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Linda Byrd Smith Museum of Biblical Archaeology
Welcome to the Linda Byrd Smith Museum of Biblical Archaeology. With more than 100 artifacts displayed, the museum can be used as a resource for students to provide context and help them better understand their biblical studies. The museum has 10 sections that showcase items such as storage jars, perfume bottles, coins, weapons, wine skins and other artifacts from daily life in the ancient world. Other displays include excavation tools, explanations of ceramic typology and carbon dating, and a timeline from 2000 B.C. to 700 A.D.
Linda Byrd Smith (’67) donated the initial funds to begin the museum. She teaches Bible classes for Arkansas jails and prisons, her home church, and other religious organizations. Smith has also produced videos for the Center for Christian Broadcasting about women in the Bible.
Wine skin/water skin (1)
Most students of the Bible likely remember Jesus’ reference to wineskins: “Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (Matt. 9:17 ESV; cf. Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37-38). The issue is that as new wine ferments it creates gasses which stretch the skin to extreme limits. If it is an old wineskin, the first batch of wine will have stretched the skin’s elasticity to its limit permitting little additional expansion—thus the new wine’s fermentation exceeds the limits of the old wineskin’s elasticity, rupturing the vessel.
There are quite a few other references to skins in the Bible and most of them refer to skins as containers for wine. After listening to the futile efforts of Job’s friends to respond suitably to Job’s plight, Elihu compared his frustration to keep silent to a distended wine skin ready to burst (Job 32:19). The Gibeonites’ deceived the Israelites by using old, worn-out wine skins that were patched (Josh. 9:4, 13; note the patches on the goatskin in the case!). Nehemiah referred to the large quantity of wine that supplied his daily court (Neh. 5:18) although he declared that he did not demand this from the subjects of Judea. Interestingly, the ruins in Persian Persepolis portray servants bearing wineskins to the royal court (photo 1; Cincinnati), indicating that these were not necessarily vessels relegated to the poor!
Evidence of the value attached to water skins and wine skins is the preservation of an alabaster model of a skin vessel in the Early Bronze Age II-III temple and sanctuary at Ai (photo 2; Rockefeller Museum). The vessel is poorly preserved but the folded rear legs and the neck with its closing rope are still distinct. William Flinders Petrie had found a similar “model waterskin” at 3d millennium BC Egypt (Amiran 1970: 174-77). The degree of work involved to manufacture such a vessel and to produce a full-size version in alabaster speaks to the value placed upon the objects.
Goats were probably the most prevalent animals whose skin would be used to make wine and water skins. If properly removed (peeled off from the rear to the head) they would be suitable containers to carry a liquid. The rear of the animal would be sewn shut and the legs tied closed; the neck would remain as the opening through which to fill and drain the skin. Furthermore goat skins would generally be large enough to hold a reasonable amount of liquid, but not too large to be bulky and difficult to carry. Skins have been used until quite modern times as containers for water in Middle and Near Eastern countries as well as parts of Africa (see photo 3 of man carrying a skin on his back as if a backpack [Mahmoud]). The sample in our museum is probably about 100 years old. One photo shows goat skins being processed at Hebron sometime between 1898 and 1914 (photo 4; Lib of Congress, Bolen). One portrayal of the use of water skins is in the epic movie Lawrence of Arabia (1962), starring Peter O’Toole and set in the context of World War I roughly the date of our example in the photograph.
The first reference to skins as vessels in the Bible appears when Hagar and Ishmael were expelled from Abraham’s household and their water skin had run out. Hagar feared for their lives without water (Gen. 21:14), but the Lord directed her to a nearby well where she filled the skin (21:19).
Milk was also stored and churned in skins. When Sisera fled from the battle field and sought refuge in Jael’s tent, she opened a skin of milk and gave him its contents (Judg. 4:19). Evidence of processing milk into a yogurt-type product dates at least as far back as the Chalcolithic period as shown in the discovery of ceramic churns which mimicked animal skins (photo 5; Israel Museum). Anthropological studies reveal that skins were often used to churn milk into a yogurt-like drink that was part of the diet of antiquity; this “technological” discovery enhanced the ability of people to store and market goods (Grigson 1995: 266). The narrative of Abraham serving his three guests curds and milk (Gen. 18:8) implies the use of a skin to produce the curds, which basically was the yogurt-like drink (see also King and Stager 2001: 103).
Amiran, Ruth. 1970. “The Egyptian Alabaster Vessels from Ai.” Israel Exploration Journal 20/3-4: 170-79.
Cincinnati Art Museum. Photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons.
Grigson, Caroline. 1995. “Plough and Pasture in the Early Economy of the Southern Levant.”
Pp. 245-68 in The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land. Ed. T. E. Levy. New York: Facts on File.
Israel Museum, courtesy of (Photo by D. Manor).
King, Philip J. and Lawrence E. Stager. 2001. Life in Biblical Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-matpc-06775/www.LifeintheHolyLand.com; with permission of Todd Bolen.
Mahmoud Abu Eid. Photo gift from Mahmoud of the Oriental Museum, Jerusalem—Old City; 37 King David Street.
Tell el-Yahudiyeh Juglet (2)
These juglets have very distinctive forms in that they usually have a double handle and punctiliated geometric patterns on their bodies. Originally the vessels had white paint in the impressions, dramatizing the contrast with the body of the vessel. The name derives from a site in Egypt, known as Tell el-Yahudiyeh where the vessel design was first identified. The term Tell el-Yahudiyeh means “Mound of the Jews,” although it is an anachronism to apply the term to the Middle Bronze Age remains. The term probably has some credence for the Exilic period when there was a Jewish temple/shrine at the site. William Flinders Petrie identified the Middle Bronze Age site with the Hyksos who were Canaanites who for a while took control of the northern Delta region of Egypt during what is identified as the XV Dynasty (ca. 1650-1550 B.C.). The vessel design originated in Canaan and eventually found its way to Egypt through trade and migration.
Baines, John and Jaromir Malek. Ancient Egypt. The Cultural Atlas of the World. Oxford: Andromeda, 1990 (p. 174).
Holladay, John S., Jr. 2001. Yahudiyya, Tell el-. Pp. 527-29 in Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, vol. 3. Ed. D. B. Redford. New York: Oxford, 2001
Sparks, Rachael Thyrza, ed. 2007. A Future for the Past: Petrie’s Palestinian Collection. London: Institute of Archaeology, University College London, 2007 (pp. 84-85).
Perfume/Kohl bottle (3)
This small vessel was a luxury item in the ancient world and dates from the Middle Bronze Age. Its design and manufacture find their origins in Egypt where they held ointments, perfume, or kohl. Kohl was the black substance that the Egyptians used around their eyes. Kohl was not just for beauty purposes, but it reduced the sun’s glare as well as ward off pesky insects from the eyes. The coating on the vessel is faience, an early form of glaze that used crushed silica or quartz; when fired it becomes semi-glossy.
Travel between Egypt and Canaan was fairly open during the Middle Bronze Age, as evidenced by the famous Beni Hasan Tomb painting which shows a group of Canaanites traveling to Egypt, partly to market kohl. The Bible indicates a similar openness as Abraham and his family moved to Egypt to escape a famine in Canaan (Gen. 12:10). This was one of the occasions when Abram presented Sarai as his sister and she was taken into the Pharaoh’s harem. It is probable that among the gifts bestowed upon Sarai would have been faience items similar to this one.
The Bible refers to painting the eyes, using the word kohl, although it is much later than the Patriarchs. The occasion was in a tirade against Israel and Judah and their unfaithfulness with other countries and gods: “For them you bathed yourself, painted your eyes, and adorned yourself with ornaments” (Ezek. 23:40). The verb “paint” is the word kohl (ljk). There is no evidence that they would have used a vessel of this type in that period, but it shows the prevalence of kohl in the ancient world.
Carinated bowl (4)
The term “carination” refers to the sharp ridge bend in the side of the vessel. Carinated bowls were quite common in the Middle Bronze Age—the likely period when Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived. There were several versions of these vessels which typically developed through time as is the usual case with ceramic typology (see the chart elsewhere in the museum).
What is sobering is the probable role of a vessel of this nature when Esau came in from the field, famished with hunger and asked for a bowl of Jacob’s “red stew” (Gen. 25:30, ESV). Jacob manipulated the situation to his advantage by proposing that Esau trade his birthright for the stew. Esau agreed and so began his reputation as an irreligious person who sold his inheritance for a single meal (cf. Heb. 12:16; some versions describe him as “unholy” [ESV] or “profane” [KJV]). It is sobering to think that one would be so short-sighted to sell his inheritance for such a relatively paltry commodity.
Sumerian law code (5)
This is a resin reproduction of a law code tablet dating from ca. 1860 B.C. It was discovered in Nippur in modern Iraq during an excavation sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania. It is written in Sumerian using cuneiform as the style of writing. Cuneiform means “wedge-shaped,” and refers to the impressions left in the clay which express syllables or alphabetic letters (depending on the language; e.g., Ugaritic which was an alphabetic cuneiform).
This example preserves the Laws of Lipit-Ishtar who ruled in the first dynasty of Isin (ca. 1934-1924 B.C.). While it has often been said that Hammurabi’s Code is the first law code, a number of law codes have been discovered that predate Hammurabi, among which is this one. Admittedly, Hammurabi’s Code is much larger, but law codes predated him by centuries. Examples of others have been discovered dating from as early as 2100 B.C. (the laws of Ur-Nammu). It is thought that this small example was a writing exercise for school practice.
— Data from Barry Eichler and Carole Linderman and a brochure that came with the artifact from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. www.museum.upenn.edu
Sumerian clay cone inscription (6)
This clay cone dates to ca. 1950 B.C., probably from the temenos wall area of the temple of Gula, at Isin in modern Iraq. The following collation was produced in 2006 by Professor John D. Fortner, retired Professor of Hebrew Bible.
Ishme-Dagan, (and) its work force from corvee
powerful male, he remitted
king of Isin, the great wall of Isin
king of the four world corners, he built.
when (for) Nippur That wall (which)
the city beloved he built,
〈by〉 Enlil “Ishme-Dagan beside Enlil is the great arm of Anu"
its tribute is its name.
Essentially it is a commemorative inscription put into the structure of the wall to extol the greatness of the king, Ishme-Dagan, who granted release from taxes and military service while the people were building the temple.
Duckbill axe (7)
The term “duckbill” applies for its obvious similarity—we do not know what the people of antiquity called it. The weapon, which was a natural typological development out of the earlier sequence of copper axes, was the last in the line of these designs and yet the first that was made out of bronze. It clearly was not used to chop down trees, but was a weapon. The famous Beni Hasan tomb painting in Egypt depicts a group of Canaanites migrating to Egypt and the last person in the line of Canaanites is shown carrying one of these axes. It would have been very effective as a weapon and was a classic advance in technology as people learned how to work with bronze. The date of the tomb painting, and hence the time period of the “duckbill” axe, is to sometime in the 20th century B.C.
Cylinder seal (8)
Cylinder seals were used by people in ancient times as identity stamps. The seal would be rolled in a soft substance (e.g., clay), leaving an impression that was uniquely associated with the person who owned it. The owner usually carried the seal attached to a toggle pin (to which this one is attached) which then served as a sort of clasp/button on the garment (as shown on the drawing with the display). It is clear that seals were typically only associated with people of influence and wealth—the cost to produce the fine detail inscriptions and drawings was prohibitive.
It was almost certainly one of these that served as the point of tension in the story of Tamar and Judah in Genesis 38. Judah’s son, Er, had married Tamar, but the Lord was angry with him and killed him. Since Levirate marriage was the custom, Er’s brother, Onan was to marry her and raise up children in the name of Er. Onan, however, refused to comply with the law and he, too, was killed. That left Judah’s third son, Shelah, as the one to perform the rights of the brother-in-law. He, however, was too young. But when it was clear to Tamar that Judah was not honoring the law, she dressed as a prostitute and negotiated with Judah to have relations with him. Since he did not have anything to pay her, she asked for his seal, the cord and his staff to be held as security until he could send suitable payment. The seal and the cord refers to a cylinder seal and the accompanying cord and toggle pin.
After she had secured the seal, cord and staff, she left, not waiting for the “suitable” payment. When it was discovered that she was pregnant, Judah declared that she should be executed. At that time she produced the seal, cord and staff declaring that the one to whom these belonged was the father. Judah’s guilt was revealed—the seal was as good as his signature.
Half-Shekel Temple Tax (9)
The Law of Moses required that when a census would occur, each adult male was to give to the Temple a half-shekel (Exodus 30:12-14). Eventually this tradition became an annual tax. In addition, Mosaic law recognized the logistical challenge to take sheep, goats, grain, and cattle long distances to sacrifice in Jerusalem, so the Lord permitted his subjects to sell the goods and take the money to Jerusalem to exchange for the required elements (Deuteronomy 14:22-26). By the first century, the Temple authorities had implemented quality control requirements, restricting the currency they would accept. The money changers whom Jesus drove out of the Temple precinct were part of this system (cf. Matthew 21:12-13; John 2:13-16)—not only would they convert money back to animals, but they would be part of the quality control to convert foreign currency to the only accepted currency—the Tyrian shekel. The Tyrian shekel was originally minted in Tyre and was a purer silver content—94 percent! The irony of requiring this coin for the temple tax and exchange is that the coin preserved the profile image of a Greek god—Melqaart/Heracles—on one side and an eagle on the reverse—both of which would be graven images seemingly in violation of the Decalogue’s prohibition of graven images (cf. Exodus 20:3-4).
Normally the half-shekel would be the fee for the temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27), but when Peter was challenged regarding whether Jesus would pay the tax or not, Jesus directed Peter to go fish and in the fish’s mouth would be the full shekel with which to pay the tax for himself and Peter.
The silver shekel and half-shekels were likely also the currency given to Judas as the betrayal money since it came out of the temple treasury (cf. Matthew 27:3-6).
Betlyon, John W. “Coinage.” Pp. 1076-89 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1. Ed. D. N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Franz, Gordon. “The Tyrian Shekel and the Temple of Jerusalem.” Bible and Spade. 2002.
Perkin, H. W. “Money.” Pp. 402-09 in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, vol. 3. Ed. G. W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.
The denarius was worth the equivalent of ten (10) asses/donkeys (Bilkes : 136), which would have represented a sizable degree of wealth in the first century. During the first century A.D., this silver coin constituted the normal day’s salary for the common laborer (Betlyon : 1086). While there were several denarii issued by the Roman government and most all of them depicted the emperor, this version shows Tiberius Caesar on one side and on the other side is a portrayal of his seated mother, Livia who was Caesar Augustus’ wife.
There were several versions of the denarius in circulation at the time of Jesus, but the one issued by Tiberius (dating from 14-37 A.D.) would have easily spanned the time frame of his ministry. It is for this reason that most scholars are inclined to identify this version of the denarius as the one Jesus used in his famous dictum after asking whose inscription was on it: “…render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
An understanding of the general value of the denarius as a day’s wages dramatizes its significance in a number of events in the New Testament narrative. Among them is the episode when Judas objected when Mary anointed Jesus with the nard and he argued: “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:5). The value of the nard was extraordinary for a common person, and while it could have helped alleviate the suffering of many poor people, Judas’ lust for the wealth was his dominant concern (John 12:6).
Betlyon, John W. “Coinage.” Pp. 1076-89 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1. Ed. D. N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Bilkes, Gerald M. “Money, Coins.” Pp. 130-37 in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 4. Ed. K. D. Sakenfeld. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009.
Widow’s Mites (11)
The term “Widow’s Mite” applies to the two copper/bronze coins that the widow deposited into the treasury of the Temple and which prompted Jesus to commend her generosity (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4). The Greek word transliterates to lepton (sing.; lepta, pl.) and means “small” or “thin” (Liddell and Scott : 1039-40), and alludes to its minimal value in the economic structure. The value of the coin was approximately 1/128 that of the denarius (cf. Schmidt : 805)—or to put it another way, since the denarius was considered the equivalent of a day’s wages for a common laborer, the lepton would equate to about six minutes of work (on the basis of a twelve hour work day). The traditional identification has derived from those issued by Alexander Jannaeus, of the Hasmonean period who “reigned” from ca. 103-76 B.C. If the Alexander Jannaeus coins are the ones under consideration in the story of the widow, one side depicts an anchor and the other an eight-spoked wheel or eight-ray star (it is not clear which is meant).
Alternatively, her contribution could have been a combination of any of the lepta that would have been in circulation during Jesus’ ministry. Hence, they could have included not only the Alexander Jannaeus examples, but also those issued by Coponius, Ambibulus, Gratus, or Pilate himself (examples for some of whom are in the display case).
In Jesus’ parable of the workers (Matthew 20:1-15), the people who were hired the 11th hour would have expected to be paid about ten (10) of these coins, but instead were generously given a full denarius!
Liddell, H. G. and R. Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon with Supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968.
Schmidt, T. E. “Taxes.” Pp. 804-07 in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Eds. J. B. Green, S. McKnight, and I. H. Marshall. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Treasure Hidden in a Field (12)
Banks, as repositories of wealth from which the average person could draw, were unknown in the ancient world, plus there was the danger of unscrupulous personnel. The tendency, then, was either to carry the wealth with you in some fashion or hide it. To bury a treasure in a field was one of those tactics. Jesus used that tradition in one of his parables as he discussed the kingdom: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).
This is similar to the practice utilized by the Dead Sea Scroll community who put their valuable manuscripts into clay jars and hid them in the caves above Qumran, expecting to return to the area and retrieve them. This was their version of the “treasure in jars of clay” similar to what Paul said of the gospel message: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). In these practices, the contents of the vessels was perceived as far more valuable than the container.
This practice of burying one’s valuables was a common strategy and museums often show examples of earthen vessels which have been plowed up or otherwise discovered in which bits of silver and/or gold had been preserved—and long forgotten (photo #1). The practice is well-known to the Arabic population in the Middle East as well as elsewhere. One problem that archaeologists had in the early years of excavation focused on this tradition. Many times when a worker would uncover a complete vessel, he would bust it open to see if it had gold and/or silver inside. Archaeologists certainly understand the value of the gold and silver, but the intact vessel also preserves great value as well! While we have glue to restore vessels, we would prefer not to have to use it!
Photo #1: A collection from 11th century B.C. Dor; Courtesy of Israel Museum; photo by D. W. Manor
Coin of Constantine the Great (13)
While technically not an artifact of Biblical Archaeology, this coin was issued by Constantine the Great (died 337 A.D.) who was the Roman leader who in 313 A.D. legalized Christianity, thus permitting the Gospel to be spread more openly.
Classical and Roman
Tesserae are the small stones that are used to make mosaics. Different colors of stone would be chosen to represent the various patterns, whether geometric or of scenes. The smaller the stones the more detail and crispness tends to characterize the piece of art. The size of the stones might be compared to the number of pixels per inch on your computer screen—the lower the number, the less well-defined the image; the higher the number, the more detail you can have. Of course, the higher the number, the greater the labor intensity to produce the mosaic. As you might suspect, typically only the elite could afford to have mosaics as their floors. Many of the mosaics in the biblical world are extremely elaborate and colorful. Some are geometric designs, others are elaborate scenes of nature or other designs. Among the most elaborate are those at Sepphoris, a town about four miles (six kilometers) northwest of Nazareth. A famous mosaic from Sepphoris has been dubbed “The ‘Mona Lisa’ of the Galilee” from the house of Dionysos and dates from the 3rd century A.D. The depiction of the woman is part of a larger mosaic measuring 7.0 x 5.5 meters (ca. 23 x 18 feet) and consisting of 1.5 million stones of in twenty-three colors (photo 1).
Kondoleon, Christine and Lucille A. Roussin. “Mosaics.” Pp. 50-55 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 4. Ed. E. M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University, 1997.
Meyers, Carol L. and Eric M. Meyers. “Sepphoris.” Pp. 527-36 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 4. Ed. E. M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University, 1997.
Meyers, Eric M.; Ehud Netzer, and Carol L. Meyers. “Artistry in Stone: The Mosaics of Ancient Sepphoris,” Biblical Archaeologist 50/4 (1987): 223-31.
Stone Cup (15)
During the first century B.C. into first century A.D., stone vessels became particularly popular. It appears that the rationale for their development was a response to Levitical legislation dealing with kosher laws. Leviticus 11 discusses various means by which vessels could become unclean; among them would be if a dead rat, mouse, lizard, or gecko were to fall on an item. If the item were made of wood, cloth, or leather, it was to be washed and would remain unclean until the evening after which it could be used. If any of these were to fall on a ceramic vessel, the vessel was to be broken (Leviticus 11:29-34). The rabbis observed that the legislation says nothing about stone vessels, so they inferred that these were exempt at least from the decree of breakage. (Metal objects apparently were also exempt from destruction; cf. Numbers 31:21-24).
The reference to the six stone water jars at the wedding feast in Cana probably alludes to this ideological practice. The text explicitly notes that the jars were “there for the Jewish rites of purification” (John 2:6; ESV). An example of four large jars appears in photo #1.
Recent excavations at a site near Nazareth have uncovered a cave where some of these ritual vessels were produced. The cave yielded “numerous remains of stone vessels in various stages of production,” (Arutz Sheva).
Arutz Sheva Staff. “Excavations in Galilee reveal 2,000 year-old stone factory.” Arutz Sheva, on-line publication. 21 Aug. 2016. www.israelnatonalnews.com/News/News.aspx/216697
Yonatan Adler. “Jewish Purity Practices in Roman Judea: The Evidence of Archaeology.” The Ancient Near East Today 5/2 (2017): on-line publication: asorblog.org/jewish-purity-practices-roman-judea-evidence-archaeology
Photo #1: Courtesy of Israel Museum; photo by D. W. Manor
This reproduces an artifact that probably belonged to a priest associated with Herod’s temple in Jerusalem. It was discovered in the pile of debris beneath the retaining walls of the Herodian Temple. It is a “pocket-watch” which the owner could use to align with a designated place on the wall to determine the time of day. It was probably used to determine the times of prayer. The New Testament mentions the “hour of prayer” when Peter and John were going to the Temple to pray (Acts 3:1). This determination would have been particularly important for a priest. The incised portrayal of a menorah on the back of the sun-dial implies its use by priests who were supposed to be the only ones authorized to use it.
The two indentations are thought to permit one properly to align the dial. The description in the Biblical Archaeology Review states that “the dial’s face is carefully calibrated for Jerusalem” (Levy 1998: 20).
Levy, Abraham. “Bad Timing: Time to Get a New Theory.” Biblical Archaeology Review 24/4 (1998): 18-23.
Religion in the Ancient World
Judean pillar figurines (17)
These figurines typically take two basic forms. The bodies of both forms consist of the pillar and its anatomical features; the differences are in how the head is portrayed. The exemplar on display is what is called a “molded head” since the face and head were made in a mold and then attached to the body. Some of the examples of the molded face forms preserve flecks of paint implying an element of sophistication. The other form (not on display) has the same body but the head is called a “pinch-face” or “bird-face” figurine since all that exists to represent the face is a pinched head to show the face extending forward (photo 1). The probable reasons for the differences is economic—the pinch face could be produced much more easily than the one requiring a mold.
Scholars consistently believe that these were used in some kind of religious/ceremonial function, the details of which are open to argument. Darby (404-05) basically argues that they were used as elements of a kind of magic in the healing arts. Manor (1995: 226-96) and Never (2005: 176-94) argue that they represented small, domestic versions of Asherah, the goddess frequently condemned in the Hebrew Bible (cf. e.g., Deut. 16:21; Judg. 6:25; 1 Kgs. 15:13; 2 Kgs 17:16 et al.). Most of the pillar figurines date to the 7th century B.C. and particularly to the end of the century basically contemporary with the reign of Josiah, who attempted to eradicate the worship of Asherah (2 Kgs. 23:1-15). He attempted to eliminate the use of household gods and idols; it is probable that these are examples of that attention.
Darby, Erin. Interpreting Judean Pillar Figurines. Forschungen zum Alten Testament 2. Reihe, 69. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014. represents appeal for healing (pp. 404-05)
Dever, William G. Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005. Pp. 176-94 (194).
Manor, Dale W. An Archaeological Commentary on the Josianic Reforms. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Arizona. Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Services, 1995. Pp. 226-96.
Copper Serpent (18)
This full-size replica is of a copper serpent that was found inside a shrine at the site of Timna’ just north of the Gulf of Eilat. The area was known for its copper mining, and the shrine dates to the early 12th century B.C. The excavators postulated that the occupants were Midianites who worked the site (Rothenberg 1972: 183-84). The time frame is fairly closely connected with the time of the Judges of the Bible and perhaps just after the Exodus.
Geographically, the area around Timna’ was where the Bible narrates that the Israelites complained about their plight in the wilderness (and it is a wilderness!!!) and God sent poisonous serpents into the camp to bite the people (Numbers 21:6-9). God then directed Moses to fashion a bronze serpent to serve as a focal point for people to be healed. The Timna’ shrine went out of use by the middle of the 12th century.
Small copper/bronze serpents were fairly widely distributed in ancient Canaan (photo #1). Among other locations, examples have been found at Hazor (Yadin et al. 1960:117, pl. 181), Megiddo (Loud 1948: pl. 240, no. 1), and Mevorakh (Stern 1984: 22, fig. 3.1, pl. 31.1). It is not clear to whom or how these serpents were used. One theory is that they were associated with fertility; another suggests association with healing (hence the caduceus as a symbol of healing; photo #2). In the episode with Moses, the serpents brought death and the bronze serpent was a focal point for healing. Apparently the Israelites enshrined the bronze serpent, because Hezekiah made it part of his religious purge several hundred years later (cf. 2 Kings 18:4), when it was named Nehushtan.
The etymology of the term nehushtan is ambiguous; it could derive from a root word meaning “copper” or it could derive from a root word meaning “snake” (Brown, Driver, Briggs 1972: 639). Either source would work.
Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, eds. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1972.
Loud, Gordon, ed. Megiddo II: Seasons of 1935-1939: Plates. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1948.
Manor, Dale W. “Timna’.” Pp. 553-56 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 6. Ed. D. N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Stern, Ephraim. Excavations at Tel Mevorakh (1973-1976). Qedem 18. Jerusalem: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Yadin, Yigal et al. Hazor II: An Account of the Second Season of Excavations 1956. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press The Hebrew University, 1960.
Bird-shaped cult bowl (19)
This reproduction is of an artifact (photo 1) that was uncovered in a Philistine Temple (Temple 131) at the site of Tell Qasile, on the grounds adjacent to the Eretz-Israel Museum near Tel Aviv, Israel. The temple originally stood in the late 11th-early 10th centuries B.C. (i.e., ca. 1025-950 B.C.). The ritual bowl was found in a building which preserved numerous vessels of clearly ritual character. Regretfully, we are unable to determine exactly how the vessel was used. The base of the vessel was broken off, but compared with similar bird-shaped vessels in the room, it probably had a stem extending below the bottom which would have fit inside a special stand in the room. It likely was used to receive liquid offerings of some kind; quite a number of other vessels in the room were designed clearly for ceremonies that involved liquids.
Eretz-Israel Museum, courtesy of (photo by D. Manor)
Mazar, Amihai. Excavations at Tell Qasile, Part 1: The Philistine Sanctuary: Architecture and Cult Objects. Qedem 12. Jerusalem: Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1980.
Horse-and-rider figurines (20)
The reforms of Josiah describe removing the “horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun” that were become associated with the Temple complex in Jerusalem (2 Kgs. 23:11). The time frame for the preponderance of these figurines is toward the end of the 7th century BC and it is tempting to associate them with Josiah’s reforms. While this animal looks more like a dog than a horse, the fact that the person is on its back bridling the animal indicates implies a horse. The clay disk between the ears probably represents the sun. Likely these models were miniature representations of the activities and rituals in the Temple, perhaps to serve as domestic focal points of worship (alongside the pillar figurines?). Dever (1994: 152-53) has associated these figurines with the solar deities.
Dever, William G. “The Silence of the Text: An Archaeological Commentary on 2 Kings 23.” Pp. 143-68 in Scripture and Other Artifacts: Essays on the Bible and Archaeology in Honor of Philip J. King. Eds. M. D. Coogan, J. C. Exum, L. E. Stager. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994.
Rattles occur with some frequency in the archaeological record, but usually in either tomb or ritual contexts. They thus may have been associated with ritual and/or music. There is no particular reason simply to associate them with infants or children. Their presence in tombs likely were issues of divination as people would use them to drive away perceived spirits that they thought might be looming in the tombs. Alternatively, we have examples of rattles on ritual items, among which is a unique ritual scepter (photo 1) that was used in an Edomite worship site of Qitmit located southwest of the Dead Sea (note the rattle shape at the top of the head of the face).
While the date of the museum example is unknown, these items may have been part of the Josianic reform as he sought to eradicate divination (2 Kgs. 23:24) which was often associated with mediums and necromancers (Manor 1995: 351-52).
Israel Museum, photo courtesy of (photo by D. Manor).
Manor, Dale W. An Archaeological Commentary on the Josianic Reforms. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Arizona. Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Services, 1995.
Models of pomegranates often appear in ritual contexts. Mosaic legislation required that the hem of the High Priest’s garment be decorated with alternating bells and pomegranates made of blue, purple, and scarlet yarns (Exo.28:33-34; 39:24-26). Images of the pomegranate later became part of the Solomonic Temple as well (1 Kgs. 7:18-20, 42). Pomegranates were among the fruits the spies brought back from their mission as testimony of the productivity of Canaan (Num. 13:23). The Hebrew word for pomegranate is rimmon which appears a number of times in the Old Testament as place names, implying the prevalence of pomegranate trees in the vicinity (cf. Josh. 15:32; 19:7; Judg. 20:45-47). Pomegranates grow on small trees in the warmer areas of Canaan (photo 1).
In many cultures pomegranates represented fertility and productivity since they are so rich in seeds. They are among the many metaphors by which the lovers in the Song of Songs describe each other (Song of Songs 4:3, 13; 6:7).
The pomegranate is a versatile product, not only yielding a tasty, healthful red fruit drink from pressing the seeds, but it was used to flavor wines as well (cf. Song of Songs 8:2). Its flowers, bark and rind can be used to produce a red dye particularly effective on leathers (cf. perhaps used to produce the “ram skins dyed red” in the NIV; Exo. 25:5; cf. Props 2006: 374 contra ESV rendering). Medicinal uses of the plant would be treatment of tapeworm, diarrhea, and skin ailments (Jacob and Jacob 1992: 808).
Jacob, Irene and Walter Jacob. “Flora.” Pp. 803-17 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2. Ed. D. N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Propp, William C. H. Exodus 19-40. Anchor Bible 2A. New York: Doubleday, 2006.
The original of this unique piece was discovered in the excavations at Ashdod in modern Israel. The site had been one of the Philistine Pentapolis cities which included Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza, Gath, and Ekron (cf. references in Josh. 13:3). The piece was found in a cultic/ritual context of what appeared to be a temple dating from the 12th century B.C. (Dothan, M. 1971a: 161; 1971b: 192-93). The design of the Ashdoda reflects strong Mycenaean influences and looks very similar to pieces discovered scattered throughout the ancient Mycenaean world in and near the mainland of modern Greece. This, along with other lines of evidence, prompt many to infer connections of the Philistines with the Mycenaean world.
The Ashdoda probably represents an adaptation of a Mycenaean female deity and throne (Dothan, T. 1982: 234-37).
Dothan, Moshe. Ashdod II-III: The Second and Third Seasons of Excavations 1963, 1965, Soundings in 1967. Text. Atiqot IX-X. Jerusalem: Department of Antiquities, 1971a.
Dothan, Moshe. Ashdod II-III: The Second and Third Seasons of Excavations 1963, 1965, Soundings in 1967. Figures and Plates. Atiqot IX-X. Jerusalem: Department of Antiquities, 1971b.
Dothan, Trude. The Philistines and Their Material Culture. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1982.
Many people refer to these as “fruit bowls,” but their presence in ritual contexts in the ancient world tends to imply something more lofty. Admittedly we do not know for sure how they were used, their presence in ritual settings associates them with religious practice in some way. One postulate is that they were containers in which to burn incense; another, and more likely theory, argues that they were more formalized drinking vessels (people in the ancient biblical world were more inclined to drink wine from bowls rather than cups in the sense that we think of them; cf. Amos 6:6). Chalices would be more formal portrayals of bowls. The Bible refers to “drink offerings” which many times and these often consisted of about a quart (biblical hin) of wine (cf. Exodus 25:29; Leviticus 23:13 et al.).
A famous Assyrian relief shows Assur-banipal and his wife drinking from bowls while they recline in their garden after the victory over the king of Elam (cf. Pritchard 1969: fig. 451). Another, later example made of bronze dates from the 4th century B.C. and had an inscription in which the cup is dedicated to Shamash—a common Mesopotamian deity (Avigad and Greenfield 1982).
Avigad, N. and J. C. Greenfield. “A Bronze phials with a Phoenician Dedicatory Inscription.” Israel Exploration Journal 32/2-3 (1982): 118-28.
Pritchard, James B. The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament. 2d edition with Supplement. Princeton: Princeton University, 1969.
Mycenaean Psi Figurine (26)
These artifacts date to seem to what biblical archaeologists would define as the Late Bronze Age (as far as the land of Canaan is concerned). They seem to originate from the ancient Mycenaean world (e.g., ancient Greece). There are several forms of them: this one is known as a Psi figurine and the other predominant form that appears in Canaan is the Phi figurine (photo #1). These names reflect the stylized similarity to the Greek letters phi and psi. We should not infer that the people of antiquity referred to them by these names. The presence of similar artifacts in Canaan tend to cluster in sites where the Sea Peoples settled, of whom the Philistines were a part. You might notice the similarity of the stylistic design of the Psi Figurine with the Ashdoda.
The functions of the Psi and Phi figurines remain problematic, but the preponderance of them, at least in the Mycenaean world, seem to be associated with boundary rituals—whether physical (buildings and doorways) or spiritual (e.g., burials). That does not preclude their use in other settings as well. Several sites in ancient Canaan have yielded examples of these including one found at Beth-Shemesh (photo #2). It was found in debris so it was impossible to determine a contextual setting for it.
Tsonou-Herbst, Ioulia Nikalaou. A Contextual Analysis of Mycenaean Terracotta Figurines. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. University of Cincinnati, 2002.
Photo #1: Courtesy of Delphi Museum; photo by D. W. Manor
Photo #2: figurine from Tell Beth-Shemesh Excavation Project; photo by D. W. Manor
Canaanite God El (27)
This “reproduction” is similar to the artifact that was found in the excavations at Megiddo in the debris associated with the Stratum VII Late Bronze Age Temple. The portrayal is of El, the chief Canaanite god. In the literature of Ugarit, which was contemporary with the Late Bronze Age, El was the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon, although he had basically relinquished most of his responsibilities to Baal, the storm god, while still retaining supreme authority. El was often portrayed as a beneficent god, sitting with his hand raised in a poise of blessing. Baal, on the other hand, was more often portrayed with a raised arm holding something to throw or with which to smite. The Megiddo version is in the University of Chicago Oriental Institute Museum and shows El sitting with a high conical hat, his hands extended and holding a feather (?) in his left hand.
While somewhat peripheral in the contentions in the Bible, since El was another god, he was a rival to Yahweh of Israel, and hence one whom the Israelites were not to worship. The portrayal of such a god as an object of worship was also in violation of the Ten Commandments (cf. Exodus 20:3-4).
Day, John. “Baal (Deity).” Pp. 545-49 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1. Ed. D. N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Loud, Gordon. Megiddo II: Seasons of 1935-39, Text. University of Chicago Oriental Institute Publications, LXII. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1948. (p. 105).
Loud, Gordon. Megiddo II: Seasons of 1935-39, Plates. University of Chicago Oriental Institute Publications, LXII. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1948. (pl. 237, 238).
Rose, Martin. “Names of God in the OT.” Pp. 1001-11 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 4. Ed. D. N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
lemelek (Klml) Storage Jar and Handle (28)
While these are separate items, they relate to one another. The fragmentary jar is the bottom part of a storage jar. Obviously, the neck and handles are missing; there would normally have been four handles, an example of which appears on the shelf with it (but this handle was not originally part of this jar). The handles of the jar were often stamped with a seal impression which read lemelek across the top of the impression, then there was the portrayal of a scarab, beneath which was another Hebrew word naming one of four towns in Judah—Hebron, Socoh, Ziph, or a town whose consonants are mmst (we know neither where this site was, nor exactly how to pronounce its name). Regretfully, this example of a stamp impression is badly marred, having been double stamped which obscured the inscription and image. You may see the obscured image of the scarab with its wings spread. Photo #1 shows a clearer example of one of these impressions (photo #1); the town mentioned at the bottom is Socoh. Photo #2 shows an example of the entire vessel—you can see the impression on the handle (photo #2).
These items were produced as a direct result of Hezekiah’s decrees. With the advance of Sennacherib and the Assyrians (2 Chronicles 32:1-5) we can infer that part of the rationale for these vessels was to try to protect Judah against their threats. The Bible notes that Hezekiah built storehouses and stockpiled grain, wine, and oil (2 Chronicles 32:27-30), and while the passage implies that some of this was for his royal use, we may infer that some of it was for the welfare of his subjects. Hundreds of examples of such storage jars and stamp impressions have been found widely scattered in Judah, but mainly in the perimeter towns that would have served as the border cities.
Photo #1: stamp impression courtesy of Tel Beth-Shemesh Excavation Project; photo by D. W. Manor
Photo #2: storage jar courtesy of Israel Museum; photo by D. W. Manor
Storage Jar with Draining Cradle (30)
This storage jar dates to the Early Bronze Age I-II (3200-2800 B.C.) and was designed to hold liquid—almost certainly olive oil. Olive oil was a very versatile product being used as a fuel source for light, for cooking, for ritual, for medicine, and for commerce. The small protrusion on the shoulder of the vessel has a drain hole in it. The people would use a small vessel, such as the one at the base of the storage jar with which to dip out the liquid. They would then return the small vessel to the cradle to permit the oil which was on the outside of the dipper vessel to drain back down into the main body of the storage jar.
(The small vessel at the base of the storage jar is from an earlier period, but is used here as an example of the size that might be involved).
Sling and Stones (31)
The sling was a formidable weapon in antiquity and still can be. Unfortunately we tend to minimize the power of these weapons when we assume that the stones were about the size of marbles. On the contrary, evidence indicates their potential size at least up to tennis balls! In addition, a good sling-thrower can throw a stone upwards of 200 meters (Korfmann 1973: 37). Interestingly, on the Lachish Reliefs which show Sennacherib’s siege of Lachish, the slingthrowers are behind the archers (cf. Korfmann 1973: 36). Korfmann also notes that the projectile could be thrown at a speed upward of 100 km per hour (= 60 mph; 1973: 40).
The implications of this range could change one’s perceptions of the encounter between David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17). We usually envision the encounter of the two as only about 20 yards or so from each other. While we cannot deny that, David could very easily have been well out of range of Goliath’s javelin throw. In addition, the possible size of the projectile striking Goliath’s forehead would have created severe skull fractures (the text states that the stone sank into his forehead; 17:49)!
The lead example at the front of the case, is a reproduction of half of a lead sling bullet that was found from 4th century B.C. Athens. The weight of the full bullet was almost four (4) ounces! It preserved an inscription that reads: “Take [this].”
British Museum. “Sling-shot.” 4th century B.C. Weight of original: 105.16 grams. Museum number: 1851,0507.11
Korfmann, Manfred. “The Sling as a Weapon.” Scientific American 229/4 (1973): 35-42.
Cosmetic Palette (32)
This is carved out of stone. Its function as a cosmetic palette is the consensus of the scholarly world, but the conclusion lacks definite proof. If it functioned as a cosmetic palette, the person would put the raw material for the make-up in the central depression and grind it to powder. Then the powder would be mixed with an oil or animal fat to provide a liquidity. Kohl (the black makeup) was common, especially around the eyes. One significant value of the black make-up was to reduce the sun’s glare. But it quickly was appreciated as a means to enhance the beauty of the eyes. It also provided a medical benefit in that it helped repel flies that were not only nuisances, but also could transmit disease.
The Bible mentions painting the eyes three times: one was when Jezebel painted her eyes just as Jehu arrived (2 Kings 9:30); a second appears in an indictment in Jeremiah (4:30); a third is in Ezekiel in a similar context of condemnation (Ezekiel 23:40). We should not necessarily infer that painting the eyes was necessarily evil, but the contexts of these last two passages imply that the effort deliberately done to align with ways contrary to God’s expectations.
Other colors could have been processed in such receptacles. We have discovered red and yellow ochre in the excavations at Tel Beth-Shemesh. Other colors would include white lead and green (probably from copper ore).
Dayagi-Mendels, Michal. “Cosmetics.” Pp. 67-69 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 2. Ed. E. M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University, 1997.
“The Eyes Have It.” Odyssey 6/6 (2003): 64.
Thompson, Henry O. “Cosmetic Palettes.” Levant 4 (1972): 148-50.
“Tear” Vial (33)
These are thought by many to be containers in which the mourners of the deceased would collect tears and leave the vessel in the chamber as tokens of their grief at the deceased’s passing. Many have argued that the reference in Psalm 56:8 is to this practice, applied metaphorically: “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (ESV). This translation, however, is flawed in that the Hebrew word—no’d (dan) rendered “bottle” actually refers to an animal skin vessel. While it might still allude to the practice (as if the tears have cascaded so profusely as to require such a large vessel), the probability is that the reference in Psalms did not refer to collecting tears. (An alternative is to consider that the phrase parallels the reference to “book” and that the Lord has kept track of the psalmist’s mourning, hence the NIV rendering: “Record my lament; list my tears on your scroll—are they not in your record?”) That said, there is some evidence that in later cultures the practice of collecting tears on behalf of the deceased may have occurred, regretfully it is still difficult, however, to determine for sure whether this was done in the Greco-Roman world or not. It is just as likely that the vessel was used for perfumes of some kind in the burial procedure.
Lutz, Tom. Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. (p. 303).
Millard, Alan. Discoveries from the Time of Jesus. Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1990. (p. 19)
Wilson, Mark R. and Edwin M. Yamauchi. “Mourning and Weeping.” Pp. 388-417 in Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity, vol. 3. Ed. E. M. Yamauchi and M. R. Wilson. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2016. (p. 394).
Mudbrick with Mason Mark (34)
This is about half of a fairly standard sized mudbrick. (Photo #1 shows a wall from the 14th century B.C. Beth-Shemesh). The building material is fairly easy to make, consisting of mud mixed with straw that helps reduce the shrinkage of the mud as it dries. The mixture is dumped into a rectangular mold (referred to in Nahum 3:14*), which is then removed and the brick dries in the sun. The straw also improves the insulation capacity of the bricks, forming dead air pockets in the product. The provision of straw, of course, was one of the points of that Pharaoh withheld in his attempt to punish Israel. The Israelites were forced to search elsewhere to secure the needed straw (cf. Exodus 5).
The Exodus narrative refers to the required quota of bricks per day (cf. Exodus 5:19). This is probably the function of the mason mark. The mason mark on the brick in the museum consists of two parallel lines formed with the fingers and dragged across and into the wet brick before drying the brick. The mason mark in the photo shows a three-line mason mark (photo #2). The mason mark was probably the means by which the worker could identify the number of bricks he had made. When he met the quota, he likely would be freed from his obligation—at least for the day.
*The Hebrew word in Nahum derives from an Aramaic term meaning “rectangle” referring to the wooden mold used to form the bricks (see Koehler and Baumgartner 1995: 587).
Herzog, Ze’ev. “Building Materials and Techniques: An Overview.” Pp. 360-63 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 1. Ed. E. M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University, 1997.
Rosen, Arlene Miller. Cities of Clay: The Geoarcheology of Tells. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1986.
Photo #1: mudbrick wall from Tel Beth-Shemesh Excavation Project; photo by D. W. Manor
Photo #2: mudbrick with mason mark from Tel Beth-Shemesh Excavation Project; photo by D. W. Manor
Cooking Juglet (35)
The black sooted exterior of this vessel reflects its direct contact with coals—this vessel was used when cooking. It is probably what the Hebrew Bible refers to as a parur (rwrp). The vessel was used to cook a soup or gruel type food (King and Stager 2001: 65) and this is implied in Numbers 11:8 when Israel gathered the manna and might boil it in a pot (Heb. parur). The same word appears in the Gideon story when he prepared the broth to present to the angel of the Lord (Judges 6:19). The only other place the word appears in the Hebrew Bible is in 1 Samuel 2:14 where Samuel’s sons abuse their roles as priests (this passage implies a larger version of the pot). Mazar concedes, however, that the vessel may have been used for other purposes as well (2015: 16; cf. Plate 188.8.131.52).
Interestingly, the time frame of the use of the words in the Hebrew Bible coincides well with the life of the vessel in its use archaeologically. Both lines of evidence (at this point) dovetail into the latter part of the Late Bronze II and into the Iron Age I periods. After this, we tend not to find these one-handled cooking jugs nor does the word appear in the Hebrew Bible to refer to vessels after this period.
King, Philip J. and Lawrence E. Stager. Life in Biblical Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
Mazar, Amihai. “Iron Age I: Northern Coastal Plain, Galilee, Samaria, Jezreel Valley, Judah, and Negev.” Pp. 5-70 in The Ancient Pottery of Israel and Its Neighbors from the Iron Age through the Hellenistic Period. Ed. S. Gitin. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2015.
Rider-and-Saddle Grinding Stones (36)
These are both fragments of basalt which were used to grind grain. The “rider” is the upper stone which the people would pass over the lower stone, which we refer to as the “saddle” (in Native American cultures these are called the “mano" and “metate” respectively). The grain would be placed on the saddle and ground with the “rider.” Basalt was an ideal stone for this procedure since it was very hard and thus reduced the amount of stone grit that would become part of the flour. In addition the porosity of the stone would tend to help hold the grain in place when it was being ground.
The sizes of the “saddle” tend to range from eighteen inches to three feet long and about a foot to a eighteen inches wide (photo #1 is of a “saddle” from Beth-Shemesh). The rider would be a stone small enough to grip in the palm and retain control over it while passing it back and forth over the grain resting on the saddle.
The Bible typically refers to the stones as the millstone and the upper millstone. These were indispensable to one’s survival and the Bible legislates against appropriating them as collateral: “No one shall take a mill or an upper millstone in pledge, for that would be taking a life in pledge” (Deuteronomy 24:6; ESV).
An upper millstone (i.e., the “rider”) was the “weapon” that a woman used to crush Abimelech’s head when he was besieging the people of Thebez (Judges 9:53). Joab later anticipated that David would allude to this incident when he engineered the murder of Uriah (2 Samuel 11:21). Apparently the incident had become a cautionary tactic of war!
The excavators at Tall al-‘Umayri tested the destructive capability of a millstone using a watermelon as their target. They collected six upper millstones which had weights ranging from 4-9 pounds. They threw the basalt stone at the watermelon down slope and state: “The first participant, Gina, hit Abimelech dead-on. With the damage she did, if she had hit a warrior rather than a watermelon, he would not have been able to ask his armor bearer to finish him off!” (Herr and Boyd 2002: 37).
Herr, Denise Dick and Mary Petrina Boyd. “A Watermelon Named Abimelech.” Biblical Archaeology Review 28/1 (2002): 34-37, 62.
Photo #1: saddle millstone in situ courtesy of Tel Beth-Shemesh Excavation Project; photo by D. W. Manor
Wax Writing Slate (37)
This reproduces a wooden writing board that was discovered in a well in Nimrud from eighth century B.C. Assyria. A collection of writing boards were discovered—most of them ivory, but among them was a walnut tablet as well. The discovery was fortuitous in that the tablets were embedded in an anaerobic context which preserved not only the wood, but also some of the bees wax that served at the vehicle of recording; the wax still preserved some of the cuneiform writing (Mallowan 1966: 151-53).
Portrayals of writing occur on some artwork from Assyria and elsewhere and Mallowan argues that some of those portrayals probably show depictions of collections of hinged wax writing slates (Mallowan 1966: 158). Pritchard has two artists’ renderings of similar scenes (Pritchard 1969: 74); both examples show two individuals writing and the description suggests that one of the people was shown writing on skin or papyrus while the other was using a stylus to write on clay tablets. Given Mallowan’s discussion, it is likely that the portrayal with the stylus depicts writing on wax tablets from which the text would then be transferred to the more permanent clay medium. Whitt notes that one of the values of the wax medium is that the tablets could easily be reused by smoothing the wax. He further notes that “Writing boards were often used for writing memoranda and drafts of documents” (Whitt 1995: 2392-93).
I am indebted to Mr. Gaston of Melbourne, Arkansas for carving out the interior depression of the walnut tablet to receive the bees wax.
Thanks to Dr. Daniel Oden who applied the cuneiform characters of the beginning of Enuma Elish on the tablet.
Mallowan, M. E. L. Nimrud and Its Remains, vol. 1. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1966.
Pritchard, James B. ed. The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament. 2d edition with Supplement. Princeton: Princeton University, 1969.
Whitt, William D. “The Story of the Semitic Alphabet.” Pp. 2379-97 in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, vol. 4. Ed. J. M. Sasson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995.
First Century Crucifixion and Burials
Heel Bone with Nail (47)
This reproduces the only piece of evidence of a crucifixion ever identified in the Mediterranean basin.* It was discovered in 1968 in an ossuary in a tomb which would have been north of the first century city of Jerusalem.
The crucifixion evidence consists of a nail which penetrated the right heel bone (calcaneum), thus attaching the individual to the central post of the cross.
The end of the nail is thought to have bent when it struck a hard knot in the wood. The piercing end of the nail preserved fragments of the central post which was of olive wood. On the outside of the nail, next to its head was a wooden washer, apparently to make it harder for the victim to remove his foot from the nail.
The badly corroded look of the bone and nail was the result of the bones having been immersed in liquid inside the ossuary.
Additional osteological studies on the skeleton that was in the ossuary indicate that the victim’s lower leg bones (tibia and fibula) were shattered, probably to accelerate the execution (cf. John 19:32).
Additionally sobering is the fact that the ossuary containing the bones held the remains of two individuals—an adult male (24-28 years old) and a child (3-4 years old). The exterior of the ossuary preserved an inscription, probably referring to the adult male whose name was Jehohanan.
- Haas. “Anthropological Observations on the Skeletal Remains from Giv’at ha-Mivtar. Israel Exploration Journal 20/1-2 (1970): 38-59.
- Naveh. “The Ossuary Inscriptions from Giv’at ha-Mivtar.” Israel Exploration Journal 20/1-2 (1970): 33-37.
Vassilios Tzaferis. “Crucifixion—the Archaeological Evidence.” Biblical Archaeology Review 11/1 (1985): 44-53.
*The collection of bones from the tomb have been ceremonially reburied and are no longer available for study.
Position of Foot (48)
The replica of the archaeological artifact from the crucifixion indicates a different position of attachment to the cross than is traditional presented. Most portrayals of the crucifixion show the nails penetrating through the metatarsals (e.g., the long bones in the main part of the foot between the ankle and the toes) with the feet crossed on the front of the vertical post. Tzaferis indicates that “The earliest Christian representation of the crucifixion dates to the late fifth or early sixth centuries A.D., i.e., about 200 years after crucifixion was legally abolished by the emperor Constantine the Great” (1985: 52 note), hence it was probably on the basis of tradition that the portrayal developed.
This artifact, however, indicates that the nail pierced the calcaneus (heel bone) of the victim and implies that he was attached to the cross with each foot opposite the other straddling the post. An objection that one might pose to this procedure is the fact that the Bible affirms that “Not one of his bones will be broken” (John 19:36 ESV). Discussions with some osteological physicians, have revealed that a nail piercing the calcaneus would not shatter the bone (as indicated on this sample) and would be a very effective means to hold the weight of the person. It may be the case that the prophetic statement was more designed to address the tendency of the Romans to shatter the fibula and tibia (as was the case with the victim of this crucifixion) as the text of John indicates happened with the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus (John 19:31-33).
That said, one should be cautious about demanding a uniform strategy for crucifixion. Josephus commented on the Roman crucifixions in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Given the number of crucifixions and the attitudes of the soldiers… “The soldiers out of rage and hatred amused themselves by nailing their prisoners in different postures; and so great was their number, that space could not be found for the crosses nor crosses for the bodies” (Josephus, Jewish Wars 5.451).
An intriguing statement, however, appears in Scripture perhaps to corroborate the nail through the heel as the means of crucifixion—God prophesied to Satan in the Garden (Gen. 3:15, ESV):*
“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
*I am indebted to Sotis Alexandris of Athens, Greece for this observation.
Tzaferis, Vassilios. “Crucifixion—The Archaeological Evidence.” Biblical Archaeology Review 11/1 (1985): 44-53.
Carved Ossuary (49)
Ossuaries were repositories for secondary burials. The primary burial involved leaving the deceased in the tomb for about a year to wait for the body to decompose. After the decomposition had occurred, the bones were gathered and most of them placed into an ossuary for more permanent storage. The ossuary was carved out of a single piece of stone and an accompanying lid closed the contents. Some ossuaries preserved the remains of multiple individuals. Such burial practices were typical of wealthy individuals and probably would have been the standard procedure associated with Joseph of Arimathea (cf. Matt. 27:57), who took custody of the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. Had Jesus not been raised from the dead, his remains would have found a similar treatment after a year.
Usually a tomb would eventually contain a number of ossuaries arranged in different ways. The photo (photo 1) shows a collection of ossuaries in a tomb complex at a church ground on the slopes of Gethsemane. Tzaferis indicates that ossuaries were often filled to the rim with bones of various people including women and children (1985: 47). Bones of women were probably women associated with the family—wives, daughters, etc.
One of the ossuaries in the same tomb in which the crucified individual rested (described in item #47) had an inscription which read “Simon, the Temple Builder” (photo 2). This inscription implies an element of pride that the family member had had a role in the construction of the Herodian Temple.
One of the more notable ossuaries in recent years was discovered in the 1990s; it had an inscription on the end of it that reads: “Joseph the son of Caiaphas” (photo 3). It is fairly well-accepted that this reference to Caiaphas is to the High Priest before whom part of Jesus’ trial occurred (cf. Matt. 26, 3, 57; although I know of no one who argues that the bones were those of Caiaphas—it was part of the Caiaphas family tomb).
The realization of the practice of reburying an individual in an ossuary after a year’s decomposition may help alleviate some tension that people often feel in the episode where the man volunteers to follow Jesus but requests: “‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead’” (Matt. 8:21-22). Jesus’ response seems cold and insensitive—after all Jesus would later go to mourn his friend, Lazarus’, passing (cf. John 11). It may be that the person making the request in Matthew had in mind this secondary burial rather than the initial passing of his father, in which case, the death had occurred a year earlier (or so) when there would have been serious mourning. In a sense, the secondary burial was a redundancy.
We are grateful to Mr. Page Thomas, of Dallas, Texas, for the donation of this ossuary.
Gordon Franz. “Let the Dead Bury Their Own Dead.” Archaeology and Biblical Research 5/2 (1992) 54-58.
- Naveh. “The Ossuary Inscriptions from Giv’at ha-Mivtar.” Israel Exploration Journal 20/1-2 (1970): 33-37.
Oil Lamp (50)
These lamps are the typical size for lamps in the first centuries B.C. and A.D. The fuel source was olive oil, which would be poured through the main opening on the top. A wick protruded from the spout and the light emitted was about the same as a typical modern candle. The volume of oil which these lamps held provided a flame for about 10 minutes before needing to refuel.
Various designs appeared on the lamps, ranging from plain to quite ornate.
For our modern world, this seems to be quite inefficient, but it is necessary to remember that with the advent of electricity, the cycle of activity has changed dramatically—we stay up much longer than people typically did in pre-industrial societies. The ancient people (and actually not that long ago) usually retired for the evening an hour or so after sunset and usually rose about sunrise. This cycle was very characteristic of people living and working in agriculturally based societies.