Tel Qashish, Israel - Descending into a natural hollow in the bedrock, archaeologist Edwin van den Brink discovered a “bottomless” pit holding hundreds of intact ritual vessels hidden there by pagan priests over 3,500 years ago.
“We were expecting a pre-historic site and we came upon a collapsed cave. We took apart the roof of the cave and inside the cave there turned out to be about 200 vessels,” Brink told The Media Line.
Archaeologists in northern Israel were called in to do a routine salvage excavation before a gas pipeline was laid. But in this cradle of civilization such routines are often subsumed by unexpected findings. Speaking at the Israel Antiquities Authority storerooms in Jerusalem, Brink said every time they thought they reached the bottom of the cavity, a new and fascinating layer of complete vessels was discovered beneath.
The cave was about a hundred meters from the ancient Canaanite town of Tel Qashish, not far from Megiddo, also known as Armageddon.
Archaeologists have dated the cache to the 14th century B.C. At that time, Pharaoh Thutmose III, the Napoleon of ancient Egypt and his army were laying waste to the Levant.
The preservation of the vessels shows that they were all very carefully placed there by humans, perhaps because they were no longer used in the temple, but more likely because someone wanted to protect them from the impending Egyptian invasion.
The Canaanite priests in the village either had a premonition, or were savvy enough to see danger on the horizon.
“The priests in this temple were afraid that their temple would be ransacked so they took their furniture and put it in a place not even within the temple but far away outside the temple area,” said Brink.
Archaeological evidence shows that the Late Bronze age town was destroyed in a great conflagration as the Egyptians vanquished the region. Brink said that they have yet to locate the temple in the region.
At this time, monotheism had yet to take root in the world and pagan worship was widespread.
Showing just how cosmopolitan these pagans were, the finds included a number of perfectly preserved pots, sculpted on wheels in ancient Greece across the Mediterranean. The recovered goblets, bowls and other ceramic vessels shed light on pagan worship and ancient trade.
“We do have a group of vessels which are not locally made but imported from Mycenaean, mainland Greece. Actually it is this kind of vessel which gives us the exact date for the whole assemblage,” Brink said.
“One indication that these ceramics or vessels are connected to some kind of cult are these huge, quite tall stands, fenestrated with holes, on top of which would be placed a bowl and in the bowl there would be either fruit or incense which would be burned as an offering to the gods worshiped in this specific temple,” Brink said.
Holding one of the goblets, Brink said they probably contained wine or alcohol which was used to libate the gods. Pointing out a collection of well preserved juglets, he said some were made in Cyprus and others were locally made copies.
“What is clear, especially with the imported vessels, [is that] they were all small containers so whatever must have been in [them] should have been precious oils or ointments, because it is not [a] large quantity. It is in small quantities and the openings, the orifices are very small so only droplets would come out,” Brink said.
Scientists have taken samples from inside the jugs to try to decipher exactly which precious liquids they held.
One particularly notable find was a sculpted face, possibly part of a cup. Preserved for 35 centuries, the detail is still clearly intact.
“This human head, which looks at first sight to me at least a little bit Egyptian, but it is more a tradition of human shaped vessels from the area. It is not smiling so maybe it is a death mask of somebody?” Brink pondered.
Brink said that the discovery is an exceptional discovery because it is older than similar vessels previously unearthed and it is well preserved.
“It is rare. It is not a daily find. It is even more rare in the sense that we do have these caches of cultic vessels in a spot but the ones I know of, the majority are from the Iron Age some 400 to 500 years later, so this is one of the earlier context of these kinds of vessels in one place,” he said.
Brink added that a railroad is to be laid in the area and hopes that the salvage dig for that work will reveal other finds and perhaps the pagan temple.