Ritual Deposition, Storage and Disposal in the Iron Age Wilderness of the Southern Levant
By: Andrea Creel, University of California-Berkeley, California
Educational and Cultural Affairs Fellow
Imagine the desert. Imagine a place at once desolate and overrun with life, a place where one may only see the horizon for miles and then suddenly a town, a structure, or, perhaps a drawing etched on a rock. Imagine a place where humans live and wander side by side with gods and spirits, where one can go to find one’s gods, to give and receive from them. This place is marginal and liminal, but it is also a world unto itself. Now, imagine this desert, today politically fragmented into the Sinai, the Negev and southern Jordan, but a great expanse in ancient times, where various peoples - traders, miners, nomads, pilgrims, explorers and wanderers - lived and traveled, a desert at the southern extreme of the crossroads of the Mediterranean and Near East.
Often considered peripheral in the Iron Age II (1000-586 BCE), the crisscrossing of trade routes and the movements of the reigning world power, the Assyrian Empire, through these deserts suggests that their inhabitants were tapped into the wider Levantine framework of interaction and negotiation, albeit in a rather distinctive way. This distinctiveness, a simultaneous rurality and interconnectedness in an arid environment, marks ritual deposition as a particularly germane issue in this region. Living in an arid setting required constant vigilance over specialized subsistence strategies and a particular eye toward storage and the maintenance of proper relationships with divine powers. Indeed, the centrality of these issues would have endowed the acts of storage and disposal with particularly charged connotations. This desert is the highly dynamic liminal place of a liminal place, an extraordinary land where numinous powers, drawing from this double liminality of the landscape, manifest in ritually charged objects, fantastic creatures, supernatural beings, and miraculous events are even imbued in the land itself.
My dissertation centers on ritual deposition in this desert during the time when the Southern Levant had segmented into entities recognizable from the Hebrew Bible – Israel, Judah, Phoenicia, Philistia, Edom, Moab, Ammon. Interestingly, these groups commonly practiced ritual deposition on the site level within liminal spaces such as gates and at the regional level within small ritual sites - Kuntillet ʾAjrûd, Arad, Ḥorvat Qitmit, and En Ḥaṣeva – which themselves are “gates” along roadways in the Sinai-Negev. My research focuses on contextualizing these sites within their geographic and temporal settings and assessing their material culture in light of their cultural and geographical landscapes. I argue that ritual deposition interacted recursively with the desert landscape to generate a specific milieu of gods, spirits, and humans intermingling in this unfettered expanse. I am also exploring the intimate relationship between ritual practices at these sites and their geography, which may have superseded, interacted with or constructed any specific ethnic identification of their visitors.
My data includes common vessels, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic vessels, figurines, model shrines and incense stands, and finds of a unique appearance, a foreign origin, or made of special materials. I analyze the relationships between the deposition of these objects - visible and partially concealed deposition in ritual spaces, and burial in floors, walls, pits and inside other objects - and the devotee’s approaching of and drawing away from the divine. Moreover, the materiality of the objects - their composition, tactility, visuality, durability, dimensionality and proportionality - is integral as that which links them, their humans users, and their wilderness setting.
To that end, the Educational and Cultural Affairs Fellowship at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research has been of invaluable benefit to my research. I have had the opportunity to personally examine many of the objects from these sites which are currently housed at the Israel Museum and in the archives of the Israel Antiquities Authority in Bet Shemesh, as well as visit the sites themselves, and additional sites in the Negev. I have also been able to visit other sites, such as Dan and Megiddo, with rich archaeological remains of ritual activity that will inform my interpretation of the desert sites. Meeting with other scholars who work in the Negev or on topics in ritual and religion has also been of immeasurable value to my research. I would like to thank especially Director Seymour Gitin, the staff at the Albright, and the 2013-2014 class of Fellows for sharing research, resources, and advice with me. It is much appreciated, and hopefully, worth the effort!
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