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Small Horned Altars

tel-miqne-ekron-evacuations-bas-librarySmall altars carved from a single piece of stone resembled their larger counterparts with “horns,” crescent or bulb-shaped protuberances, jutting up in the four corners. The altars measure from .2-.4m square and stand from .20-.80m high. A minority of small stone altars sported horns; most had flat tops or a simple rim around the top to create a central depression. Ceramic stands with flat tops, some with horns similar to these stone altars and some with decorated sides including representations of temple facades, are also considered cultic incense burners. No clear distinctions in use or context have been noted for these small horned over non-horned altars. Such altars have been found in cultic contexts such as the temple at Arad (without horns) in “cult rooms” such as Lachish 49 and Megiddo Locus 2081 (with horns), and in industrial areas such as at Philistine Tel Miqne/Ekron (with horns). A miniature horned altar lay among the jumble of objects likely dumped into Jerusalem Cave 1. While most examples are presumed cultic, some “altars” likely served the wealthy and elites as incense burners for the mundane purpose of fumigation and perfuming the air. Though presumed to function as incense burners, scientific analysis of burnt residue from atop these stands has not been published so the function remains a conjecture.

Recent excavations directed by P. M. Michèle Daviau at the Moabite site of Khirbet al-Mudayna have unearthed small and medium-sized horned altars of stone on top of which was residue of burnt material determined to be floral in one instance. In cases with no burning on the altar proper, the incense was presumed burned in a bowl perched atop the altar and secured in the four corners by the horns. However, no Mudayna bowls accompanying the altars displayed residue of burnt material. Whether the result of deliberate actions or merely a coincidence of archaeological preservation and discovery, altars of various shapes and sizes were found in Mudayna houses, industrial buildings, and the city gate, but none were uncovered at the Shrine Site located four kilometers from the town.

Small Horned Altars and the Bible

Small horned altars are nowhere explicitly mentioned in the Bible though their large counterparts are. While the large altars likely functioned for animal sacrifice, the smaller versions are presumed to have been used for burning incense and perhaps sacrificing small animals such as birds even though the logistics render this unlikely. Both in the Tent of Meeting and the Jerusalem Temple, as in Assyro-Babylonian incantation rituals, the incense altar stood between the priest and the deity. The pleasing smells of the incense gained the deity’s attention to prayers offered.

Why carve small altars with horns jutting up in the four corners? Horns may symbolize strength, as of a bull, understood as political or religious authority. For example, the prophet Daniel envisioned animal horns representing the kings of Media, Persia, and Greece (Daniel 8). However, corner merlons or battlements at the roof corners on tower models from fourteenth to twelfth century BCE Syria may provide the genesis of the practice. These small-scale tower models allowed individuals to symbolically offer incense of the roof without actually mounting the building roof. Queen Ninsun in the Gilgamesh epic and King Keret in a Ugaritic text burned incense on a rooftop, and the Israelite king Josiah tore down altars erected on the palace roof (II Kings 23-12). These three examples demonstrate the continuity of the practice of burning incense on rooftops.

For a general discussion of incense altars read M. Fowler “Incense Altars” ABD III- 409-10. The archaeological evidence and interpretations are summarized in S. Gitin, “The Four-Horned Altar and Sacred Space- An Archaeological Perspective” in B. Gittlen ed. Sacred Time, Sacred Place (Eisenbrauns 2002) pp. 95-124.

Elizabeth Bloch-Smith

See also-

Large Horned Altar, 10th-8th century BCE

Posted in: Exodus

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