A new report detailing a seven-year archaeological excavation of a late bronze-age Canaanite temple in Israel describes “breathtaking” and “once-in-a-career” discoveries illuminating the ritual and worship practices of the Canaanites, the ancient and mysterious civilization only known through second-hand accounts like Greek and Egyptian historiographies and the Bible. The discovery includes two small statuettes of Canaanite “smiting gods,” war gods most commonly associated with Baal or Resheph.
The results of the discovery were published in the journal Levant: The Journal of the Council for British Research in the Levant under the title “The Level VI North-East Temple at Tel Lachish.” According to lead archaeologist Professor Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archaeology, the discovery is of massive importance in the study of the well-known but little-understood Canaanite people. Garfinkel wrote in a press release on Monday:
“This excavation has been breathtaking.
Only once every 30 or 40 years do we get the chance to excavate a Canaanite temple in Israel. What we found sheds new light on ancient life in the region. It would be hard to overstate the importance of these findings,”
The temple, referred to as the “north-east temple,” was discovered in the ancient city of Lachish, now a national park, near today’s Kiryat Gat, Israel. Laschich was one of the foremost Canaanite cities in Israel and is mentioned in the Bible. The city rose to prominence in 1800 BCE before being destroyed by the Egyptians in 1550 BCE. Laschisch rose and fell twice more, before being destroyed for good in 1150 BCE. The newly discovered temple dates to around 1200 BCE, putting it close to the very end of history for the city of Lachish.
The temple itself is not big, and it shares many similarities with other Canaanite temples discovered in the ancient cities of Nablus, Megiddo, and Hazor. This temple does, however, have a few features which make it stand out from the rest of the Canaanite temples discovered in the Levant, such as the addition of side-rooms away from the main temple space. The authors of the paper write:
“The presence of side rooms in that structure is one of the main points that has fueled the dispute over its characterization as a temple or a ceremonial palace. It is possible that the addition of side rooms to a temple with ‘Syrian’ characteristics is a precursor of Iron Age temples like the temple of Motza and the biblical Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.”
Among the ritual items discovered in the temple are a series of standing stones possibly made to represent various Canaanite gods, as well as “bronze cauldrons, jewelry inspired by the ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor, daggers and axe-heads adorned with bird images, scarabs, and a gold-plated bottle inscribed with the name Ramses II, one of Egypt”
But the most fascinating discovery is the two small statues of “smiting gods” discovered in the inner sanctum of the temple. Although time and weather have rendered these small figurines impossible to identify as specific gods, they are similar to other depictions of the Canaanite war gods. The figures are barely 10cm tall, with small pegs on their feet to place inside their wooden stands. The two gods are marching each with their right hands raised and both wearing small kilts. One of the smiting gods still carries its weapon, either a club or an axe, in its raised right hand. They both wear hats, one of which is similar to the White Crown of Upper Egypt, according to the article.
That this temple was constructed so close to the end of the city of Lachish definitely puts the worship of these two war gods, whoever they are, into an interesting context. How long before the city was destroyed could the residents predict the end was coming? And what rituals and petitions did the Canaanites make to these gods in a futile effort to escape their fate? We’ll probably never know.