tel dan
The three iron shovels found at Tel Dan and dating from the 9-8th c. BCE are the earliest identified incense shovels known from ancient Israel. Two of the shovels measure .54m long with scoops .15m long. The third shovel was longer but unfortunately broken; the preserved portion extends .57m. A hook and ring at the end of the handle indicates the shovels likely hung on the wall. All three shovels lay in a room dubbed the “altar room” for the small square altar built of stones in the center of the room and two small altars each carved from a single stone also found in the room. All three altars preserved traces of burning and ash on their surfaces. These altars and shovels were found together in a room within the Tel Dan sacred precinct, in conjunction with a massive stone platform identified as a bamah and a nearby stone-paved area for sacrifices. The cultic precinct functioned from the 10th c., when King Jeroboam likely built the temple, until the Assyrian army under Tiglath-pileser III destroyed the site in 734 BC.

Incense shovels and the Bible

Lists detailing implements to be made for both the Tent of Meeting or wilderness Tabernacle and the Jerusalem Temple include incense shovels or pans (Exod 27- 3; I Kgs 7-45). Neither accounts specifies the exact form of the shovels. In contrast to the biblical accounts that describe implements from bronze, the Dan shovels were made of iron.

For additional reading on the role of incense in the biblical and non-biblical world see the Anchor Bible Dictionary entries “Incense” and “Incense Altars.” The excavator of Tel Dan, A. Biran, wrote a popular presentation of the excavations at Tel Dan including the sacred precinct in general and the “Altar Room” in particular (Biblical Dan). For a general introduction to the site including the sacred precinct read Biran’s article “Tel Dan- Biblical Texts and Archaeological Data” in Scripture and Other Artifacts (M. Coogan, J. Exum, L. Stager eds. Westminster John Knox, 1994). For a general discussion of Israelite temples see V. Hurowitz, “Inside Solomon’s Temple” BR 10.2 (1994).

Elizabeth Bloch-Smith

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