Photo Credit: PLusONE
The donkey burial found at Tel Haror. Note the 1992 find of the donkey's skull with the bridle bit in the box at right.

Archaeologists north of Be’er Sheva have discovered the skeleton of a  3,500-year-old donkey, complete with a copper bridle in its mouth and saddle bags on its back.

The rare find led Israeli researchers to conclude that the donkey, estimated to be only four years at the time of its death, was sacrificed as part of a Bronze Age ritual at a time when donkeys enjoyed a respected status.

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Donkeys are frequently mentioned in the Bible, with the most famous one being the “talking mule” of the non-Jew Balaam, who was paid by King Balak to curse Israel but ended up blessing the People of Israel as they stood on the edge of the desert before entering the Promised Land.

Donkeys were the beast of burden, were used on trade routes and were so important during the founding of ancient Egypt that skeletons of donkeys have been found in graves of pharaohs.

The skeleton that was found at an archaeological site near Kiryat Gat, located approximately 15 miles north of Be’er Sheva and 50 miles or so southeast of Tel Aviv, indicates that the young donkey was spared hard labor.

Guy Bar-Oz of the University of Haifa, who headed the research team at the Tel Haror site, said that donkey was laid on its left side, with its limbs neatly bent. It probably was sacrificed, and the copper bridle bit probably was symbolic because the animal’s teeth showed that the bit was not used.

“The absence of any sign of bit wear on the lower premolars indicates that the animal was not ridden or driven with a bit for prolonged periods of time,” the researchers write in a paper published online this week in the online journal PLoS ONE. “Moreover, the young donkey was still in the process of shedding its teeth and permanent teeth were just erupting. Based on its age, the Haror donkey would probably have been too young to be a trained draught animal.”

The bit is  the only one from the Bronze Age to have been found in the mouth of hoofed mammals.

A sign that the donkey had been sacrificed in a rite was a pile of bones from sheep and goats that were found near the donkey’s carcass.

“The Tel Haror interment represents the only known example of a donkey within a ritual context that was symbolically harnessed with a horse bit and bearing saddlebags, and, thus, sheds important light on both the functional and symbolic role of equids in the Ancient Near East,” the research team wrote on PLosOne.

“The location, grouping, dimensions and symmetrical placement of the fittings, leads us to suggest that they represent the remains of fasteners for saddlebags that was composed of decayed organic material, such as leather,” they added.

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