Tel Burna’s Cypriot Pithoi

A Bronze Age mystery

pots at tel burna

Stacked bowls inside of the remains of a Cypriot pithos at Tel Burna. Courtesy Susnow et al.

While Cypriot pithoi were commonly used in maritime shipping during the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550–1200 BCE), few have ever been found in the southern Levant. After all, their large size made them prohibitively difficult to carry over land for any great distance. So, what are four Cypriot pithoi doing at the site of Tel Burna in central Israel, over 20 miles from the nearest port, and why did the city’s Bronze Age potters suddenly begin making their own? Publishing in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, a team of archaeologists set out to find the answers.

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A Maritime Vessel and a Land-Locked City

Located in the Shephelah region of central Israel, Tel Burna was a rather unassuming Canaanite town of the Late Bronze Age, though one with an interesting feature that set it apart from its larger neighbors: a large quantity of imported Cypriot ceramics, including four large Cypriot pithoi. Bronze Age shipwrecks and ancient reliefs have shown that pithoi were the primary shipping container used in maritime trade, with ships containing hundreds of vessels filled with liquid commodities or even smaller ceramics. Once they reached their destination, however, these vessels would stay onboard, being far too large to ship over land.

One of the Local Tel Burna pithoi. Courtesy Susnow et al.

While Tel Burna seems to have had an unusually strong trade connection with Cyprus for an inland settlement, the presence of four Cypriot pithoi is still quite surprising. More surprising still is the presence of eight other locally made pithoi. While they clearly mimic the Cypriot pithoi in size and shape, they maintained many traits of local ceramics and appear to have been crafted using the same techniques as smaller local vessels.

Although large pithoi were still produced in Cyprus during the Late Bronze Age, such vessels had fallen out of use in the land of Canaan, being replaced by smaller amphorae. Thus, the presence of the Cypriot pithoi at Tel Burna must have influenced local potters to create their own versions, likely due to the challenges faced in procuring the vessels directly from Cyprus.

The Cypriot pithoi, which date to the 13th century BCE, are among the only ones ever discovered in the Levant and were excavated in an open-air courtyard that may have served as a cultic area. At least two of the pithoi, and possibly one of the local imitations, were prominently positioned within the courtyard, being placed in a fissure in the bedrock and towering over their surroundings due to their large size. They likely served some cultic function, and numerous other special objects were located in their immediate vicinity, including decorated goblets, a decorated krater, ceramic masks, zoomorphic figurines, and many Cypriot imports. The local pithoi, however, were clustered together at the other end of the courtyard, surrounded by more mundane vessels, such as cooking pots and bowls.

Map of Tel Burna. Susnow et al.

Although it is not possible to know the exact purpose these pithoi served (laboratory testing produced no conclusive evidence for the organic residues left behind by oils or wines), two of the Cypriot pithoi appear to have been used as receptacles for other high-value ceramics. One held imported bowls, while another contained a tankard and juglet. While the people of Tel Burna had repurposed these pithoi into a cultic setting, the pithoi themselves still held fast to their original purpose. “These pithoi were in a secondary or tertiary context,” Chris McKinny, one of the study’s authors told Bible History Daily, “but were still being utilized in a way that was consistent with their primary shipping function—storing Cypriot fine wares.”

According to McKinny, “The courtyard seems to have been a localized cultic area within a large enclosure. The focal point has been interpreted as an anchor carved from chalk.” If this interpretation is correct, it is possible that the origins of the Cypriot material, having arrived from across the sea, may itself help explain why so many Cypriot vessels ended up in Tel Burna. As the local populace searched for objects of veneration and service in a maritime-related cult, it would only be natural for them to gravitate towards objects that themselves were related to the sea.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Oldest Deep-Sea Shipwreck Found Near Israel

Tel Burna: An Introduction to the Biblical Town

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Exploring Philistine Origins on the Island of Cyprus

In the Beginning: Religion at the Dawn of Civilization

That Ol’ Time Religion

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