Khirbet el-Eika (Israel): a clue to the rise of Jewish Galilee?

An elegant 2,200-year-old Hellenistic bronze incense shovel found this summer could help determine how and when Judeans settled the hills near the Kinneret

Ilan Ben Zion

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GalileeThe duck-headed handle of a Hellenistic-era incense shovel found at Khirbet el-Eika in the eastern Galilee in 2015. Courtesy: Uzi Leibner, The Hebrew University; Photo: Tal Rogovski)

The tapered head, flattened bill and graceful curve of the neck are unquestionably that of a duck. The bird’s head decorates a small, 2,200-year-old bronze incense shovel found during this summer’s dig at a Hellenistic-era site near the Sea of Galilee, and its ancient owners may be the key to an investigation into how and when ancient Judeans populated the Galilee.

A Hebrew University team led by Dr. Uzi Leibner discovered the shovel amid the ruins of Khirbet el-Eika, a site just west of the Sea of Galilee near the Horns of Hattin, during August’s excavations. Leibner sought to elucidate who the inhabitants of the Galilee were in the early Second Temple period.

The hills of the Galilee were densely populated with Jewish villages during the late Second Temple period and thereafter. The historical Jesus was born in the small Galilean town of Nazareth a little more than 2,000 years ago. The gospels and contemporary historical texts describe a region populated by Jews who rose up against the Roman Empire en masse in 66 CE. In the centuries thereafter it was the heartland of rabbinic scholarship, literature and Jewish life in Roman Palestine.

But the Galilee apparently wasn’t always that way. Current research indicates the area was settled by non-Jewish peoples when the region was ruled by the Persian and Greek empires between the fifth and third centuries. Only at the very end of the Hellenistic period, with the rise of the Hasmonean dynasty of Maccabee fame, did it come under Jewish rule.

Except for later historical accounts and limited archaeological surveys at sites skirting the Galilee, little is known about the region during the Hellenistic period. How and when the Galilee became a Jewish stronghold in the late Second Temple period has been the topic of scholarly debate for centuries.

Khirbet el-Eika appears to have been a short-lived community. It was a fortified town sitting on a hilltop above the verdant Arbel valley and Hittin spring. Excavations indicate it was built during the third century BCE and existed for a few generations. Then, around 140 BCE, it was violently destroyed. Whether or not this was the result of a Hasmonean military campaign remains unclear.

Around the same time Khirbet el-Eika was destroyed, Jewish communities began popping up around the Galilee. Leibner’s earlier excavations at Khirbet Wadi Hamam, a couple miles northeast as the crow flies, yielded a large Jewish village from the Roman period, replete with a massive synagogue adorned with brilliant mosaics.

We can’t say for sure, but the hints seem to point to a pagan population [at Khirbet el-Eika],” Leibner told The Times of Israel by phone. The duck-headed incense shovel is a key clue. “It may be some sort of a cultic object,” he said, but couldn’t say with absolute certainty without further evidence.

The incense shovel is clearly of Greco-Roman design, and duck’s heads appear on an assortment of objects from the ancient Levant. The remains of an ancient shipwreck found off the coast of Ashkelon in 1998, and which dates from around the same period as Khirbet el-Eika, yielded two bronze ladles adorned with duck’s heads. Ehud Galili of Haifa University suggested in a 2009 article about the discovery that they may have had “ritual, ceremonial and apotropaic” significance.

Galilee2A duck-headed incense shovel found at Khirbet el-Eika in the eastern Galilee in 2015. (The duck-headed handle of a Hellenistic-era incense shovel found at Khirbet el-Eika in the eastern Galilee in 2015. (Courtesy: Uzi Leibner, The Hebrew University; Photo: Tal Rogovski)

In the ruins of a structure Leibner described as “of a public nature,” his team found the incense shovel along with an assortment of other intriguing finds. In a nearby structure, a trove of Aegean wine amphorae — large ceramic storage vessels used for long-distance trade. The clay jugs served as the preferred shipping containers of the ancient world.

Most [amphorae] known from Israel come from Rhodes” and a handful of other major production sites in the Aegean Sea, which are also found across the Mediterranean, he said. The nearly intact ones found at Khirbet el-Eika bear stamps from Rhodes and Kos.

How, and why, these huge vessels — each weighing about 65 pounds (30 kilograms) or more — were imported 25 miles inland to Khirbet el-Eika, “is a big debate,” Leibner said.

Galilee 3Some of the Greek amphorae found at Khirbet el-Eika in the eastern Galilee in 2015. (Courtesy: Uzi Leibner, The Hebrew University; Photo: Roi Sabar)

Overland transport in the ancient world was 25-30 times as expensive as maritime shipping, and moving goods 75 miles inland cost as much as crossing the Mediterranean, Rachel Laudan writes in “Cuisine and Empire.” Consequently, imported amphorae are ordinarily found in coastal cities such as Acre, Dor and Ashkelon or rich inland cities or army posts such as Samaria or Jerusalem.

Finding them at a village in the Galilean hills, with no evidence of a military presence, is unusual. Whoever imported these Greek amphorae were likely wealthy, and went to considerable lengths to obtain luxury goods.

But does Greek wine in Greek jars suggest Greek people living at Khirbet el-Eika? Today’s Orthodox Judaism forbids the consumption of wine produced by gentiles, but it’s not clear whether pre-Hasmonean Jews adhered to the same tradition. The first known mention of Jews eschewing wine produced by gentiles appears in the Second Temple period, but scholars are “not sure exactly when this became widespread,” Leibner pointed out. Whether or not the Greek wine vessels found at the site point to a gentile population remains unclear.

I personally think Jews generally avoided using this wine at least as early as the first century BCE,” he said.

Archaeologically, it’s very hard to tell who’s a Jew in the third or second century BCE.” Characteristic markers such as mikvaot and common ritual objects don’t appear in those periods.

While evidence points to a gentile community, Leibner said he needs more hard evidence to support that hypothesis. Khirbet el-Eika’s destruction in the mid-second century, however, points to the possibility that, if it were a community of gentiles, it may have been destroyed during a Hasmonean campaign.

August 2015 was just the first season of excavations at Khirbet el-Eika, and he plans a second dig in the in June and July of 2016.

Hopefully here in this excavation we’ll find other finds which will give a more clear picture,” Leibner said.