Even while hiking, an Israel Antiquities Authority employee and her daughters can’t leave work behind.
While the family searched for mushrooms following a January rain in the area of Kfar Ruppin, archaeologist Ayelet Goldberg-Keidar’s two girls, Hadas and Maya, discovered a small 2,800-year-old horse-shaped clay figurine. They did not, however, discover any mushrooms.
Kedar-Goldberg said she knew right away that the statue was nothing to neigh at: “We were very excited. It’s a fascinating find and spectacularly beautiful.”
“I immediately recognized it was an ancient figurine from the Iron Age – the period of the Kingdom of Israel,” said Kedar-Goldberg in a IAA press release.
Coincidentally, a second horse statue — this one “only” 2,200 years old — was also recently discovered in a second location, near the seaside site of Tel Akko, by another hiker, Michael Markin. According to the IAA, this horse, which is depicted with a harness and mane, dates to the Hellenistic period (3rd to 2nd centuries BCE).
It is not unusual for such finds to make their way to the surface following heavy rains, said Nir Distelfeld, an Israel Antiquities Authority Theft Prevention Unit inspector. Likewise, nature can get a helping hand from the animal kingdom, when burrowing creatures expose ancient artifacts.
In December 2017, during another family hike at Kibbutz Nir David, Goldberg-Keidar and daughter Hadas stumbled upon an intact 2,200-year-old clay lamp lying at the mouth of a cave used by a porcupine as a winter den. “Porcupines prefer archaeological sites because the earth is less packed due to man’s activities in the past,” said Distelfeld.
Distelfeld calls on those who stumble across such rare items to report or turn them in to the IAA and “help put together the pieces of our historical puzzle.” Certificates of appreciation are presented to all such good citizens.
Through real-time accurate reporting of finds and their locations, archaeologists can “extract the archaeological information from the site,” said Distelfeld.
In the cases of these horse heads, preliminary inspection by University of Haifa archaeologist and art historian Dr. Adi Erlich has already yielded a wealth of information. In the IAA press release, Erlich explained that alongside greater utilization of horses, such figurines were common in the Land of Israel during the Iron Age (first millennium BCE). Figurines or vessels depicting horses were carved both with and without riders, she said.
A rider’s left hand is apparent on the neck of the small horse statuette discovered by the Goldberg-Keidar family near Kfar Ruppin. According to Erlich, the style and craftsmanship of the figurine is characteristic of the 9th-7th centuries BCE. Upon the clay horse head, the artist added ears, a harness, and mane, as well as red stripes which can still be faintly discerned.
“It should be noted that in our region, almost only men were depicted in figurines as riding horses, while women were carved in the context of fertility, motherhood, and sexuality, which attests to gender roles in society during the Iron Age,” Erlich said.
In the IAA release, Erlich also referenced equestrian use in the Bible. Coincidentally, just a few days ago synagogues around the world heard a reading from the Book of Judges (4:4-5:31), which depicted the battle led by Barak and Deborah against Sisera and his chariot riders.
The battle, in which Sisera’s chariots become bogged down in the mud, is immortalized in the Song of Deborah. In some English translations, the poetry also includes a fitting rain motif: “Then thundered the horses’ hooves — galloping, galloping go his mighty steeds.”