Rare ‘smiting gods’ among artifacts found at 12th century BCE Canaanite temple
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Rare ‘smiting gods’ among artifacts found at 12th century BCE Canaanite temple

Once-in-a-career Bronze Age findings from Lachish described as ‘breathtaking’ by archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel, who published a comprehensive report on 2013-2017 excavations

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Temple at Tel Lachish (Courtesy of the Fourth Expedition to Lachish)
    Temple at Tel Lachish (Courtesy of the Fourth Expedition to Lachish)
  • The 'first' letter 'samech' found on a piece of pottery from at a 12th century BCE Canaanite temple at Lachish. (T. Rogovski)
    The 'first' letter 'samech' found on a piece of pottery from at a 12th century BCE Canaanite temple at Lachish. (T. Rogovski)
  • An intricate relief now found in the British Museum depicts the Assyrian army razing Lachish as they conquered and destroyed the settlements of Judah. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    An intricate relief now found in the British Museum depicts the Assyrian army razing Lachish as they conquered and destroyed the settlements of Judah. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • First Temple iron arrowheads from Tel Lachish, on show at the Armstrong Auditorium in Edmond, Oklahoma, June 2018. (Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority, Photo: Reese Zoellner/Watch Jerusalem)
    First Temple iron arrowheads from Tel Lachish, on show at the Armstrong Auditorium in Edmond, Oklahoma, June 2018. (Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority, Photo: Reese Zoellner/Watch Jerusalem)
  • Two cultic incense altars found in one of the rooms of the structure situated at the heart of a military training area in the Lachish region. (Michal Haber, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Two cultic incense altars found in one of the rooms of the structure situated at the heart of a military training area in the Lachish region. (Michal Haber, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Archaeologists at work excavating the biblical city of Lachish, where an early 12th century BCE Canaanite alphabet inscription was found in 2014. (courtesy of Yossi Garfinkel, Hebrew University)
    Archaeologists at work excavating the biblical city of Lachish, where an early 12th century BCE Canaanite alphabet inscription was found in 2014. (courtesy of Yossi Garfinkel, Hebrew University)

A pair of smiting gods and other rare ritual artifacts are among the fascinating discoveries described in a recently published comprehensive report of the 2013-2017 excavations of the archaeology-rich Lachish site. The report digs deep into 12th century BCE Canaanite worship practices, from the modest temple structure, to ritual items discovered inside.

“This excavation has been breathtaking,” said lead archaeologist Professor Yosef Garfinkel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archaeology in a press release on Monday. The excavation report, “The Level VI North-East Temple at Tel Lachish,” was recently published in the academic journal Levant: The Journal of the Council for British Research in the Levant.

“Only once every 30 or 40 years do we get the chance to excavate a Canaanite temple in Israel. What we found sheds new light on ancient life in the region. It would be hard to overstate the importance of these findings,” said Garfinkel, who led the excavation along with Professor Michael Hasel of Southern Adventist University in Tennessee.

The temple structure, called the “North-East Temple” by the archaeologists, was uncovered in National Park Tel Lachish, near today’s Kiryat Gat, and is similar in plan to contemporary temples discovered in northern Israel at ancient Nablus, Megiddo, and Hazor.

A conservationist works on a bronze cauldron found at a 12th century BCE Canaanite temple at Lachish. (T. Rogovski)

During the middle and late Bronze Ages, the people of Lachish controlled large parts of the Judean lowlands and the city was among the foremost Canaanite cities in the Land of Israel. Mentioned in the Bible, Lachish was built around 1800 BCE and later destroyed by the Egyptians around 1550 BCE. The city rose and fell twice more, “succumbing for good around 1150 BCE,” according to the press release.

The 12th century BCE Canaanite temple, while not a massive compound, is a once-in-a-lifetime find for archaeologists. The Levant article writes that, “in comparison to the plan of other temples of the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age I, the North-East Temple of Lachish is modest in its dimensions and can be defined as medium-sized.”

Prof. Yosef Garfinkel, head of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, at the Khirbet a-Ra‘i excavation, on July 8, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

According to the press release, the compound was divided into a front area that was marked by two columns and two towers, which led into a large hall. From there, an inner sanctum was delineated by four supporting columns “and several unhewn ‘standing stones’ that may have served as representations of temple gods,” stated the press release. The two “standing stones” are quite large: the bigger of the pair measures 60 cm (some 23 inches) wide and 90 cm long (approximately 35 inches) and the smaller is also 60 cm wide and only 70 cm (nearly 28 inches) long.

In a departure from the typical Canaanite temple structure, the compound also includes side rooms. “The presence of side rooms in that structure is one of the main points that has fueled the dispute over its characterization as a temple or a ceremonial palace,” write the authors. “It is possible that the addition of side rooms to a temple with ‘Syrian’ characteristics is a precursor of Iron Age temples like the temple of Motza and the biblical Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.” The schematic drawing illustrating the Levant article indicates there were some eight or nine areas to the large temple compound, including a “Holy of Holies.”

The plan of the a 12th century BCE Canaanite temple at Lachish. (J. Rosenberg)

In addition to the standing stones, the press release lists a plethora of other ritual items that were discovered, such as “bronze cauldrons, jewelry inspired by the ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor, daggers and axe-heads adorned with bird images, scarabs, and a gold-plated bottle inscribed with the name Ramses II, one of Egypt’s most powerful pharaohs.”

Perhaps the most fascinating finds are a pair of smiting gods, which were discovered inside the temple’s inner sanctum, comparable to the Jerusalem Solomonic Temple’s “Holy of Holies.” Labeled Room H in the article, it “is located in the innermost part of the structure and on its central axis, directly opposite the main entrance.”

Weapons and jewelry discovered at a 12th century BCE Canaanite temple at Lachish. (T. Rogovski)

Smiting gods are found in the Levant in temples from the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age I. The authors write that the figurines are commonly identified with two Canaanite gods, Baal or Resheph, who are both known as war gods, “although it is impossible to identify our figurines with either due to the lack of clear attributes.”

A pair of smiting gods uncovered at a 12th century BCE Canaanite temple at Lachish. (T. Rogovski)

According to the article, the smiting gods measure a scant 10 cm (4 inches) and 8.5 cm (3.3 inches). The two little male figurines are made of bronze and were originally coated with silver. Both are marching with their right hands raised and are wearing short kilts and tall hats, one of which, the article writes, recalls the White Crown of Upper Egypt. One of the gods is still holding a weapon, a mace or club that is attached to the figure’s forehead, writes the article. “Below their feet are pegs that were used to attach the figurines to wooden stands, as attested by the remains of wood.” According to other remains found on one of the gods — beads and indications of a necklace — one may have been worn as a pendant.

Photograph and modern imprint of scarab unearthed at a 12th century BCE Canaanite temple at Lachish. (T. Rogovski)

The history of Lachish was littered with ups and downs and, according to the Levant article, there are several indications uncovered in the main hall “which represent a secondary phase of construction that seems to reflect a crisis state preceding the destruction of the temple.”

Among the most headline catching finds that were reporting during the excavation is the discovery of what researchers are calling the first known account of the Semitic letter “samech.” Reported in 2015, the letter was found on a “potsherd slightly larger than a business card,” as The Times of Israel wrote then, which was found inside the temple’s ruins.

The inscription, three lines containing nine early Semitic letters, was discovered during excavations at the site in 2014 and is believed to date from around 1130 BCE. It’s the first Canaanite inscription found in a Late Bronze Age context in over 30 years.

The ‘first’ letter ‘samech’ found on a piece of pottery from at a 12th century BCE Canaanite temple at Lachish. (T. Rogovski)

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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