2,200-Year-Old Duck-Shaped Shovel Unearthed in Ancient Galilee

Clue to dating the arrival of the first Jewish inhabitants in ancient Galilee?

Update, January 4, 2016: This Bible History Daily story has been updated with additional information on Galilee during the Hellenistic period from Khirbet el-Eika dig director Uzi Leibner.—Ed.


The handle of the 2,200-year-old incense shovel in the shape of the head and neck of a duck from the ancient Galilee site of Khirbet el-Eika. Photo: Courtesy Uzi Leibner, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; photo by Tal Rogovski.

A 2,200-year-old bronze incense shovel whose handle is shaped like the head and neck of a duck was discovered during excavations just west of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, according to a recent report by Ilan Ben Zion of The Times of Israel. The excavations were conducted at the ancient Galilee site of Khirbet el-Eika by a team of archaeologists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A study of Khirbet el-Eika’s inhabitants, who owned the shovel in the Hellenistic period, may provide evidence of how and when Jews first occupied ancient Galilee.

The shovel was discovered at the archaeological site of Khirbet el-Eika, located on the route that runs west from the Sea of Galilee (4.3 miles away) and then through the Galilee to the Mediterranean (about 25 miles away) and was built on a hill above the Arbel Valley. The fortified site is unusual in that it was occupied only during the Hellenistic period.

The settlement lasted only until about 140 B.C., when it was destroyed. It may have been destroyed in an attack by the Hasmonean rulers of Judea seeking to impose Judaism on the population at that time, or perhaps as a result of some other event. The Hasmoneans had come to power after rebelling against the Seleucid king Antiochus IV in 167 B.C. in protest against his actions in banning Judaism and forcing the population to follow Greek religious practices.

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The shovel was found in the remains of what was apparently a public building, and nearby the Hebrew University archaeologists found a storeroom packed with massive ceramic Aegean-style wine amphorae. Used for long-distance shipping of wine, each amphora weighed about 65 pounds and bore markings showing that they were from Rhodes or Kos.

The Hellenistic-period incense shovel in situ at Khirbet el-Eika. Photo: Courtesy Uzi Leibner, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; photo by Tal Rogovski.

The Hellenistic-period incense shovel in situ at Khirbet el-Eika. Photo: Courtesy Uzi Leibner, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; photo by Tal Rogovski.

As mentioned above, according to Ben Zion, the owners of the shovel may help answer the question of how and when Judeans or Jews first inhabited ancient Galilee.

It is not an easy question. “Archaeologically, it’s very hard to tell who’s a Jew in the third or second century B.C.,” excavation director Uzi Leibner explained to The Times of Israel, because the later indicators like mikvaot (Jewish ritual baths) and certain ritual objects were not present at that time.

The heart of Khirbet el-Eika’s research goals is explained on the project’s excavation page: “While we have ample evidence for a dense Jewish population in the region in the Early Roman period, we do not know if and how this population relates to that of the Hellenistic period.”

We know that during the period after Khirbet el-Eika’s destruction, there was a large Jewish population in the Galilee. This was so by the late Second Temple period and during the Roman Period and beyond. Afterward, the Galilee was the center of Jewish life, culture and literature of the Roman province for centuries.

Khirbet el-Eika’s dig director, Uzi Leibner, provided a brief history of Hellenistic Galilee as well as the current scholarship on the subject in an email to Bible History Daily:

One of the main objectives of the Hebrew University expedition to Khirbet el-Eika is to try and shed light on the question of the ethnic and religious identity of the population of the Galilee in the Hellenistic period.

At the end of the eighth century B.C., the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, and the inhabitants of the Galilee were sent into exile [2 Kings 15:29]. The archaeological data, gathered in the last decades, indicated that indeed, much of the Galilee was depopulated after this event. From then, and up to the Hasmonean Revolt in the mid-second century B.C., we have almost no sources regarding the Galilee, and we know almost nothing about its inhabitants, their ethnic identity, their religion, or language. After the outbreak of the Hasmonean Revolt (167 B.C.), messengers from the Galilee arrived at Jerusalem and reported: “They gathered against us, from Ptolemais and Tyre and Sidon, the entire Galilee of gentiles, to destroy us” [1 Maccabees 5:15]. Simon the Maccabee headed to the Galilee, rescued the Jews, and brought them back with him to Jerusalem.

We do not know from where or when these Jews arrived in Galilee, but the source seems to indicate they were a small minority. Also after this episode, our information is scant until the days of Herod the Great (late first century B.C.), for which we have ample evidence indicating that the Galilee was densely settled, mainly by Jews. However, the origin of this Jewish population is an enigma. This question is particularly important for understanding the ethnic and cultural background against which early Christianity developed in Early Roman Galilee.

Indeed, the ethnic identity of the Galilean population prior to the Roman period has been a subject of interest since the initial quest for the historical Jesus in the 19th century. The absence of historical sources has resulted in various contradictory answers to this question. Emil Schürer, the famous 19th century German historian, claimed that the Jews of Galilee were descended from the Arab tribe of the Itureans and were forced to convert to Judaism by the Hasmonean dynasty. Other scholars, such as Albrecht Alt, claimed that the Jews of Galilee were descended from remnants of the ancient Israelite Kingdom that did not go into exile. Richard Horsley developed this suggestion into a complex theory, claiming that the culture and religion of these “Israelites” were very different from those of their counterparts in Judea, which developed independently around the Jerusalem Temple. Samuel Klein was in the opinion that Jews arrived in Galilee during their return from the Babylonian exile in the fifth century B.C., and Bezalel Bar-Kochva suggested they arrived from Judea, after the Hasmonean kings conquered the Galilee. Others still, such as Menachem Stern and Uriel Rappaport, held a combined view, claiming that some of these Jews were descended from the ancient Israelite Kingdom, others were converts and others still were Jews who arrived from Judea after the Hasmonean conquests.

The nearly complete absence of historical sources leads one to seek answers to these questions in the archaeological data. Unfortunately, however, the archaeological data from the interior of the Galilee are also scarce, comprising mainly of sparse finds from beneath massive Roman and Byzantine layers. In fact, the only substantial data used today to study Hellenistic Galilee come from sites outside the region or on it borders, such as Beth Shean to the south, Akko to the west, and Tel Kedesh and Tel Anafa to the north—the latter belonging to the Phoenician realm. As a result, much remains unclear about key matters, such as the ethnic makeup, the material culture or the settlement patterns of Hellenistic Galilee. The excavations at Khirbet el-Eika are meant to fill this gap and are part of a wider research entitled the Hellenistic Galilee Project.

The goals of the project are to study the material culture, the settlement patterns and the ethnic makeup of Hellenistic Galilee by excavating one key site and surveying dozens of other Hellenistic-period sites across the Galilee, from the Mediterranean coast on the west to the Sea of Galilee in the east. The mid-second century B.C. destruction at Khirbet el-Eika brought about the end of its settlement, and the rich assemblages of artifacts found in the destruction layer provide an unparalleled window into the material culture of this period in the region.


Learn about an important Roman pottery production center in Jewish Galilee >>

According to Uzi Leibner, the duck-shaped shovel from Khirbet el-Eika, which is of a “Greco-Roman” design, suggests that the town’s population was pagan and not Jewish. “It may be some sort of a cultic object,” Leibner told The Times of Israel, but further research is needed.

Incense shovels were used in antiquity to move hot coals for burning incense. In the Bible, “firepans … of bronze” were used to bring coals and burning incense to the four-horned altar of the desert tabernacle (Exodus 27:3). While incense shovels were used in cultic settings, they have also been found in burials and domestic contexts, suggesting that they could serve a funerary or utilitarian purpose as well.


The wine amphorae from Rhodes or Kos discovered at Khirbet el-Eika. Photo: Courtesy Uzi Leibner, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; photo by Roi Sabar.

Another possible indication that Khirbet el-Eika’s pre-Hasmonean population may not have been Jewish is the presence of the massive wine amphorae in the building near where the shovel was found. Since the amphorae originated on Rhodes or Kos, their use may again be an indication that Khirbet el-Eika’s people were in contact with Greek influences and again might have aligned themselves with Greek religious practices and against Judaism in the religious conflict. However, it seems unlikely that objects that are clearly related to trade and commerce are strong indicators of religious allegiance.

It has also been noted, however, that the Jewish populations of some areas may have observed a ban on drinking wine not produced by Jews, and it is suggested that the presence of the Greek wine amphorae therefore indicates that Khirbet el-Eika’s pre-Hasmonean people were not Jewish. However, although such a ban may have appeared sometime in the Second Temple period, Leibner says that scholars are “not sure exactly when this became widespread.”

In summary, there are some indications that the pre-Hasmonean inhabitants of Khirbet el-Eika were not Jewish, but further research should be done to determine the likelihood that this was actually the case.

Update, January 4, 2016: This Bible History Daily story has been updated with additional information on Galilee during the Hellenistic period from Khirbet el-Eika dig director Uzi Leibner.—Ed.

Henry PelgriftHenry Curtis Pelgrift received his M.A. in Mediterranean archaeology from University College London in 2014 and his B.A. in archaeology from The George Washington University in 2012. He has excavated at Tel Kabri and Tel Megiddo in alternate summers since 2009 and has also dug in Italy, Jordan and Cyprus. Henry’s picture appeared on the cover of the January/February 2014 “Dig” issue of BAR. He is currently an intern in the Arms and Armor Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Where the Heroes of the Maccabees Revolt Lie

Hasmonean Jerusalem Exposed in time for Hanukkah

What Archaeology in the Galilee Tells us about Daily Life in Ancient Israel

Hippos-Sussita: The High Horse of the Decapolis

Face of the Greek God Pan

Jewish Worship, Pagan Symbols

An Ancient Jewish Lamp Workshop in the Galilee


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  1. Joe says

    Is it the head of a duck or a goose? I live where there are several geese and it looks more like a goose head to me. Although, I don’t know if it makes a difference.

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