Ashkelon Excavations Find New Evidence of Philistine Religion

But purpose of “horned” altar remains a mystery

Ashkelon altar

Archaeologists Daniel Master (right) and Adam Aja (left) of the Ashkelon excavations found this oddly shaped Philistine installation with four rounded projections. Although it may be a type of “horned” altar, its exact function within Philistine religion remains a mystery. Photo courtesy the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon.

In the summer of 2009, the Ashkelon excavations were working in a typical Philistine domestic structure from about 1200 B.C.E. (roughly contemporaneous with the settlement of the Israelites in adjacent Canaan). In two of the rooms were typical Philistine hearths in the floor. In one of the smaller rooms of the house, however, was a feature the archaeologists did not recognize—a white lime-plastered mound of earth about 2 feet high and around 2.5 feet in diameter. Roughly pyramidal in shape, it had a flattened top. On each of the four corners was a slightly rounded projection. Are they the horns of a horned altar? Was this altar a feature of early Philistine religion?

Lawrence Stager, Daniel Master and Adam Aja, the lead archaeologists of the Ashkelon excavations, didn’t recognize it. It was not like anything they had ever seen. It is of course tempting to call it a Philistine horned altar that played a role in early Philistine religion. At first, the archaeologists considered whether it might be something like an Israelite horned altar, but the Israelite examples are burning installations with a flat top enclosed by a margin to contain the combustion. And there was no evidence that anything had been “burned” on this “horned” altar—or that it was designed for this purpose.


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Ashkelon altar

The Ashkelon “horned” altar (visible near top of photo) was found in a typical Philistine domestic structure that may have had a cultic function. It was positioned along the back wall of a room that also contained a small semi-circular bin. Photo courtesy the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon.

The next thought was that perhaps these little bumps on the Ashkelon installation were somehow related to Aegean “horns of consecration” often associated with libations rather than combustion. But these “horns of consecration” are not only quite different but also distant in time from Philistine religion. The suggestion was ultimately rejected.

A Philistine horned altar was also found at nearby Gath (Tell es-Safi) (see “Where Did the Philistines Come From?”). But it has only two horns and they are nothing like the bumps on the Philistine “horned” altar uncovered by the Ashkelon excavations.

The archaeologists agree that it does appear to be some sort of altar, however, and the room in the house in which it was found may have been a cultic room for the practice of some aspect of early Philistine religion. But it is difficult even for the archaeologists to go further. Maybe our readers can.

Based on Strata, “Altar-ed Theories at Ashkelon,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2012.


View a slideshow of horned altars excavated from various Philistine and Israelite sites.

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Posted in Artifacts and the Bible, Image Galleries, People in the Bible.

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  • Eli says

    Such fun to speculate. I believe it’s a household model of the Shiloh altar. This implies a Judeo-Phillistine culture superseding the Canaanite-Egyptian culture at 1200 bc, and they are using the altars to claim the landscape. That is, the purpose of the altar is to thank God for giving them the promised land. Despite the Ramesside raids, the Philistines built no walls, which must be a reflection of faith (or a screwed up chronology). Don’t laugh too hard, a careful reading of the Bible reveals that David was a Philistine vassal before he became King.
    Help me please, what extra Biblical facts exclude such a theory?

  • Jamessa says

    I believe it is a ceremonial alter where they practiced their beliefs at. It is typical to the ones used today in ceremonial magic and the design has been passed down from generation to generation. The “4 horns” corners now a days are used to hold candles. There would be no burn marks on the alter as the candles would have been placed on something so the alter is not defaced. (of course this is just my 2 cents)

  • Jay says

    Is it possible the four “horns” were used as a stand to hold round-bottomed baskets or clay or metal bowls to keep them stable during food preparation?

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