Bible and Beyond
Recovery of a harbor scene at Dor

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Part of a Persian period pit produced a perplexing prize find. It was discovered at the end of our 13th season (1993) at Tel Dor.a

Persian period pits (fifth-fourth century B.C.E.) are ubiquitous in Palestinian tells. Why, just at this time, it was so popular to dig pits is not clear. But they are everywhere. They were used to store grain and other agricultural products, and as a final resting place for broken and old cult objects like figurines (a favissa). What is clear is that they often disturb the stratigraphy of the site, for they extend down into earlier strata, but belong to a higher stratum. The excavator must be careful to identify the pit and its contents with the higher stratum.

This particular pit, about two feet deep in our area D2, had already been identified and had yielded several interesting finds—a faience amulet depicting an Egyptian god used as an apotropaic (to ward off evil) on a necklace; an ostracon (an inscribed potsherd) with three lines of text that may have identified the contents of the jar;1 and the usual Dor pottery of the period, both imported Greek and local Phoenician.

The unique discovery in the pit, however, was an incised collarbone, or scapula, of a cow.2 Only about a third of the original scapula has survived. It is about ten inches long and about four inches wide. Both sides of it have been worked and smoothed; as a result, it has a very polished appearance. A small hole at one end indicates that it was attached to something else in antiquity.

The most remarkable thing about the scapula, however, is that it is incised on both sides. On the reverse side is an inscription; on the obverse is an intriguing scene.

The inscription appeared to be in what scholars call Cypro-syllabic script, so we asked an expert in this script, Professor Oliver Masson of Paris, to examine it. He confirmed the identification. The script consists of 56 signs, each representing a syllable ending in a vowel. It was apparently devised in about 700 B.C.E. to write Cypriote (and may have developed from earlier Cretan characters). When Greek became the lingua franca of the area, the script was used to write Greek, despite the fact that it is very badly suited for this purpose. Professor Masson tells us that this inscription is written from right to left and that the last word (consisting of four signs) is the Greek verb meaning “dedicated.” The previous signs appear to have identified the name of the dedicant and his father. The names are difficult to read because some of the signs are uncertain.

Professor Masson believes this is a dedicatory inscription of a Cypriote pilgrim used at a Phoenician temple. He bases this conclusion not only on the inscription, but on three other Cypro-syllabic inscriptions found at other Phoenician sites. One of them mentions Asklepios, the god of medicine. Asklepios is identified with the Phoenician god of Sidon, Eshmun. Another Cypro-syllabic inscription was found in the temple of Eshmun at Sidon. (During the Persian period, Dor was effectively ruled by Sidon.) All of these Cypro-syllabic inscriptions appear to be votive inscriptions of Cypriote pilgrims at Phoenician temples.

This raises the question of the function of the scapula. Cow and camel scapulae have been found at many sites during many periods. This is the second one we have found at Dor, although the other one is simply incised with parallel lines. At least five scapulae have been recently discovered at the 12th-century B.C.E. Philistine temple in Ekron.b Many others have been found in temples, tombs and settlements of various periods in Cyprus.3 Some scholars suggest that they were used as musical instruments in cultic ceremonies. Another possibility is that they were used as instruments of prophecy in temples. But they also served more prosaic purposes—as writing material for inscriptions. Especially in the Roman-Nabatean period (first and second centuries C.E.), camel scapulae were used as writing boards. A number of such boards have been found in modern Israel—at Nabatean sites like Nessana and Obada (Avdat).4 We know they were used as writing boards because the inscriptions record commercial transactions. Other scapulae from the Byzantine period (fourth to sixth centuries C.E.) were used to clean the floors of oil presses.

Our scapula, however, was apparently used in some cultic context. Professor Masson believes that it may have been dedicated to the goddess Astarte. One of the other Cypro-syllabic inscriptions he has studied mentions Astarte and, according to Cypriote tradition, the goddess was born on Cyprus.

The maritime scene on the obverse side of the scapula is even more puzzling. Three men (and the back of the head of a fourth) facing left are in a boat, with their heads just above the gunwale; they are either passengers or oarsmen. No doubt several other men in the extended boat were originally there, but have not survived. To the right of the four surviving men is a larger figure, rising above the others, and facing in the opposite direction. Like the men, this larger figure is bearded and wears an Egyptian-style headdress. His exaggerated proportions, however, demonstrate his relative importance- He is probably the boat’s captain. He faces the direction of the land from which the boat pulls away and is portrayed in a typical Egyptian expression of devotion or blessing, with his hands raised to his forehead.

This gesture is offered to the priestess standing opposite him on shore, who is performing some ritual act. She too wears an Egyptian wig. The details of her face, especially her eyes, imitate Egyptian style. She is dressed in a beautiful long robe. She seems to be standing in a doorway, perhaps the harbor gate or the gate of a temple located in the vicinity of the harbor. She is apparently blessing the sailing ship with her upraised right hand, which holds a libation bowl. Her left hand stretches forward and probably held an artifact that has not survived. We are apparently in the presence of some kind of cultic ceremony relating to the departure of boats. Another part of the ceremony is conducted by the boat’s captain facing the priestess.

Before proceeding to the scene at right, we will look at the boat itself, which has been examined for us by Professor Avner Raban of the Center for Maritime Studies at the University of Haifa. A figurehead of a duck’s head turned inward ornaments the stern. (The line extending from the stern may be a long pole or steering oar.) Based on parallels from other sites, the bow of the boat was no doubt also ornamented, probably with a horse’s head. This type of ornamentation was especially popular at Cyprus in the seventh century B.C.E.

To the right of the priestess is another scene. A man in an Egyptian wig stands with his back to the priestess and raises his hand before the sacred “tree of life.” This is a common motif in Phoenician art during the eighth-sixth centuries B.C.E., indicating the sanctity of a structure. It has been found on Phoenician ivories,5 on Cypro-Phoenician metal bowls,6 and on Phoenician stone vases.7 The praying figure and the sacred tree suggest that the doorway within which the priestess (to the left) stands is in fact the doorway of a temple.

The tree of life, incidentally, is executed in typical Assyrian style, with five branches. The scene thus displays a dazzling mixture of cultural styles—imitations of Assyrian, Egyptian and Cypriote, while the details of the dresses, beards and faces are in Phoenician style. The boat too exhibits a hybrid of styles typical of the eastern Mediterranean. This mixture of styles is a well-documented phenomenon in the Phoenician art of this period.

We suspect that this scapula was originally decorated with the maritime scene by Phoenicians, either at Cyprus, Dor or elsewhere in Phoenicia during the seventh-early sixth centuries B.C.E. It was later used by Cypriote Greeks, who added their votive inscription on the reverse side when they brought the bone to a sanctuary at Dor. The inscription was added in about 400 B.C.E. At this time Persia ruled the eastern Mediterranean. The Phoenicians rebelled and with the help of the Egyptians and Cypriotes succeeded in throwing off the Persian yoke for some twenty years, until 380 B.C.E.

Our scapula thus provides a rare portrait of the broad mixture of cultures, the teeming maritime trade, the popular religion of the time, the unusual scripts and the artistic styles prevailing among the Phoenicians and Cypriote Greeks along the coast of Palestine during the Babylonian and Persian periods. (i.e., during the centuries when the Babylonians destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and exiled its people [586 B.C.E.], and even later when the Babylonians were succeeded by the Persians whose ruler Cyrus allowed the Jews once again [fifth century B.C.E.] to return to their ancestral home.)

This unique find provides us, for the first time, with a cultic scene taken from everyday life of Phoenician sailors, a people well-known for their maritime enterprises. Here we get a rare peek at a cultic ceremony regularly practiced whenever a Phoenician ship left a harbor.

(For further details, see my “A Phoenician-Cypriote Votive Scapula from Tel Dor- A Maritime Scene” article, Israel Exploration Journal, vol. 44, 1–2 [1994].)

a. See Ephraim Stern, “The Many Masters of Dor,” BAR 19-01; “The Many Masters of Dor, Part 2- How Bad Was Ahab?” BAR 19-02; and “The Many Masters of Dor, Part 3- The Persistence of Phoenician Culture,” BAR 19-03.

b. See Trude Dothan and Seymour Gitin, “Ekron of the Philistines,” BAR 16-01.

1. This ostracon is being studied by Hebrew University Professor Joseph Naveh.

2. The bone was identified for us and has been studied by Israel Antiquities Authority paleo-zoologist Liora K. Horowitz.

3. J.M. Webb, “The Incised Scapulae,” in Excavations at Kition V. Part II, ed. V. Karageorghis (Nicosia- 1985), pp. 326–7.

4. See Avraham Negev, “Excavation at Avdat,” Qadmoniot 10 (1977), p. 29 and “Nabatean Cities in the Negev,” Ariel, 62–63 (1988), p. 126 (Hebrew).

5. R.D. Barnett, A Catalogue of the Nimrud Ivories in the British Museum (London- 1957), pp. 3, 8, 19.

6. E. Gjerstad, “Decorated Metal Bowls from Cyprus,” Opus Arch vol. IV (1946)- 1–18; G. Markoe, Phoenician Bronze and Silver Bowls from Cyprus and the Mediterranean (Berkeley- 1984).

7. D. Barag, “Phoenician Stone Vessels from the Eighth-Seventh Centuries B.C.E.,” in Eretz Israel (Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society, 1985), 215–232, especially fig. 11 on p. 224 (Hebrew).