Tell es-Safi/Gath (Israël) : Horned Altar Hints at Philistine Origins

Prize Find: Horned Altar from Tell es-Safi Hints at Philistine Origins

Aren M. Maeir

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The excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, the site of the Philistine city of Gath mentioned in the Bible (e.g., 1 Samuel 6:17), have produced many fascinating finds,a and the summer of 2011 was no exception.

While uncovering an impressive destruction level dating to the second half of the ninth century B.C.E., when Gath was the largest of the five cities of the Philistine “pentapolis” and perhaps the largest city in the Land of Israel during the Iron Age, we found an exceptionally well preserved horned stone altar reminiscent of the Israelite horned altars described in the Bible (Exodus 27:1–2; 1 Kings 1:50).

Had it not been for a stroke of luck, the altar may never have been discovered. Like most archaeological digs, we leave unexcavated “balks” between our excavation squares, allowing us easier access to the squares as well as providing a profile view of the layers we have excavated. In the winter of 2010/2011, however, strong rainstorms caused some of the balks to collapse.


When we came back to the field in July 2011, one of our first priorities was to clean up and straighten the collapsed balks. As we cleaned one of the balks in Area D (in the lower city), we came upon an unusually shaped stone object just 10 inches below the surface. Work was immediately stopped as we probed further, and, lo and behold, one of the horns of the altar appeared. Once we realized what we had discovered, we began the slow, delicate process of excavating the entire altar.

The altar stands nearly 3.5 feet high and measures just over 1.5 feet on each side. These dimensions more or less match the dimensions given in the Bible (Exodus 30:2) for the Israelite incense altar of the Tabernacle (though our altar shows no signs of having been used to burn incense). Moreover, the decorative features of the altar, including its horns and the groove and raised band of the base, are similar to Israelite altars described in the Bible (Exodus 27:2), as well as other Iron Age altars that have been found throughout the southern Levant.

But why does our altar have only two horns, when we know from the Bible and excavated examples that Israelite (and later Philistine) altars typically had four horns?b

The fact that the Tell es-Safi/Gath altar has only two horns may have to do with the cultural origins of the Philistines. As Louise Hitchcock, senior staff member of the Tell es-Safi/Gath excavations, has suggested, the very motif of the horned altar in the Levant may have been influenced by earlier Minoan “horns of consecration,” symbolic representations of the horns of the sacred bull in Minoan culture.1 In fact, there is an altar from the Late Bronze Age site of Myrtous Pigadhes in Cyprus that also has only two horns. The unique two-horned altar from Tell es-Safi/Gath, the earliest stone altar ever found in Philistia, may be another indication of the Aegean influences on early Philistine culture and quite possibly a hint to their origins.