Jerusalem (Israel) : Jar of toads popped open in 4,000-year-old Canaanite tomb dig

Excavation just outside Jerusalem's Biblical Zoo gives window into funerary rites, with unexpected remains of decapitated toads and not-local myrtle and date pollen

Amanda Borschel-Dan

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Cave crop 640x400David Tanami, an Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist, works his way into the narrow tomb opening to bring out a jar at a Canaanite burial site near Jerusalem's Biblical Zoo. (Shua Kisilevitz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

A 4,000-year-old Canaanite “burial kit” has been found in Jerusalem that includes an afterlife snack pack of nine decapitated toads. Discovered in a salvage excavation near Jerusalem’s Biblical zoo, a set of intact jars and their contents shed new light on funerary rites of the Middle Bronze period — and give a window into an ancient recipe for toad.

The dig’s co-director, Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Shua Kisilevitz, told The Times of Israel on Monday that while food offerings in burials are typical of the Bronze Age, “finding toads is pretty unusual,” she said. “To the best of my knowledge, the only other place in Israel with toad find was in Wadi Ara, and dates to the Late Bronze Age.”

Generally, she said, excavators discover entire vessels filled with food which, it is thought, the deceased may need to get to the afterlife. The rare discovery of the toad bones, found in a jar placed in one of 67 man-made shaft tombs in a Middle Bronze cemetery located between the zoo and a nearby shopping mall, indicates it was part of the local settlers’ diet.

3 1 300x480Jar with remains of the toads from a Canaanite burial site near Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo. (Zohar Turgeman-Yaffe, Israel Antiquities Authority)

We understand that this was part of the food consumed while still alive,” she said.

As to why the toads were decapitated, Kisilevitz said one possibility lies in a South American practice of removing heads and toes in order to more easily remove the animal’s toxic skin. “It could be an indication that this is how they prepared the toads,” she said.

Toads are hardly the only creatures to be discovered in Middle Bronze Age burials. According to Near Eastern historian Graciela N. Gestoso Singer’s article, “The Middle Bronze Age: Burial customs and tombs in Canaan,” remains of sheep, goats, oxen and even gazelles are found as food offerings within burial sites. Additionally, “One of the most unusual and interesting features of MB II burial practices is the occasional occurrence of equine remains in tombs… the equine remains sometimes appear to have been given a ceremonial burial themselves.”

A ‘lucky find’

The 2014 discovery of the burial shaft was a “lucky find,” said Kisilevitz, discovered during a salvage excavation ahead of a Jerusalem neighborhood expansion project.

For an archaeologist, finding tombs that were intentionally sealed in antiquity is a priceless treasure, because they are a time capsule that allows us to encounter objects almost just as they were originally left,” said Kisilevitz and co-dig director Zohar Turgeman-Yaffe in an IAA press release.

This section of the Nahal Repha’im basin was fertile ground for settlement throughout time, especially during the Canaanite period. In recent years excavations in the area have uncovered two settlement sites, two temples and a number of cemeteries, which provide new insight into the life of the local population at that time,” they said.

Canaanite cemeteries are found in other high-elevation parts of Jerusalem as well, said Kisilevitz, including the neighborhoods of Gilo and Givat Masua.

As the team cleaned up debris from a 1991 excavation of two tombs conducted during a first stage of construction, they saw the circle stone that sealed the shaft’s 40-centimeter diameter opening.

Unsealing it, the team discovered a 1-to-1.5 meter long shaft carved out of the hard limestone, which led to a small manmade cave of approximately 1.2-meter diameter and with a slight 80 centimeter height, she said. Inside was only one partial skeleton, which appeared to have been laid out in fetal position with his skull placed on a demarcated headrest.

The interesting thing is how did they get the body in?” pondered Kisilevitz. She said the narrow measurements of the burial shaft made it only possible to enter one person at a time, often headfirst, while others held the archaeologist’s legs to pull him out.

Aside from the toad jar, other intact pottery vessels were unearthed, upon which was discovered pollen from date palms and myrtle bushes, which are not indigenous to Jerusalem. Myrtle, said Kisilevitz, comes from the north, while dates are found in areas such as the Jordan Valley. “They had to have been planted,” she said, which leads archaeologists to wonder if these plants played a role in the whole process of burial customs.

New technology led to the recently finished analysis of the pollen by Dr. Dafna Langgut of Tel Aviv’s Institute of Archaeology and Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, as well as the toad remains by Dr. Lior Weisbrod of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. The scholars’ research will be presented at an October 18 conference at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem called “New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region,” which is open to the public.