Canaanite cult site offers up its treasures after 3,300 years
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Canaanite cult site offers up its treasures after 3,300 years

Tel Burna excavation in central Israel reveals ceramic masks that could mark shrine to storm god Ba'al

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

An aerial view of Tel Burna, a Canaanite and Israelite site near modern day Kiryat Gat. (photo courtesy Skyview)
An aerial view of Tel Burna, a Canaanite and Israelite site near modern day Kiryat Gat. (photo courtesy Skyview)

The first rain of the season lashed Tel Burna Sunday, drenching what archaeologists say could be a 3,300-year-old shrine to the storm god Ba’al, whose offerings poured down on the Judean foothills.

Researchers excavating the ancient Canaanite town recently unearthed evidence of ritual practice they say could represent the first major cultic center found in Israel in about 80 years.

Tel Burna, which some archaeologists associate with the city of Livnah mentioned in Joshua 10, rises from the coastal plain five miles east of the modern city of Kiryat Gat. Its brown flat-topped mound looms about a hundred meters above the fertile fields belonging to the neighboring kibbutzim of Beit Nir and Beit Guvrin. From its base, the stout stone walls of an Iron Age fortress are clearly visible through the scrub. Today, only the cows grazing on Tel Burna’s slope stand guard.

This summer, in the courtyard of a “very large” (52 foot on each side) public building from the Late Bronze Age Canaanite city, Dr. Itzhaq Shai, head of the Institute of Archaeology at the Ariel University, and his team unearthed charred young sheep, goat and pig bones, and a trove of goblets, zoomorphic vessels, figurines and votive cup-and-saucers. Most intriguing, however, were fragments of two ceramic ceremonial masks, eyeholes and noses intact.

“It could be that this is a palace,” he said. “I’m not saying that this is definitely a temple, but this is definitely an elite building that ritual practices also took place in.”

Fragments of Late Bronze Age ritual masks found at Tel Burna (photo courtesy of The Tel Burna Excavation Project)
Fragments of Late Bronze Age ritual masks found at Tel Burna (photo courtesy of The Tel Burna Excavation Project)

Many of the vessels are typical of those used in regional cultic practices, as are the masks, perhaps worn by priests, but “we don’t have many from Israel dating to the Late Bronze Age.” Finding pig bones was “unusual,” he said, but noted that the analysis of the bones found in the courtyard was not yet complete and he couldn’t say what percentage were porcine.

“We don’t know yet which deity was worshiped there,” Shai said. The complex may have served as a cult site to one of the principal Canaanite deities, such as Anat, Ashera, or Ba’al.

According to ancient Near Eastern tradition preserved on clay tablets found at Ugarit, Ba’al was the storm god, son of El, the father of the gods. He is described as riding on the clouds and accompanied by wind and rain. Ba’al vanquished his foes, the god of the sea, Yam, and the embodiment of death, Mot, and at some point in the Late Bronze Age succeeded his father as head of the Canaanite pantheon.

“Ba’al was the main Canaanite god, [but] it could be any other god from the Canaanite pantheon,” he said. “But I don’t have any attribute or statue or even a written find that can give us any hint that it was made for Ba’al.”

“We didn’t excavate the whole complex yet,” and even so it might not yield a definitive answer.

The Canaanite city was about 17 acres in size and home to roughly 5,000 people, a moderate size in the Late Bronze Age. Its inhabitants grew grapes for wine and were clearly connected to the international trade network which flourished in the Eastern Mediterranean at the time.

Shai’s team found two huge ceramic storage jars known as pithoi in the submerged courtyard, each capable of storing roughly 200 liters (52 gallons). Examination of the ceramics showed that they were produced in Cyprus. While similar containers were common in port cities such as Jaffa and Ashkelon, Shai said he was surprised to find such extraordinarily heavy vessels so far inland.

A reconstructed Bronze Age pithos found at Tel Burna. (photo courtesy of The Tel Burna Excavation Project)
A reconstructed Bronze Age pithos found at Tel Burna. (photo courtesy of The Tel Burna Excavation Project)

“Usually imported vessels are small — bowls, jars,” he said. “Those two large pithoi in a small town that’s not a port is very surprising.”

Shai led the way up a cowpath covered in red potsherds to the top of the mound. His team just finished its fourth season excavating Tel Burna, and 2014 yielded some promising discoveries from the Canaanite city which once dominated the plain. At the base of the mound he pointed out agricultural installations belonging to the ancient city, threshing floors and wine and olive presses. Future analysis of grape seeds from the site may help date the industrial fixtures and provide archaeologists with a better understanding of ancient wine.

Remnants of an Iron Age fortress dominate the tel, and on its flat top Shai’s team found the remains of a characteristic Judean four-room house. Centuries after the heyday of Tel Burna’s sacrifices to Canaanite gods, the fortress at Livnah was built by Israelites to guard the frontier against the nearby Philistines. Just nine kilometers (5.5 miles) to the northwest of the tel sat the main Philistine city of Gath, and an equal distance to the south, the Israelite city of Lachish.

“This is the reason that we chose this specific site when we initiated the project,” Shai explained. He said he wanted to better study how people who lived along the border of these two biblical enemies coexisted and interacted. Thus far, “we don’t see too much Philistine influence or finds,” he said.

“The last time someone excavated a temple or shrine in this region,” he explained, “was in the 1930s, the British expedition to Lachish. We now have the opportunity to excavate with [21st century] methods and analyses” — radiocarbon dating, and residue and petrographic analyses.

In the coming season, Shai intends to expand excavations of the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age town, and hopefully take a deep slice into the tel to better examine its strata.

The bedrock floor and wall of the Late Bronze Age courtyard at Tel Burna, with Kibbutz Beit Nir in the background. (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)
The bedrock floor and wall of the Late Bronze Age courtyard at Tel Burna, with Kibbutz Beit Nir in the background. (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)
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