By: Jonathan S. Greer
Not all exciting archaeological discoveries, even those related to Israelite religion, are made in field. Some come after the end of the season, in the lab, or even long after the dig has concluded, after scouring records and analyzing material from storerooms. I have had the privilege of working with previously excavated material from Tel Dan and recently published an analysis in a new book, Dinner at Dan: Biblical and Archaeological Evidence for Sacred Feasts at Iron Age II Tel Dan and Their Significance. I am delighted to share some of my analysis and conclusions from this publication. These results point to a remarkable convergence of Biblical and archaeological data.
The book explores biblical and archaeological evidence for sacred feasting at Tel Dan and evaluates the historicity, nature, and significance of these events from the late tenth through mid-eighth centuries BCE. Each data set, biblical and archaeological, is addressed independently before drawing out the significance of these (re-)constructed events for the study of ancient Israelite religion and society. This précis covers some of the significant archaeological findings from the project.
The archaeological section is based on my analysis of seven feasting deposits from the Iron Age II “sacred precinct” (Area T, with its famous series of altar platforms) at Tel Dan excavated by Avraham Biran primarily in the 1980s and 1990s. These were identified by carefully working through all extant documentation and, in consultation with the current project director David Ilan and one of the longtime Area T supervisors, Ross Vos, noting relatively secure loci with high concentrations of ceramic and animal bone remains. Eight such loci were identified throughout the precinct forming seven distinct concentrations; two were clearly pits and all appear to represent intentional deposits rather than random scatter. Six of these are discussed here.
These six concentrations are located in two separate areas within Area T, the first clustered in the courtyard around the central altar structure that is present in all Iron Age II phases of activity and the second in a specific space of the western chamber complex. My analysis of the ceramic and animal bone remains from these six deposits highlighted both similarities and differences, and in many cases demonstrated significant contrasts between the deposits of the western chambers and those of the courtyard. The areas were used very differently, but by whom?
Similarities among the deposits included the various species represented by the animal bones – almost entirely sheep, goats, and cattle – as well as numerous cut marks and breakage patterns on the bones associated with eating activities. The ceramic remains from the deposits, too, include evidence of eating based on high proportions of cooking pots, as well as other dining vessels.
Together, the faunal and ceramic evidence suggest that each stage of the foodway process – from animal slaughter and processing, to the preparation, distribution, consumption, and deposition – took place in this area. That these activities took place within an area with religious significance, as demonstrated by architectural features and cultic paraphernalia, justifies identifying these activities as cultic feasts on archaeological grounds alone.
But detailed analyses revealed more subtle variations. Differences between the two groups of deposits, those of the western chambers and those of the courtyard, included four statistically significant patterns of nonrandom distribution observed in 1) proportions of different species, 2) right-sided to left-sided portions, 3), painted to unpainted diagnostic ceramic sherds, and 4) phalanges (“toe bones”) to meaty long bone fragments. In the western chambers there was a higher proportion of sheep/goat remains than cattle, a higher percentage of right-sided limb portions, and a greater proportion of decorative ceramic wares, compared to the deposits of the courtyard. Most striking was the higher percentage of phalanges in the western chambers that suggest the processing of animal skins, since the hooves and the related bones (i.e., phalanges) were often left intact in processed skins.
Each of these four distinctly nonrandom distributions of faunal and ceramic remains is curiously congruent with Avraham Biran’s original association of the western chambers with Israelite priests, when considered in light of priestly texts from the Hebrew Bible.
The increased percentages of sheep/goats may be explained by the datum that in the offerings where the priests received a whole animal for consumption (certain “sin” offerings; Leviticus 4:22-35; 5:6-10; 6: 18-20; and “guilt” offerings; Leviticus 7:1-7; 14:12-21) the victims are always sheep or goats. Conversely, there are no such offerings of cattle in which priests receive the entire animal for consumption. One may conclude from the biblical texts that in a sacrificial setting the percentage of sheep and goats consumed by priests would be higher than that consumed by offerers, just as there is in the western chambers compared to the courtyard.
More striking still is the higher percentage of right-sided portions in the western chambers. In the biblical texts concerning the “fellowship” offering, the priests are awarded the forelimb (in the Septuagint) or hind-limb (in the Masoretic Text) of the animal. While there appears to be evidence of different traditions and development over time, when a side of the animal is specified (whether forelimb or hind-limb) it is always the right-sided portion that is given to the priest (cf. Exodus 29:27-28; Leviticus 7:32-33). The increased percentage of right-sided limb portions is again consistent with interpreting the western chambers as the domain of the priests.
Painted wares may also be viewed as indicating an elevated social status or having specialized functions. The greater percentage of painted wares in the western chambers may also strengthen association with the priests.
Finally, the association of phalanges with priests makes sense in light of biblical texts that assign the skin of animals destroyed by fire in the regular “burnt” offerings (Leviticus 7:8) to the priests. The percentage of bones associated with skin processing activities—specifically phalanges attached to the skin—would be higher in an area used by priests in a sacrificial setting than it would be in an area used by offerers. This is the situation we have in the western chambers, as compared to the courtyard.
As striking as these correspondences are, many questions remain. First of all, can these archaeological indicators really be identified as “Israelite,” or rather are they indicative of broader Levantine cultic practices? Even if they could be identified as Israelite, can ritual sections of the priestly texts that appear in the later edited forms of the Hebrew Bible be regarded as applicable to interpreting Iron Age practices? Above all, what is the significance of these archaeological and textual correspondences for our understanding of Israelite religion and society?
The evidence reviewed here reveals a remarkable “convergence,” to use William Dever’s term, between the biblical texts and the archaeological remains from Tel Dan. Overall, as I show in my book, these data are mutually informative and together tell a story of Israelite monarchs acting within a traditional Yahwistic religious framework. These kings used the ancient and powerful practice of the sacred feast to first unify tribal factions and then reinforce hierarchies, political and religious developments that mirrored far larger changes sweeping the region during the first millennium BCE.
In agreement with Aren Maeir’s recent comments in The Ancient Near East Today, I suggest that today’s “biblical archaeology” demands a rigorous, careful examination not only of archaeological remains but also of the Bible in all its complexity. While I know well that not all will be convinced by my conclusions, I hope that this study will be viewed as striving to model for this approach and that will encourage further efforts to re-integrate archaeology and biblical studies in a responsible manner.
Jonathan Greer is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.
This work was only possible thanks to the access provided to the unpublished Tel Dan remains by David Ilan and the cooperation of Ross Vos. I am further indebted to Brian Hesse (z”l), my animal bone mentor, and to my Doktorvaters B. Halpern and Gary Knoppers.
Readers may also find a more technical summary addressing the potentially Israelite character of the remains with citations here.
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