Tell es-Safi

5 Feb 2016

At ... excavations at Tell es-Safi, the site of Biblical Gath, one of the famed 5 cites of the Philistines, have reached Iron Age levels and they have uncovered a horned altar similar to those described in Exodus 27:1 and I Kings 1:50 etc. It is three and half feet high and one and a half feet around each side - and is made of stone. The big question is where in the Iron Age the excavators think they were - the date, for example, and it seems they have plumped for the 9th century BC. In that context the similarity with Israelite horned altars is interesting - but aren't these more properly defined as Canaanite?

Such altars were usually located on the Judaean hills, or that is supposed as they are also known as 'high altars' - and this is where some examples have been found. See for example Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) June 2004 - and in the Negev (Beersheba) BAR March 1975. They were used for animal sacrifice and normally had four horns. The new example has two horns. Gath was famous as a Philistine city and the excavators assume the inhabitants of 9th century Gath were also Philistines. In a revision this level would be a couple of hundred years later - did the Philistines survive as a distinct population group for such a long period?

The excavators see no problem in their 9th century date and go on to say the two horned altar had Aegean antecedents - the sacred bull of the Minoans. However, bull deities were not confined to Crete as Canaanite El was visualised as a giant bull - so to was Hadad (Syria), Enlil (Sumeria/Babylonia) whilst the Elamites adorned great horns of bulls on the outside of their temples. The idea of gods possessing horns is in fact a universal theme of mythologies the world over, from the eland of the San people of southern Africa to cow goddess Boand in Ireland, and various rhinoceros and boar deities and elephant deities (tusks replacing horns etc). Looking around for a universal image that could be seen at a global dimension one could suggest the coma of comets as something that may have impressed our forebears - particularly if a comet had come close enough to the earth at some point or other.

I am wondering why Canaanites (and Israelites) made use of horned altars and if the Philistines of Gath had replaced the Canaanites in their entirety. If the newcomers formed an elite employed as mercenaries by the pharoahs (Ramses III for example) one has no need to assume the wholesale replacement of the Canaanites by the newcomers (or a refugee hoard). The newcomers would have intermarried with the population already living there and eventually the Aegean strain would have been watered down - and their belief system. Hence, if the Iron Age level in which the horned altar was uncovered was 9th, 8th or 7th century BC in date is immaterial - the idea of the altar was indigenous. Or was it?