Canaanite Burial Customs—Pour One Out for the Departed

Wine and Bronze Age burial practices at Megiddo

Burial customs

Burial Customs: Grave goods in Megiddo’s monumental tomb 50. Courtesy Megiddo Expedition.

Editor’s Note: This blog article contains images of human skeletal remains.

Burial customs often bind a culture together, showing how people perceive death and the dead. Yet, while texts from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt provide considerable information about burial practices in those regions, very few texts document the burial customs of the Canaanites. But archaeology can help. A study published in the journal Archaeometry has provided insight into how wine was used in Canaanite burials at Megiddo, thereby providing a rare window into how the Bronze Age peoples of the southern Levant perceived the afterlife.

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Libations for the Dead

Excavations at the important site of Megiddo in northern Israel have been uncovering tombs and burial goods for decades. Yet, these excavations often provide only a partial picture of burial practices, as the organic contents of many vessels long ago disappeared. Thanks to new chemical analysis, however, researchers have been able to analyze the contents of grave goods dating to the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000–1550 BCE). Their analysis revealed the extensive use of wine, while opium has been discovered in graves at a Late Bronze Age site in the southern Levant.

Tel Megiddo

Map of Tel Megiddo and the excavation areas. Courtesy Megiddo Expedition.

For their study, the team analyzed 30 ceramic vessels uncovered in two separate sections of Megiddo: a normal residential area and an elite monumental tomb. Around a third of the analyzed vessels revealed signs of having been filled with wine. Other vessels showed evidence of beeswax, animal fat, olive oil, resin, and even vanilla. It is still uncertain what role the vessels played in funerary rituals, but the team suggests they could have been used in funerary feasts, as offerings to the dead, or both.

Burial customs

Various burials at Tel Megiddo, including jars that contained wine. Courtesy Megiddo Expedition.

If the wine was meant for the deceased, the custom would be very similar to the Egyptian practice of burying the dead with supplies for the afterlife and thus possibly demonstrating a belief in the need to nourish the soul after death. Given the Egyptian influence on Canaan during the Middle Bronze Age, the practice may have been borrowed directly from Egypt, though this remains uncertain.

Either way, wine was not only for adults or the wealthy, as a wine vessel was found inside an infant jar burial (a common Canaanite practice). According to the team, this may indicate a belief that the infant would continue to grow and receive nourishment in the afterlife, or possibly that age did not matter in the afterlife. Wine also appears to have crossed socio-economic barriers, as evidence of wine was discovered in both the monumental grave as well as the city’s common residential area. As technology continues to progress, it is hoped that even more aspects of Canaanite burial customs will come to light.

Read more in Bible History Daily:

The Cult of the Dead in the Bible 

Brain Surgery at Canaanite Megiddo

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library

Patriarchal Burial Site Explored for First Time in 700 Years

Ancient Burial Customs Preserved in Jericho Hills

Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus?

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