Four-horned altars at Tel Miqne, Israel, by Alice Crowe

small altars 3In the Assyrian occupation levels of the Philistine settlement at Tel-Miqne, 17 four horned altars,[1] small tables for incense burning, were excavated, revealing a religious link between the Israelites, Philistines, and Judeans during the Iron Age.  These altars vary in exact size and shape; however, all are under 70 cm, have horn-like protrusions, and are constructed of limestone.  The majority of these altars were found in buildings used for the large-scale production of olive oil during the 7th century BC.[2]   An unusual place for religious activities, the altars’ locations reveal not only an association between religious and economic activities at the settlement but also the presence of decentralized religion.  The altars were not found in a city-wide religious complex but rather in a very local, industrial setting.  Although it is possible that worship also occurred at a temple, the presence of altars in such a widespread area reveals that religion was at least partially practiced on an individual scale.

In addition to those found at Ekron, several altars have been discovered at Judean and Israelite sites.  At Be’er Sheva, an Iron Age Judean settlement, a large four horned altar built of ashlar blocks, was found dismantled and incorporated into a later wall.  Several altars mirroring those found at Ekron were also found in 9th century occupation levels at Tel Dan.  The exact significance of this widespread use remains unclear.  However, there are two particularly convincing possibilities: 1.) the people working at Ekron were natives of Israel or Judea who moved to Philistia, bringing their religious practices with them 2.) these altars represent cultural diffusion- an adoption by people native to Ekron of religious practices used in Judea and Israel. The altars, thus, can arguably be seen as evidence of either a movement of people or a movement of religious ideas.  Until further excavation occurs and more conclusive evidence is found, though, the exact significance of these altars remains unclear.

[1] Seymour Gitin, “Excavating Ekron: Major Philistine City Survived by Absorbing Other Cultures,” Biblical Archaeology Review. 31.6 (2005): 54.

[2] Larry Herr, “The Iron Age II Period: Emerging Nations,” Biblical Archaeologist. 60.3 (1997), 164.