Of standing stones, high places and cult objects at Tel Dan

Tel DanUpon King Solomon’s death, his kingdom split in two—the kingdom of Judah in the south and that of Israel in the north. A scion of David continued to sit on the Judahite throne in Jerusalem for more than 300 years—until the Babylonian conquest in 586 B.C.E. The north, however, witnessed a succession of rulers from a variety of dynasties. The first king in the north was Jeroboam, who had earlier been a subversive in Solomon’s court (1 Kings 11-26–39). When Solomon tried to kill him, the rebellious Jeroboam fled to Egypt (1 Kings 11-40). After Solomon’s death, Jeroboam returned and was proclaimed king of secessionist Israel.

But the new king of Israel feared that his people would still want to offer sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple and might revert to the rule of the Davidic dynasty (1 Kings 12-26, 27). To keep his people’s allegiances, Jeroboam established two shrines at opposite ends of his kingdom—one at Bethel, in the south, and the other at Dan, in the north. He set up two golden calves, one at Bethel and the other at Dan, for his people to worship. “This is your god, O Israel,” he declared (1 Kings 12-28).

Although we have not discovered the golden calf that Jeroboam is said to have set up at Dan, we have probably found the remains of the royal shrine where the calf once stood, built in the late tenth century B.C.E. These remains include a large platform, about 60 feet wide, made of large blocks of stones; this structure, we believe, is an example of an open-air shrine known in the Bible as a bamah, often translated as “high place” (in Leviticus 26-30 and in 89 other passages). We also found a number of cult objects associated with the shrine, including oil lamps with seven wicks, pithoi (large containers) decorated with depictions of snakes, an incense stand, a bowl full of animal bones, figurines of clay and faience, and a sunken basin with slanting basalt slabs. In ancient Israel, the snake was associated with cult practices, particularly with the worship of Baal. Not until King Hezekiah’s time (the late eighth century B.C.E.) was Moses’ bronze serpent (to which the people of Israel made offerings) ultimately destroyed—along with the bamot (high places) and mas\s\ebot (sacred pillars) (2 Kings 18-4). The basin with slanting basalt slabs was probably associated with some kind of water-lustration ritual. This entire complex may represent what the Bible calls a beit-bamat, or house of high places (1 Kings 12-31).

It is possible that Jeroboam chose the northern flank of Tel Dan for the site of the royal bamah because of its proximity to the spring that serves as one of the sources of the Jordan River. Jeroboam, however, may have chosen the site because it was traditionally hallowed as a cult site. Our finds here included two Egyptian cult fragments- The first depicts a person sitting cross-legged with the position of his hands suggestive of prayer; the second mentions the god Amun. Dating to the second millennium B.C.E., a figurine of a goddess adorned with an Egyptian-style wig was also found here. These finds suggest that the bamah was built on the site of an earlier sanctuary.

The royal bamah at Dan was enlarged in the centuries following Jeroboam’s reign. Dating to the days of King Ahab—the first half of the ninth century B.C.E.—an almost square ashlar bamah measuring 60 by 62 feet has been uncovered. The bamah features an alternating series of headers (rectangular stones set with their ends parallel to the face of the platform) and stretchers (stones set with their ends perpendicular to the platform’s face). There is evidence to suggest that a row of cedar beams was inserted between the rows of stones, as was done in the construction of the Temple of Jerusalem (1 Kings 6-36 and 1 Kings 7-12). A small four-horned altar and a large basalt horn, which must have originally been a corner of an extremely large altar designated for animal sacrifices, were also found.

The grandeur of the sanctuary in the eighth century B.C.E. is evident from the remains dating to the reign of Jeroboam II (784–748 B.C.E.). New steps leading up the bamah platform were constructed. Also associated with the bamah at this time were two long rooms that we call leshakot (“offices”; singular, lishkah), chambers that the Bible seems to associate with religious structures such as the Jerusalem Temple (see Ezra 8-29 and 1 Chronicles 9-26, among other passages). Inside the back room of one lishkah we found a low stone altar. Next to the altar, lying on the floor, were two long-handled iron shovels (a third lay nearby) used for coal. In the Bible, these shovels are called machtot (singular, machtah); see, for example, Leviticus 10-1. We also found a jar full of ashes, two incense altars and a bronze scepter head. All of these elements point to the importance of this shrine to the Dan community at a time when the eighth-century B.C.E. prophet Amos castigated the people for saying, “Thy god, O Dan, liveth” (Amos 8-14). A bilingual inscription in Greek and Aramaic referring to “the god who is in Dan” confirms the identification of the site as well as the existence of the shrine throughout the Hellenistic period (the third to the beginning of the first century B.C.E.).

If this were the only shrine at Dan, it would still be remarkable. Yet we have found a number of other religious installations at Dan during 31 years of digging, the longest-running excavation in all of Israel. (Why have so many shrines been found here? If other sites in Israel were as extensively excavated, would they too yield as many shrines?) The bamah just described is located well inside the city. Several others are clustered around the city’s gate complex.

Approaching from the south, a beautifully paved road leads into Tel Dan. As you near the city gate, you cross a large paved plaza leading to the city’s outer gate. Inside, you find yourself in another paved plaza with an inner gate that leads up to the city on the crest of the tell.

Early in our excavations of the Israelite fortifications, we discovered between the outer and inner gates a canopied throne-like dais (a raised platform) built of hewn limestone blocks. We knew it had been canopied since we discovered four round-socketed bases into which the poles supporting the canopy could be inserted. What was once under the canopy? we naturally wondered. The king? A statue of a deity? Next to this installation stood a large basalt monolith. Should we interpret this as a mas\s\ebah, a standing stone that perhaps symbolizes a deity?

Many excavation seasons later, we were removing collapsed debris of the city wall, which the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III destroyed in the eighth century B.C.E. On the paved square between the inner and outer city gates, we discovered five standing stones abutting the city wall (labeled number 3 on the plan in “Sacred Stones”). The stones are basalt monoliths of different sizes. In front of them was a bench or table.a At the western end of the line of stones was a single large stone that created a kind of niche for the standing stones. That these are mas\s\ebot, or sacred pillars, there is no question- Nearby we found a variety of votive vessels including seven-wick oil lamps and incense bowls. Sheep and goat bones, also nearby, showed that sacrificed animals had been offered or eaten here.

These five standing stones, clearly mas\sebot, suggested that the monolith we had discovered near the canopied dais was also a mas\s\ebah. The canopied dais and the five nearby mas\s\ebot were part of the same shrine located in the plaza between the outer and inner city gates.

At the end of the seventh century B.C.E., King Josiah of Judah enforced an important religious reform resulting in the condemnation of all shrines outside of Jerusalem and the destruction of the “high places (bamot) of the gates” (2 Kings 23-8). The complex between the inner and outer city gates of Dan may well represent archaeological evidence of “a high place of the gate.”

We discovered two more sets of five standing stones (mas\s\ebot) in the vicinity of the gate. One is located outside the outer gate, where we traced the city wall eastward for about 125 feet. Here, at the foot of the city wall, were five more standing stones carefully set on a solid foundation (number 4 on the plan in “Sacred Stones”). The flat stones of the pavement were meticulously laid against the flat surfaces of the standing stones.

Then, in the course of excavating the paved road leading from the main gate to the crest of the site, we discovered still another shrine complex before the city’s upper gate. In many ways it was like the shrine with the canopied dais between the inner and outer city gates. To the left (west) of the approach to the upper gate is a 15- by 8-foot structure with a dais on its left. Inside the structure was a limestone ashlar block broken in two. When we turned it over, we found a rectangular depression carved into it and a groove leading from the depression to the edge of the stone. It was apparently used in some kind of libation ceremony.

To the right (east) of the upper gate, set on a stone construction, were, once again, five stones, four standing and one fallen—another set of mas\s\ebot constituting a “high place of the gate” (number 2 on the plan in “Sacred Stones”).

All of the shrines we have described so far date to no later than the middle of the eighth century B.C.E. In 733/32 B.C.E. the Assyrians under Tiglath-pileser III attacked Israel. Although Assyrian records do not mention Dan as one of the cities conquered or destroyed, it appears that Tiglath-pileser stopped by long enough to destroy the city’s defenses. The gate area and the city wall were destroyed, but the city itself was spared, probably because it was not on the direct route to Hazor and Megiddo. Apparently Tiglath-pileser thought it was enough simply to destroy Dan’s defenses.

The city continued to thrive, however, and actually reached its zenith in the seventh century B.C.E. The approach to the city remained in the south, and here, once again, a mas\s\ebot shrine was built (number 1 on the plan in “Sacred Stones”). On the accumulated debris and collapsed stones along the city wall, 60 feet from the threshold of the outer Israelite gate and 10 feet south of the wall, three, possibly four, basalt standing monoliths identified as mas\s\ebot were found. In front of the largest mas\s\ebah, we found a basalt bowl on a carved stone, set on a flat base. The bowl was full of ashes. Close to the mas\s\ebot in the back, we found two small juglets and three broken oil lamps—objects perhaps associated with cult practices at the shrine. Although the city gates and walls were still in ruins, the religious practices hallowed in previous generations obviously persisted.

This was true also of the large royal shrine near the source of the Jordan River. But this raises another question. I have described a relatively large number of masdsdebot; more have been found here than at probably any other site in Israel. Yet we have not discovered any at the city’s major shrine at the Jordan River source. Why not? Negative evidence, of course, is not conclusive. Perhaps mas\s\ebot do exist there, awaiting excavation. Or perhaps the mas\s\ebot shrines we have described represent religion of a more popular character. Perhaps at the large royal shrine near the Jordan less elevated symbols of the deity were unnecessary. Although we can consider mas\s\ebot as aniconic representations of the deity and an aspect of popular religion, they are, at Dan, quite distinct from the formal, royal rituals practiced at the same time at the royal shrine by the source of the Jordan.

If so, what of the mas\s\ebot shrines elsewhere at Dan? Could these have been created for merchants and travelers, many of whom were not indigenous inhabitants of Dan? This possibility is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Outside the city wall, about 80 feet from the outer gate, we found an unusual building complex dating to the period before the destruction of Tiglath-pileser. Since this building complex was located beyond the city fortifications, we called these well-planned structures hus\s\ot, from the Hebrew hus\, which means outside. The term hus\s\ot, appears many times in the Bible and is loosely translated as “streets” or “bazaars,” which are not necessarily found outside a city gate. But the etymology of the word indicates that hus\s\ot, like our structures, were often located outside city walls. At Dan these structures may have served as headquarters for the guards securing the entrance to the city. But it is also possible that they provided temporary shelter for people whose entrance to the city was delayed for some reason. To meet their religious needs, as well as those of inhabitants entering and leaving the city, the shrines at the gates were erected. That this practice was well entrenched is indicated by the fact that the best-preserved mas\s\ebot shrine at Dan is the one built after Tiglath-pileser’s destruction of the gates and city wall.

One final puzzle- The Bible refers only once to the bamot of the gate, yet as we have seen, Dan had more than one near the gates. Perhaps as more city gates from antiquity are excavated, other bamot/mas\s\ebot shrines near city gates will come to light.

a. See “‘David’ Found at Dan,” BAR 20-02.