Times of Israel PodcastsAltar horns latest discovery that may tie site to Bible

LISTEN: At Shiloh, archaeologist finds artifacts hinting at biblical Tabernacle

With Texan chutzpah, Dr. Scott Stripling says all digs must start wet-sifting their earth, as he recovers overlooked ancient items at the first Israelite priestly capital

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Archaeologist Dr. Scott Stripling says he never expected to find the biblical Tabernacle at Shiloh — it was made out of animal skins, after all. But in a recent interview with The Times of Israel, he said that since beginning excavations at the site in the summer of 2017, he has found remnants of the “supporting material culture” that fit the time of Joshua and the biblical descriptions of the ancient priestly city.

A trio of rare altar horns on stone blocks are among the most recent of the excavation’s impressive finds. Only seven other similar altars have been discovered in the Land of Israel.

According to Stripling, these three horns may have adorned an altar that was used at the Israelites’ first capital. According to a press release on the find, the three horns came from the general area of a monumental Iron Age building (1177-980 BCE). Two of the altar horns are circa 15” x 9.25” (38 by 22 centimeters). The third is circa 7” x 5” (18 by 13 centimeters). A fourth horn, Stripling hopes, may be uncovered in future excavations.

These horns, along with other cumulatively acquired artifacts, shore up the idea that Stripling is on the right track for finding the site of the ancient tabernacle.

Dr. Scott Stripling, head of the current excavation at biblical Shiloh, exhibits a find. May 22, 2017. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

“We began with a hypothesis: We have the ancient text that says that this was an ancient Israelite cultic center, and then we begin to see if we have verisimilitude. Does the material culture match what we read in the text?” asked Stripling, a Texan born and reared, while sipping tea in The Times of Israel’s Jerusalem office on a chilly winter afternoon.

“I mean, we were never expecting to find the mishkan [the tabernacle]; it was made of animal skins, it would have decomposed. But the supporting material culture I do believe we’re seeing in the excavation,” he said. According to the Talmud, the Ark of the Covenant remained at Shiloh for 369 years.

Stripling said part of the impetus for his current excavation at Shiloh was to scientifically track whether there is a noticeable transition from the Canaanite cultures residing at the site to that of the Israelites.

The Times of Israel’s Amanda Borschel-Dan interviews Dr. Scott Stripling in ToI’s Jerusalem office, January 5, 2020. (Michael Luddeni)

Stripling believes the Israelites arrived in the Land of Israel with Joshua in circa 1400 BCE, a timing which is somewhat controversial. Other archaeologists have dated the Israelite settlement to circa 1250 BCE.

“There’s a lot of opinions on these years, but I’ll give you mine. And we have a saying in archaeology — where there are two archaeologists, there are three opinions. Sometimes I hold two of those opinions simultaneously,” he joked.

A permanent cultic platform?

Stripling has established cultic activity at Shiloh through the discovery of the altar horns, which he said have been verified by outside experts, including Shimon Gibson, who is currently excavating in Jerusalem’s Mount Zion research expedition. Only seven other stone altars from the biblical period have been discovered in Israel so far.

A Shiloh altar horn. (Michael Luddeni)

As written in the Bible, none of the stones were forged by a mason, but were rather found in this shape, said Stripling. Those discovered at Shiloh are similar in size to horns found in Beersheba, he said, which may give an indication of the size of the altar block as well.

Stripling said his team is also finding indications of a permanent cultic platform area that would have been built circa 1100 BCE. A similar platform is being excavated by Tel Aviv University Prof. Israel Finkelstein at biblical Kiriath-Jearim, which was the 20-year home of the Ark of the Covenant until taken by King David and paraded to Jerusalem. Finkelstein excavated at Shiloh in the 1980s.

This summer Stripling said he intends to excavate the platform further to understand its purpose and he hopes to publish his finds.

“We even expect it to be similar to the biblical dimensions, because the Bible is very specific on the size of the tabernacle and the inner court and the outer court. We don’t have proof of that yet but we do have a monumental building from the period of the mishkan, that oriented east-west, which is what the Bible says, that we’re in the process of excavation,” said Stripling.

Artist’s rendering of the Holy Tabernacle (Free Bible Images)

He believes that the permanent tabernacle would have been on the summit of the hill, or on the northern slope. The altar horns and pomegranates were discovered on this northern slope near a monumental, east-west facing Iron Age building (1177-980 BCE).

“It’s got me very curious, let’s say,” said Stripling.

Getting to the bones of the matter

Ancient Shiloh was not a normal city but rather the hub for the priestly class.

“Prior to Jerusalem, it was all about Shiloh, so this was Israel’s first capital. Jerusalem remained in Jebusite or Canaanite hands for hundreds of years, whereas Joshua sets up the mishkan at Shiloh. And so we’re very interested in seeing the transition from say the Amorite/Canaanite culture into the Israelite culture. Is it measurable scientifically in some way?” asked Stripling.

While he intends to excavate the site for several more years, at this point Stripling feels that he is going to be able to document such a transition.

“We see a small Late Bronze Age II occupation at Shiloh and then maybe an expansion, an explosion in the Iron I period, and this is where you have the stories of course in the Bible of Samuel and Hannah and Elhanan, and so forth,” said Stripling.

Jugs unearthed at the site of the ancient Jewish city Shiloh, summer 2017. (Shiloh Association)

Stripling said an example of the early Israelite settlement includes a bone deposit which is overwhelmingly made up of remains from animals used in the biblical sacrificial system. Less than one percent have been identified as pig bones in the Israelite strata, whereas in the previous layer, he said, there were 4% pig bones. “So it’s a detectable difference that’s taken place,” he stated.

Of the bones from the animals kosher for the sacrificial system, most are from the right side of the animal, which in Leviticus 7 is denoted as “the priests’ portion,” he said.

He’s also found a series of storage rooms that, after more excavation, Stripling believes will encircle the hill at Shiloh. They would have been, he believes, where the offerings were kept.

Canaanite-era storerooms at Shiloh excavated by Prof. Israel Finkelstein during the 1980s. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

“No other site in Israel has that,” he said. “If we’re assuming there was a sacrificial system there… well, what do you bring if you’re going to bring your tithe? You can’t make a secure online donation at Tabernacle.org; you can’t write a check. What are you going to do? You’re going to bring commodities. Barley, figs, pomegranates. And so what do we find? Storage rooms around the entire perimeter” of the ancient mound, said Stripling.

He said he has found organic matter in the storage rooms and has sent out some of the pottery sherds from storage vessels for residual analysis, but does not yet have results, he said. “But from the seeds we have found around it, it’s what you would expect,” he said, mentioning the seven species.

The most important of the species is pomegranate, he said, because only the pomegranate goes into the Holy of Holies. “So we’re finding those pomegranates,” he said, referring to the two small, 3-inch ceramic pomegranates that have been uncovered at the site.

Tiny clay pomegranate discovered at ancient Shiloh. (Michael Luddeni)

Technique that might change the face of Israeli archaeology

In executing his excavation, Stripling is utilizing relatively new techniques, including residue analysis on pottery sherds, high-tech analysis of organic materials, and wet sifting, a process he learned during a stint as a supervisor at the Temple Mount Sifting Project.

Through wet sifting, he is also reviewing previous excavations’ garbage piles to rescue small artifacts that slipped through the archaeologists’ sieves. These “lost” artifacts, for example many coins and clay sealings newly rediscovered during this just-finished winter sifting season, are greatly adding to the data from the 1920s Dutch excavation and the 1980s Israeli dig under Finkelstein, he said.

Unlike the Temple Mount Sifting Project, which basically pioneered the wide-scale use of the technique in its examination of buckets of ash that were unceremoniously dumped from the Temple Mount during illegal construction there, the dirt piles in Shiloh have clear contexts. Stripling worked for two years as a supervisor at the project “and became a believer.”

Visitors sifting buckets of earth from the Temple Mount at the relaunch of the Temple Mount Sifting Project, June 2, 2019. (Yosef Huri)

He calls the technique “revolutionary.”

“I had decided that when we could do a controlled excavation and use wet-sifting in the field where we know the stratification, that’s what we wanted to do. So we’ve been doing that at Shiloh and now I’m going back to the old dump piles so that we can compare what you get when you wet sift in the field and what was missed in the past,” said Stripling.

After comparing and seeing how many more tiny scarabs, coins, and other minuscule artifacts are being retrieved, Stripling feels that the technique should be adopted by archaeologists nationwide. He’s at work writing up academic articles on the subject, but offered The Times of Israel a preview.

“I guess your readers are the first ones to hear about it, but in a sense I’ll say, ‘We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing, because we’re throwing away over 50%'” of the evidence, he said.

Because many archaeologists have told Stripling that the cost of such an operation is prohibitive, his organization, the Associates for Biblical Research, has engineered a mobile sifting station that other researchers can rent for around $1,000.

Volunteers at the Temple Mount Sifting Project attempt to discover historical artifacts. (Temple Mount Sifting Project)

The preacher who digs

In addition to his work as an archaeologist, Stripling is a pastor and is affiliated with The Bible Seminary in Katy (Houston), Texas, where he serves as the provost and professor of Biblical Archaeology and Church History.

His approach to biblical archaeology, he said, can be likened to that of previous great Israeli archaeologists such as Yigal Yadin.

“They took the Bible as a serious historical text and I do as well. I think that it informs what I am doing and for me personally it’s very meaningful when we’re finding material remains, but I’m very capable of bifurcating my beliefs from what we’re finding. We’re not trying to read something into the evidence that’s not there,” he said, and named the various sub-specialties of the scientists supporting his team.

The Times of Israel’s Amanda Borschel-Dan interviews Dr. Scott Stripling in ToI’s Jerusalem office, January 5, 2020. (Michael Luddeni)

“The science is what the science is. But for me personally as a Christian — of course our roots are in Judaism so it’s the same scriptures that we’re sharing — it’s very meaningful and sometimes I just have to stop and remind myself where I am. And one of my favorite verses from the Hebrew Bible is Psalm 102:14, ‘Blessed are those who love your dust and cherish your stones,'” he said.

“And it’s in my nose and my ears and my fingernails, so I think it’s safe to say that I cherish it,” said Stripling.

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