Canaanites of Hazor Risked Farming Dainty Sheep, While Neighbors Stuck to Goats

The ancient Hazorites created a unique wool business 3,700 years ago, while all the other great powers of the ancient Middle East continued to rely on the hardy goat, which tended not to flop over and die.

Tel Hazor
Yovel Gesser

The ancient city of Hazor in the Galilee seems to have muscled its way to fame and fortune partly by developing a unique business in farming sheep, instead of goats like everyone else in Canaan 3,700 years ago. 

Trading in fine, rare wool textiles may have helped boost the Canaanite-era city-state to great power, only to ultimately collapse — either at the hands of Joshua, as the Bible tells it, or because of growing inequality, resulting in starving commoners possibly being the ones who burned down the palaces of the elite.

The discovery that the Hazorites cultivated sheep rather than goats, and made an industry out of it, is based on analysis of animal bones by Dr. Nimrod Marom of Tel-Hai Academic College, in the Upper Galilee. The town has been under excavation since the 1990s, including by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

It takes a niche to be rich

The people of ancient Hazor did not discover sheep. Ovines were among the earliest ungulates to be domesticated, in Anatolia, around 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, shortly after the domestication of goats

Domesticated sheep have been in Israel 8,500 years or more. That isn’t the issue. “The issue here is specializing in sheep, which is unusual,” Marom observes.

Why was it unusual?  Because sheep are risky business. Your average Canaanite farmer would hardly have chosen to risk his family starving by perversely choosing to cultivate the relatively frail, slow-breeding sheep, with their propensity to stupidity, illness and death, rather than the frisky, versatile goat. And that is why, Marom explains, the peoples of the region relied on goat husbandry. 

Horn of a fallow deer that had been eaten around 3,700 years ago in the Canaanite city of Hazor.
Shlomit Bechar

The mere fact that the people of Hazor made this monumental, high-risk shift to farming the ovine could be indicative of an economy and culture structure strong enough to enable the risk.

“They would have needed the basic power to force the conservative rural culture, which is thinking about tomorrow’s meal, to specialize in a product that may be commercially advantageous, but is less good for the individual farmer,” Marom speculates, adding that they didn’t have crop insurance back then. So the Hazorites must have been highly motivated to make the switch, and he believes the reason is economic.

Hazor waxes rich, for some

Hazor (alternatively spelled Hatzor) was one of the biggest, richest polities in Bronze Age Israel, going by its fortifications. It was the southernmost of a group of city-states mostly in today’s Syria.

The kingdom’s might is attested by the Book of Joshua, which says about it, among other things:

And Joshua at that time turned back, and took Hazor, and smote the king thereof with the sword: for Hazor beforetime was the head of all those kingdoms.” (Joshua 11:10)

There is ex-biblical testimony to the might of Hazor, too. Multiple documents from ancient Egypt and Syria mention it in the context of a key city/kingdom. Ruling a large area, Hazor would have collected taxes from the local inhabitants, and it had a wealth of pagan temples throughout the city where, among other things, sheep were sacrificed.

Sheep bones found at Hazor from 3700 years ago
Dr. Nimrod Marom

Though ancient textiles from thousands of years ago have been found in places such as King Solomon’s Mines in Timna, no surviving remnant of Hazor wool has been found, Marom acknowledges. Nor have any workshops where sheep were sheared or where their wool might have been spun been found. 

What have been found in Hazor are clay tablets written in Akkadian, recording among other things trade in textiles with city-states in Syria (as well as a rich Hammurabi-type body of law, featuring rules governing body parts and damages, including things like 'an eye for an eye' as mentioned in Exodus).

“We do have evidence from the world of material culture, from which we can conclude that there was a serious economic system behind these records,” Marom tells Haaretz.

The tablets attest to massive exports of textile products from Hazor: “Meaning, Hazor textiles were considered a name brand,” Marom says, but acknowledges that the reference is vague, not indicating the animal of origin. 

Which begs the question of how we know the textiles were made of sheep’s wool, as opposed to anything else. The answer is that the Hazorites couldn’t have commanded that kind of price for goat hair coats, apparently, not that they had money back then, Marom points out.

Feasting on high, bone soup for the poor

Marom’s bone analysis may also shed fresh light on the kingdom of Hazor’s first collapse, in the late Canaanite period, around 1,250 B.C.E. 

Earlier findings led Amnon Ben-Tor and Sharon Zuckerman, archaeologists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to reach the conclusion that the city suffered from growing inequality — evident in increasing disparities in meat consumption between nobles in the upper city, where the royal palace and main temples were located, and commoners in the lower city. While the former lived high on the sheep, so to speak, the latter may have been starving.

“While there was feasting in the upper city, the consumption of meat in the lower city underwent a marked change for the worse: in the lower city we found fewer and fewer large prey animals such as gazelles and fallow deer, and more and more emphasis placed on extracting brain and bone marrow, attesting to cooking habits of poverty, that  squeezed the most caloric value possible from animal sources,” says Marom. 

“As a person, if I can eat meat, I eat the meat and throw out the bone,” he elaborates. And while there is little evidence that the nobles crushed and boiled bones to extract fat and nutrients, findings show the people in the lower city increasingly did, he says.

Prof. Douglas Petrovich of the Bible Seminary in Katy, Texas, takes issue with the  interpretation of biblical-era class war, calling the theory implausible. If the peasants had revolted, overthrown the elite and fled, he says, we wouldn't be finding the material remains that we do find. He notes the discovery of a potter's shop with extensive amounts of wares: "Why would this struggling potter leave his wares behind if he had fled the city? That makes no sense whatsoever.

Also, the discovery a few years ago (in the upper city) of large storage jars with grain in them makes no sense whatsoever if there was a peasants' revolt," Petrovich says. They would hardly put their own food supply to the torch.

Massive conflagration

The conclusions from the bone analyses fit with other changes observed in Canaanite Hazor on the eve of its final destruction in 1250 B.C.E.

In 2012, archaeologists found evidence of a massive conflagration in the city in around 1250 B.C.E., that baked the palace bricks rock-hard, burned wheat grains in huge jars in the palace and melted ceramic vessels. 

Was Joshua responsible, as the biblical narrative tells it, or nomadic tribes as Ben-Tor postulated, or did the starving poor rise up against the high-living elite, as Zuckerman suggested? She noted that the fire seems to have been confined to the wealthy neighborhood, apparently sparing the homes of the poor down below. 

Petrovich argues the case for Joshua, calling an Israelite conquest the only plausible option. He notes the discovery of "ritually broken" basaltic cultic vessels from the Canaanite temple, which pagans would have feared to do, lest they bring down the wrath of the gods, while that is exactly what the Israelites would have done.

Either way, centuries later, the Israelites would take over the town, in the ninth century B.C.E., and was reportedly built up further by King Solomon. (The dates of certain discoveries, including a many-chambered city gate, are controversial.) 

To be accurate, it seems that Hazor was burned down time and again. There are destruction layers other than the one from the Canaanite and Israelite eras, Marom observes. This was one dynamic city. But after thousands of years of existence, in 732 B.C.E. Hazor was overrun by the Assyrians as they swept over northern Israel, any survivors were expelled and the city was burned to the ground, once and for all.