The study of four donkeys found buried under the houses of Canaanite merchants in the ancient city of Gath is giving archaeologists new clues about early international trade between ancient Egypt, Canaan and Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. For one thing, the ancient traders used donkeys, not other beasts of burden. For another, they controlled the donkeys with bits, the archaeologists deduce. That had been completely unexpected, they report Thursday in PLOS ONE.
Perhaps after their usefulness had been exhausted, or not, the Canaanites of Gath sacrificed their donkeys and buried them in shallow graves under the floors of their houses.
It was common practice throughout the Levant to bury a sacrifice beneath or by the house foundations, including in some cases human sacrifices. The donkeys may have been a twist on that cultic habit, which was designed to propitiate the gods and protect the homes of Gath, an ancient Canaanite city located in southern Israel.
"It is quite astounding that someone would live in a house where a donkey was buried in a shallow pit underneath - it probably stunk to high hell, but antiquity stunk apparently," jokes Aren Maeir, an archaeologist from Bar-Ilan University who leads the dig at the site known today as Tell es-Safi – which was Gath.
The fact that the donkeys, dated to around 2,700 B.C.E., were chosen to invoke the protection of the gods for the traders living in Gath is a sign of the animal's importance in their daily lives, Maeir tells Haaretz.
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Horses, domesticated in Central Asia, only reached Canaan at the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E., while camels, so often associated with biblical imagery, were introduced to the Levant much later, in the early Iron Age.
The age of the finds was confirmed by carbon-dating other organic material found in the same strata as the skeletons, the archaeologist says.
"So during the Early Bronze Age, the donkey served as the most important beast of burden, to transport goods, and perhaps for people to ride," Maeir explains. "When something is important in daily life, it becomes important in cult."
It bears adding that donkeys as "foundation sacrifices" are also known from other early Bronze Age sites in the region.
No donkey sacrifice is associated with the later Jews, who held the animal to be ritually unclean anyway.
The donkeys of Gath were uncovered a decade ago but only over the last three years has an international team of archaeologists been able to closely study the finds, he said.
The new study focused on the strange marks that had been noticed on the teeth of one of the skeletons.
The analysis confirmed that the marks were consistent with the wear caused by a soft bit, likely made from rope or wood, which would have been used to control the animal, a statement from Bar Ilan University said.
This surprised the archaeologists, who so far had thought that bits were introduced to the Levant only a thousand years later, in the Middle Bronze Age, after 2000 B.C.E., together with horses. Before then, it was assumed that the donkeys would be directed using a nose ring, as depicted in Mesopotamian art, Maeir said. He adds that bits are a more sophisticated and precise method of controlling an animal.
We also know from a previous analysis of dental isotopes that this particular donkey was born in Egypt and was only imported to Gath in the last months of its life. Separate research found that the early Gathites also imported sheep and goats from the Nile Valley.
Canaanites before Philistines
Gath is better known as one the five city-states of the Philistines, described in the Bible as the hometown of Goliath, the giant nemesis of the Israelites felled by David. But in fact the site was the site of a prosperous Canaanite settlement thousands of years before the Philistines showed up in the Levant during the 12th century B.C.E.
Put together, the discoveries on the Bronze Age donkeys of Gath show that these animals travelled far and wide in the Middle East as part of a well-organized trade network.
"The Early Bronze Age is the first urban period in the region. It is the time of the pyramids in Egypt and the Mesopotamian civilization," Maeir says. "One of the many facets of this period was international trade, which we already knew was conducted in convoys that included donkeys. These discoveries show us that this trade using pack animals was much more sophisticated than we thought."