This little piggy went to Jerusalem 2,700 years ago, raising some questions

Bones of small pig pulled out of home being excavated in City of David, adding to rare, but not nonexistent, series of finds showing Judeans did occasionally ham it up

Articulated pig skeleton as found in City of David excavation. (Oscar Bejerano, Israel Antiquities Authority)
Articulated pig skeleton as found in City of David excavation. (Oscar Bejerano, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Remains of a small pig dating back nearly 3,000 years were recently found in an archaeological dig in East Jerusalem, raising questions about the origins of the Jewish aversion to pork.

The discovery was reported last month in the peer-reviewed journal Near East Archaeology, reigniting previous questions about the significance of evidence showing that while members of the northern Israelite kingdoms brought home the bacon at times, people in the Judean hinterlands rarely did.

The remains of the pig, which date from the 8th century BCE, were uncovered during excavations of a large home in the City of David, thought to be the oldest part of Jerusalem, directly south of the Old City, according to the Haaretz daily, which first reported on the find.

The remains were found almost totally intact, indicating that the pig avoided ending up on a plate and died some other way.

Pig skeleton upon removal at City of David site. (Joe Uziel; courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

The find is the latest in a series of studies and discoveries that have spurred questions about the origins of the Jewish taboo and biblical injunction against eating or raising pork.

“Although pork consumption was clearly not preferred in the region of Judah, the presence of an articulated skeleton of a small pig seems to indicate that not only was pork consumed in small amounts… but that pigs were raised for this purpose in the capital of Judah. This has far-reaching implications for understanding the pork-taboo often attributed to ancient Israel and Judah,” authors Lidar Sapir-Hen, Joe Uziel and Ortal Chalaf wrote.

Givati Parking Lot excavations in the City of David Park in Jerusalem, a site where remnants of the 586 BCE destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians were discovered. (Shai Halevi/Israel Antiquities Authority)

While archaeologists previously saw pig remains as a reliable marker for distinguishing Israelite sites from those inhabited by Canaanites and others, scholarship since has shown that Israelites also consumed and raised pork, and some other groups abandoned pig meat at various times, in response to social and economic pressures.

Dr. Sapir-Hen, of Tel Aviv University, identified the skeleton as that of a young pig less than seven months old. She said it was found in a room together with the bones of other animals prepared as food, such as sheep, goats, cattle, poultry and fish.

Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen (Tel Aviv University)

The variety and ages of the other animals indicate that the building’s occupants were relatively upper-class, she said in an Israel Antiquities Authority press release. “The discovery of the pig skeleton sheds new light on the consumption and dietary practices of Jerusalemites during the Kingdom of Judah, over 2,700 years ago,” said Dr. Sapir-Hen. “The diet was varied and also included a small amount of pork. The discovery joins other finds from excavations in recent years in the City of David and elsewhere in the Kingdom of Judah, which show low frequencies of pork consumption (usually less than two percent of the total) at sites in Jerusalem and the surrounding region throughout the Iron Age.”

The pig was discovered standing trapped among an assortment of pottery vessels dating from the eighth century BCE and used for storage, the IAA said. The piglet evidently died beneath the stone walls of the building that collapsed on it, unable to escape.

Dr. Joe Uziel and Ortal Chalaf of the Israel Antiquities Authority at the excavation site. (Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority)

According to IAA excavation directors Uziel and Chalaf, “The finds recovered near the pig show that the residents were Judahites, not foreigners: Among other artifacts, we found bullae (clay document seals) inscribed with Judahite names such as ‘Hahanyahu’ and ‘Ashiyahu’ in paleo-Hebrew script.”

Thus, they said, “The discovery of the piglet skeleton is a rare archaeological find, contributing significant and important data that reflects the religious and social complexity of the society living in Jerusalem toward the end of the First Temple period.”

Bones of the articulated pig, in the lab. (Sasha Flit; courtesy of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University)

In Judean sites, porcine remains are rare no matter when they date from, although not nonexistent. In a 2016 paper, Sapir-Hen, Yuval Gadot and Israel Finkelstein, all from Tel Aviv University, describe pork remains found in an excavated home near the Western Wall plaza, and other instances of small amounts of remains being found in other cities.

“While they are indeed very rare, an occasional pig was consumed,” Sapir-Hen wrote in 2019.

First Temple period structures near the Gihon Spring in Jerusalem’s City of David (Joe Uziel, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

In the 2021 paper, Sapir-Hen notes that the building the piglet was found in was opulent by local standards, indicating that pork consumption was undertaken by a mainstreamed elite and not marginal peasantry.

“The extent of culinary consumption based on laws of Kashrut in the Iron Age is still debatable,” the authors write. “Perhaps the presence of one small pig, caught in the collapse of its habitat, did not carry much weight on its body, but carries more weight on the manner in which we interpret pig bones — or lack thereof — in Judahite culture.”

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