Photo Credit: Shua Kisilevitz / Israel Antiquities Authority
IAA archaeologist Alex Wigman shows a small jar, also retrieved from the burial cave

Why were decapitated toads placed in a jar in a 4,000-year-old tomb in Jerusalem?

Fascinating findings from an Israel Antiquities Authority excavation near the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo shed light on this and other burial customs that were discovered among artifacts from the Canaanite period (the Middle Bronze Age).

Jar with remains of the decapitated toads.
Jar with remains of the decapitated toads.
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The archaeological excavation, which took place in 2014 with funding from the Housing Ministry (the Arim Urban Development Company) prior to the expansion of the Mana at neighborhood, yielded the remains of at least nine toads, and evidence of the cultivation of date palms and myrtle in the area.

The new research is to be presented for the first time at the conference “New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region.”

IAA archaeologist David Tanami works his way into the narrow tomb opening to bring out the jar.
IAA archaeologist David Tanami works his way into the narrow tomb opening to bring out the jar.

The remains, found in vessels placed in the tomb as funerary offerings, were examined using advanced scientific methods in a cooperative effort among various academic institutions led by Shua Kisilevitz and Zohar Turgeman-Yaffe of the Israel Antiquities Authority, with Dr. Dafna Langgut of Tel Aviv’s Institute of Archaeology and Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, Dr. Lior Weisbrod of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, Dr. David Ilan, director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at the Hebrew Union College and Nathan Ben-Ari of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Aerial photograph of the excavation site - at left in the background is the Jerusalem Technology Park
Aerial photograph of the excavation site – at left in the background is the Jerusalem Technology Park

According to the excavation directors on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Shua Kisilevitz and Zohar Turgeman-Yaffe, “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.

“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. At that time, it was customary to bury the dead with offerings that constituted a kind of “burial kit,” which, it was believed, would serve the deceased in the afterworld.

IAA archaeologist David Tanami displays a jar he removed from the tomb
IAA archaeologist David Tanami displays a jar he removed from the tomb

“When we removed the stone that blocked the tomb opening, we were excited to discover intact bowls and jars. In one of the jars, to our surprise, we found a heap of small bones. The study of the bones, by Dr. Lior Weisbrod of the University of Haifa, revealed at least nine toads. Interestingly, they had been decapitated.”

IAA archaeologist Alex Wigman shows a small jar, also retrieved from the burial cave
IAA archaeologist Alex Wigman shows a small jar, also retrieved from the burial cave

Another intriguing finding came to light through analysis of sediments collected from the clay jars and examined under a microscope. The examination, by Dr. Dafna Langgut of Tel Aviv University, revealed that shortly before the vessels were placed in the tomb, they came into contact with various plants including date palms and myrtle bushes. This fact is interesting because this is not the natural habitat for those species, and they therefore seem to have been planted here intentionally.

According to Dr. Langgut, in this period the date palm symbolized fertility and rejuvenation, which could explain why the ancients cultivated the trees in this environment, where they do not grow naturally. According to the scholars, these plants may have been part of an orchard planted in an area where funeral rituals were held, during which offerings of food and objects were made to the deceased. The scholars surmise that the jar with the headless toads was among these offerings.

The research will be presented for the first time on Thursday, October 18, at the conference “New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region,” open to the public, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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