Daily Archives: May 21, 2010

Roman altar excavated at Ashkelon

It happens with regularity in Israel. Someone is building. The builder encounter ancient ruins. The Israel Antiquities Authority is called. (I wonder how many times they are not called.) Construction is halted while an emergency excavation is conducted. Amazing discoveries are often uncovered.

This time it happened at Ashkelon during construction of an Emergency Room at the Barzilai Hospital. Here is the account provided by the IAA.

The development work for the construction of a fortified emergency room at Barzilai Hospital, which is being conducted by a contractor carefully supervised by the Israel Antiquities Authority, has unearthed a new and impressive find: a magnificent pagan altar dating to the Roman period (first-second centuries CE) made of granite and adorned with bulls’ heads and a laurel wreaths. The altar stood in the middle of the ancient burial field.

According to Dr. Yigal Israel, Ashkelon District Archaeologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The discovery further corroborates the assertion that we are dealing with a pagan cemetery. It is an impressive find that has survived 2,000 years. The altar is c. 60 centimeters [24 inches] tall and it is decorated with bulls’ heads, from which dangle laurels wreaths. There is a strap in the middle of each floral wreath and bull’s head. The laurel wreaths are decorated with grape clusters and leaves. This kind of altar is known as an “incense altar”. Such altars usually stood in Roman temples and visitors to the temple used to burn incense in them, particularly myrrh and frankincense, while praying to their idols. We can still see the burnt marks on the altar that remain from the fire. The altar was probably donated by one of the families who brought it to the cemetery from the city of Ashkelon”.

Roman altar discovered at Ashkelon. Photo: IAA.

Roman altar discovered at Ashkelon. Photo: IAA.

More information is available from the IAA here.

The motif on this altar is common in the Greco-Roman world. The photo below shows a similar bull’s head on what appears to be part of an architectural frieze in the Augustan Imperial Sanctuary at Pisidian Antioch.

From Augustan Imperial Sanctuary at Pisidian Antioch. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

From Augustan Imperial Sanctuary at Pisidian Antioch. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

The Archaeological Museum in Thessalonica exhibits an altar from the Roman Imperial age (35 B.C.) that, according to the inscription on it, was reused as a pedestal in the temple of Isis in the 2nd century A.D.

Roman Imperial Altar. Thessalonica, Greece, Museum. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Roman Imperial Altar. Thessalonica Museum. Photo: Ferrell Jenkins.

These stones showing garlanded animals remind me of what happened to Paul and Barnabas at Lystra in Lycaonia.

And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. (Acts 14:13 ESV)

HT: Joseph Lauer and numerous blogs. Note especially the comments on the current religious/political comments by Jim West and Aren Maeir about the Ashkelon altar at Zwinglius Redivivus.