By: Edward F. Maher
The Iron Age of Ancient Israel (1200 – 586 BCE) includes the rise and decline of two well known cultural groups. The interactions between Israel and their nemesis the Philistines are described in the Old Testament that emphasized the differences between their cultures, heritage, and general ways of life. One of those distinctions was the observance of consumption taboos; Israelites did not eat pork products whereas the Philistines had no such dietary restriction. Thus, pork consumption has long been thought to be a hallmark of Philistine culture while pig avoidance a practice consistent with Israelite identity. Evidence unearthed at some archaeological excavations has been cited in support this simple dichotomy. But what is the nature of this evidence? And do such data represent an accurate and reliable marker for a group’s ethnicity? And finally, are there other ways in which this evidence can be interpreted?
As archaeology gradually matured as a scientific discipline, methods advanced toward new techniques to investigate the ancient past. One of these approaches, known as zooarchaeology, centered on the study of animal remains from archaeological sites. Zooarchaeologists examine bones and teeth and, if the remains are well preserved, can identify the species of animal to which they belong. Zooarchaeologists are therefore uniquely qualified to discuss diet and general animal exploitation.
Zooarchaeological evidence demonstrates that Philistines raised more pigs (Sus scrofa), than Israelites who seemed to have comparatively little interest in hog management. Pigs from some Philistine sites make up as much as 20-30% of the animals used. In contrast, contemporary sites occupied by non-Philistines mainly include other common domesticated stock such as sheep, goats, and cattle and many failed to produce even a single pig bone or tooth amongst the thousands of animal remains. These discoveries have been and continue to be accepted by many scholars as ironclad and irrefutable confirmation of the biblical narrative, that a presence of pig equals Philistine culture while an absence of pig reflects Israelite society. This argument even seems to gain momentum if one considers the zooarchaeological data from the preceding Bronze Age. Pigs were exploited during this earlier phase but typically on a much smaller scale. Although it is certainly possible that these culinary pursuits aligned with ethnic preferences, let us consider Philistine and Israelite spheres more closely.
Elevated pig consumption coincides with the early stages of the Philistines’ appearance in the region during the 12th and 11th century BCE. Approximately 50 years later, in the mid-11th century BCE, pigs were not used as often, a decline which continues into the 10th century BCE. In fact, the scale of Philistine swine operations never returns to that of original levels; as time progressed the Philistine diet actually trended away from pig use. By the latter stages of Philistine occupation in the 7th century BCE, pig remains comprise less than 5% of the animals used, a rate comparable to contemporary non-Philistine communities. Therefore, swine popularity amongst the Philistines was restricted to a specific period of time, lasting approximately a century.
If pigs were a staple of Philistine culture, one would expect their use to be more widespread across time. But the highest period of heightened pig exploitation occurs with the arrival of the Philistines into the southern Levant from a distant land, suggested by many scholars to be somewhere in the Aegean world. As a new emigrant population, the Philistines faced challenges typical of initial settlement. Pig husbandry would be a good strategy for new settlers, allowing them to quickly establish their animal resource base. This is not only because sows (female pigs) birth large litters of piglets, but because the pig’s omnivorous diet efficiently converts a wide range of edible materials into exploitable pork products.
But what accounts for the decline in hog production and consumption? Two suggestions can be offered. One is that the initial advantage gained by pig raising was eventually lost when immigrant economies stabilized, during which time pigs were gradually and systematically replaced by animals capable of producing secondary products, for example dairy products, sheep wool, goat hair, and cattle traction. Another reason for the decline in pig use may relate to the Philistines’ exposure to local cultures and their willingness to incorporate some of these foreign cultural elements into their own society. This process is evident in several categories of the Philistine material culture such as pottery, writing systems, figurines, architecture, and even jewelry. It is possible that cultural interaction with foreign groups eventually led to an adjustment in the Philistine animal economy.
The abundance of pigs varies within and between Philistine sites. In some large Philistine cities and towns pork consumption was not evenly represented throughout the architectural units. Thus, pigs appear intended for specific members of the community with perhaps a connection to social rank. Recent work has also demonstrated that pigs are rare at Philistine villages but more common in Philistine cities. This spatial variation in Philistine pig use between urban centers and rural areas makes an ethnic linkage more problematic.
In contrast, pigs are either present in very low numbers or are completely absent at Israelite sites occupied during the United Monarchy of the early Iron Age and later Iron Age sites of the Divided Monarchy. But there are reasons for the absence or lack of hogs that may be unrelated to ethnicity. For example, if a group lived in a particularly hot and dry region, pigs would not be the animal of choice because their physiology does not allow them to thrive in such conditions. Pig avoidance may also relate to concerns involving hygiene. If, as some scholars believe, the Israelites were once nomadic pastoralists, their cultural origins may explain why pigs were not used in later periods. Non-sedentary mobile groups moving from place to place with the seasonal availability of water and pasture tend not to raise pigs since they are more difficult to handle than other herd animals such as sheep, goats, or cattle. Thus, pig avoidance may represent an echo of the Israelites’ former existence before their communities became more sedentary. We may also consider the relationship between animal management and local political hierarchical arrangements. Since pigs yield few secondary products compared to other barnyard stock, their production is often discouraged by powerful external administrations that demand receipt of taxes and tribute. This is especially true when such debts are paid with pork, their primary product.
One of the goals of Iron Age research in the southern Levant is understanding cultural identities based on material remains, and extent to which archaeologists may identify a particular site with the Philistines, Israelites, Canaanites, Egyptians, Phoenicians, or others. Acknowledging the difficulty in this, some have proposed that consumption taboos involving pork represents one of the main indicators of ethnic Philistine identity. Despite a range of other factors that must be considered, as outlined above, many still cling steadfast to this argument.
Unfortunately we have no way of knowing just how early Israelite food taboos were institutionalized and became part of their cultural identity. Some curious finds that complicate an easy view of Israelite food taboos are also worthy of mention. A skeleton of a nearly intact adult pig was found at Hazor, a city in the northern Kingdom of Israel. Although the catfish (Clarias gariepinus) is known at Judean Iron Age sites such as Lachish and the City of David in Jerusalem, it would normally be regarded as non-kosher because it does not possess scales.
The occasional presence of non-kosher species in Israelite contexts could reflect the gradual definition of consumption taboos. However, these discoveries may instead reflect varying adherence to cultural ideals, with some more relaxed in their observances and others were more strict, and perhaps even people somewhere in the middle. Since variations in observances of kosher laws are also evident in the modern era, it may be more realistic to consider whether similar sentiments were also practiced in antiquity. Pigs may thus remind us of the complexity of human nature and why archaeology has so much to contribute to the thoughtful study of what makes different cultures unique.
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