Altar found at Shiloh—but let’s not get carried away

Archaeologists digging at the ancient site of Shiloh have uncovered an altar. Shiloh is known in the Bible as an early Israelite shrine that housed the Ark of the Covenant (1 Sam 1–4). It’s perhaps best known as the place where Samuel first encountered Yahweh in a night vision, during the priesthood of Eli and his corrupt sons, Hophni and Phinehas (1 Sam 3).

The site of Shiloh

The altar is small, measuring 60 x 60 cm wide, and 40 cm tall. Excavators say it was found in an installation dating to the Byzantine period, but claim the altar shows signs of having been used much earlier. What these signs are is not specified in the announcement by Israel National News (click HERE to read it). However, the archaeologists claim it dates to the Iron Age (1200–539 BC). This is a fairly vague statement. So given there is not much detail here, we should be very cautious about claiming to have found an altar mentioned in the Bible—especially one at a site which housed the Ark of the Covenant (calling Indiana Jones!). We need many more details about the altar, and a better knowledge of the stratigraphy of Shiloh before we make any definitive conclusions about this discovery.

So let’s wait and see what details surface over the next while to fill in the picture. Whatever these details turn out to be, this is certainly another exciting find.  But let’s not get carried away by hype.

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Inscribed Bowl from Jerusalem (7th century BC)

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has announced a number of new artefacts discovered during excavations near the Gihon Spring at the ‘City of David’—the location of ancient Jerusalem during the time of the kingdom of Judah. The finds come from an Iron Age II stratum dated to the 7th century BC. Among the finds is the fragment of a clay bowl inscribed with a name just under the rim. The name is fragmentary, but the extant letters can easily be deciphered as ריהו בן בנה (—riah son of Banah). The Yahwistic theophoric element in the name is readily observable. In terms of palaeography, the letter forms exhibit a 7th century BC style.

The IAA announcement may give the impression that the person named on this bowl fragment is Zechariah ben-Benaiah. He is mentioned in 2 Chronicles 20.14 as the father of the prophet Jahaziel, who was a Levite and contemporary of King Jehoshaphat. However, Jehoshaphat reigned in the early 9th century BC (c. 874–850 BC), some two centuries before the likely era of the person mentioned on this bowl fragment. When read carefully, the IAA announcement does not identify the person named on the bowl with this Zechariah, but rather suggests that the name of this Zechariah is the ‘most similar name to our inscription’. All that we can say with a reasonable degree of confidence is that the owner of this bowl was a resident of Jerusalem in the 7th century BC, perhaps of some standing. After all, not everyone had their name custom engraved into a bowl before it was fired in a kiln. More than that we cannot say. Whether the man’s name was Zechariah, or Azariah, or Amariah, or Uriah, or something else altogether, we simply don’t know. All we know is that Banah was his dad.

The IAA state that more information about the finds will be forthcoming at Megalim’s Annual Archaeological Conference on 29 August in Jerusalem.

The photographs reproduced here were taken by Clara Amit of the IAA, and downloaded from the IAA page.

Seventh century BC bowl fragment from Jerusalem with inscription reading
ריהו בן בנה (—riah son of Banah).
Photo: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

Some of the other ceramic finds from excavations near the Gihon Spring. Back Left: two jar handles. Front Left: the heads of two figurines. Right: two oil lamps.
Photo: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

Map of the Old City of Jerusalem, showing the location of the Gihon Spring excavations (near bottom right) in the City of David (original site of ancient Jerusalem), south of the Temple Mount.

The Kidron Valley with the eastern slope of the City of David near the Gihon Spring on the left. On the right is the western slope of the Mount of Olives.

Links

Announcement by the Israel Antiquities Authority

Article in the Jerusalem Post

Claims of a 2700 Year Old Inscription Found in Jerusalem (from Jim West’s Blog)

A Possible Solution to the ‘Problem’ of Jerusalem

Those of us who study the history of ancient Israel and Judah know just how thorny the question of Jerusalem‘s material remains are. The biblical texts have a firmly Jerusalem-centric view, and yet there is a paucity of material remains from the Iron Age (1200–586 BC). An article has just been published by some very prominent archaeologists—Israel Finkelstein, Ido Koch, and Oded Lipschits—addressing the problem. They suggest that the ‘problem’ of Jerusalem’s scant artefactual remains might be due to the city being limited to the area on the Temple Mount. Here is an extract of their article:

The original mound of Jerusalem—that is, the acropolis and the settlement—which had been located on the Temple Mount, was boxed-in under the Herodian platform in the late first century B.C.E. … This mound on the Temple Mount was the sole location of the town in the Middle Bronze, Late Bronze, Iron I, Iron IIA, Persian and early Hellenistic periods. In all these periods activity in the City of David was meager and restricted to the central part of the ridge, mainly its eastern side near the Gihon spring.

 

In other words, Finkelstein, Koch, and Lipschits still suggest that Jerusalem was a small town throughout the Iron Age (and subsequent ages), but that the scant remains of Jerusalem might be attributed to the fact that the city itself was located almost totally on the Temple Mount. This is the area that Herod the Great cleared, flattened, and built over in the first century BC, eradicating any real archaeological ‘footprint’ that might have been there from previous eras.

You can access the entire article here at Journal of Hebrew Scriptures.