Canaanite grave sheds light on ancient burial practices
Sealed tombs are like windows into the past that provide archaeologists a well-preserved snapshot of the lives of ancient peoples. A 2014 excavation near the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo has given archaeologists intriguing insight into burial practices with the discovery of a 4,000-year-old Canaanite shaft tomb containing, among other grave goods, the remains of at least nine decapitated toads.
The Jerusalem tomb discovery, announced in an Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) press release, is part of a recent salvage excavation conducted by the IAA in coordination with various universities in Israel ahead of a Jerusalem neighborhood expansion project. According to the Times of Israel, the tomb is one of 67 man-made shaft graves located in a Canaanite cemetery on an elevated hilltop in southwest Jerusalem.
It was common for ancients to inter their dead with all sorts of grave goods that, in different cultures, served various ritual purposes and had importance for the afterlife. Tombs are sometimes packed with ceramic vessels containing material goods from the person’s life or, as is in this case, food and supplies that would serve the dead in their experience in the afterlife.
Left for this late Canaanite was a platter of decapitated toads in a large storage vessel. Shua Kisilevits, IAA archaeologist and co-director of the excavations, told the Times of Israel that while prepared animals such as sheep, goats, bovines, and gazelles are common grave goods, “finding toads is pretty unusual.”
David Tanami of the IAA removed the partial vessel from the shaft tomb and immediately the group recognized an array of small bones inside the jar. (The removal of the jar is captured in this video.) Analysis of the bones by Dr. Lior Weisbrod of the University of Haifa confirmed that they belonged to nine toads; more interesting was that the heads of the toads were missing.
Individuals will often be buried with food that would have been a common component of the local diet. The discovery of toads suggests that they were familiar to the region’s Canaanite cuisine.
The Times of Israel reports that in order to answer why these particular morsels were headless, Kisilevits looked to South America, where the practice of removing heads and toes makes it easier to remove the toxic skin of the animal. Kisilevits says that this “could be an indication that this is how they prepared the toads.”
Kisilevits and co-director Zohar Turgeman-Yaffe said in the IAA press release that the “Nahal Repha’im basin was fertile ground for settlement throughout time, especially during the Canaanite period,” and that the new discoveries provide new insights in the life practice of the local population.
Pollen analysis of other ceramic vessels recovered from the tomb indicates the presence of date palms and myrtle bushes, neither of which are indigenous to the area. “They had to have been planted,” Kisilevits said to the Times of Israel, pondering how these plants could have played a role in Middle Bronze Age burial practices.
As the Times of Israel reports, the presence of Canaanite cemeteries are not uncommon in the highlands around Jerusalem. Similar burials have been discovered in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Gilo and Givat. The 40-centimeter diameter tomb did not come as a surprise to the archaeologists; excavations in 1991 had revealed the presence of some tombs in the vicinity.
The construction and size of the recently discovered Jerusalem tomb, which is no more than about 5 feet long by 4 feet in diameter and only about 2.5 feet in height, allows for only one person to enter the tomb at a time. David Tanami can be seen removing the ceramic vessels from the tomb, barely able to fit in the tight grave shaft.
The excavation results will be presented at the conference “New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region” at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem from October 18–20, 2017. The event is open to the public and will focus on recent archaeological endeavors in and around the city of Jerusalem.
Samuel Pfister is an intern at the Biblical Archaeology Society.
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