Working in the Pottery Lab complex is one of several unexpected pleasures I’ve been experiencing on this excavation. As a microcosm of Israel itself, our Lab is international. Yolanta, who knows all the pottery of each age in this region, is Jewish, of Polish descent. Rachel Ben Dov, well-known metallurgist and archaeologist, is a native Israeli, born not long after Israel became a nation in 1948. Sarcon, an artist and computer graphics expert, is a Turkish Muslim. Rauna, the builder and maintainer of Tel Akko’s rather magnificent database, is Danish, married to an Israeli.
Each brings seasons of experience, intelligence, multiple PhD’s, creativity, humor, and good nature to their work. I look forward to heading there, every day, after digging in the morning.
In the early afternoon, around 1pm, the rest of the crew returns from the excavation, and a small cadre of area supervisors come in with the special finds, and the “Find of The Day.” This year, we seem to have uncovered a treasure trove of horse heads and female figurines. Both have intriguing implications.
The horse heads originally belonged to a horse-and-rider combination. “According to Dr. Adi Erlich of the University of Haifa, the use of horses in the Ancient Near East was greatly increased during the Iron Age. Chariots are mentioned in several ancient literary accounts including Pharaoh’s pursuit of the Israelites in Exodus, and Deborah and Barak’s battle against Sisera in Judges. Erlich says that “Horse figurines were common in the Land of Israel in the first millennium BCE,” including horse-shaped vessels used for holding liquids.” (That link will send you to a short and fascinating story about horse heads being discovered near Akko)
It is thought, at least in our Pottery Lab, the horse-and-rider figurines came from Bronze Age graves perhaps disrupted during Crusader times and used as landscaping fill when they planted vineyards and orchards on top of the Tel.
The several female cylinder figures and sculpted women’s heads we’ve been discovering are even more provocative. Rachel Ben Dov, who wrote a three volume series on the Tel Dan excavation, sent me an article she’d written on similar statuettes. Evidently, it is thought these figurines represent Astarte/Ashtoreth. They typically depict a woman with long, flowing hair, holding what seems to be a dove. Others hold what seems to be a tambourine, or hand drum, and still a third variety hold what seems to be a cake. The style is Phoenician (which makes complete sense, considering Akko began as a Phoenician sea port). Evidently, statuette manufacture was centered in Tyre and Sarepta, but the figurines were distributed up and down the coast, being found in Akhziv, Akko, Kaisan, and even farther south, into ancient Israel.
These pottery figures’ heyday was in the 8th to 6th centuries BCE, when production seemed to dwindle down (and consider, that is about the time the Assyrians came riding through, conquering and terrorizing everything in sight, with deportation on Israel’s itinerary).
We know worship of Ashtoreth was a regular source of contention between God and His people during this time frame. According to Wikipedia, she was “a foreign, non-Judahite goddess, the principal goddess of the Sidonians or Phoenicians, representing the productive power of nature.” (That link takes you to Wikipedia). Ashtoreth was the goddess of sexuality, fertility, and war, and among her several symbols was the dove.
“It is generally accepted that the Masoretic “vowel pointing” adopted c. 135 AD, indicating the pronunciation ʻAštōreṯ (“Ashtoreth,” “Ashtoret”) is a deliberate distortion of “Ashtart”, and that this is probably because the two last syllables have been pointed with the vowels belonging to bōšeṯ, (“bosheth,” abomination), to indicate that that word should be substituted when reading. The plural form is pointed ʻAštārōṯ (“Ashtaroth”). The biblical Ashtoreth should not be confused with the goddess Asherah, the form of the names being quite distinct, and both appearing quite distinctly in the First Book of Kings.
The biblical writers may, however, have conflated some attributes and titles of the two, as seems to have occurred throughout the 1st millennium Levant. For instance, the title “Queen of heaven” as mentioned in Jeremiah has been connected with both (in later Jewish mythology, she became a female demon of lust; for what seems to be the use of the Hebrew plural form ʻAštārōṯ in this sense, see Astaroth).”
Here’s where it get’s hinky:
“Inscriptions from several places including Kuntillet ‘Ajrud have the phrase “YHWH and his Asherah”. Because the Jews combined El with YHWH, it is understandable that many inhabitants of the land of Israel, linked El’s wife Asherah with YHWH.”
Makes it even easier to see why Asherah was both wildly popular, especially among women, and why God was so grieved over her worship.