its time, in this case on what made a place holy, and what one needed to do to make it unholy, he says.
“The Bible is not a history book,” Grafinkel concludes. “But this discovery shows us that in the biblical narrative there are echoes of history.”