There is a joke among archaeologists. When you find something you don’t understand or can’t place, then it is called “cultic”. Sometimes, though, the evidence for ritual use of a site or objects becomes harder to dismiss. Such is the case with the unfolding finds at Libnah – Tel Burna. Tel Burna is located in the Judean foothills wedged between the coastal plain and the mountainous spine. Excavation began in 2009 under Dr. Itzhaq Shai from Ariel University. At first he pushed off calling the large building surrounding a courtyard and built on the bedrock, a religious complex. Not every place you find a Baal or Astarte idol is a house of worship.
Increasingly, though, Dr. Shai is beginning to believe that the finds in this 15.8 m long building provide mounting evidence to it being a cultic site. This summer, a matzebah (standing stone associated with cultic practices in the ancient world) was found. Also found at the site are goblets, chalices, figurines, zoomorphic vessels, and 2 ceramic masks. Masks were used ritualistically in the area from as early as 7000 B.C.E. and have no purpose in daily life.
A collection of animal bones was also found at the site. Young sheep, goats and pigs were slaughtered in this spot pointing to a religious site. Pigs were unique to the Philistines and were not found in Canaanite or Israelite cultic practice. All of these finds indicate for Dr. Shai the presence of a religious building, despite the absence of any classic idols.
We know Libnah from the Biblical text. Libnah, which had been a Canaanite city, becomes an Israelite city.
From Makkedah, Joshua proceeded with all Israel to Libnah, and he attacked it. God delivered it and its king into the hands of Israel; they put it and all the people in it to the sword, letting none escape. And he treated its king as he had treated the king of Jericho. Joshua 10:29-30
Archaeologically, we have found LaMeleKh handles which were characteristic of the Israelite population from the 8th century B.C.E. We do not know exactly when the transition from Canaanite/Philistine to Israelite population occurred as of now.
Topographically, Libnah’s location between the Israelite stronghold of Lachish in the mountains and the Philistine city-state of Gath in the coastal plain make Libnah a natural site for friction between these populations. We see the influence of the Philistines in the presence of pig bones at the site; pigs were not found in Canaanite or Israelite towns. In II Kings, we hear that Libnah rebels against Jerusalem. It is possible that the Philistines would have had a hand in that rebellion, but we have no archaeological evidence of a change in material culture at that time.
This summer’s expedition in Tel Burna uncovered some carbonized material in a destruction layer outside of the fortifications of the building. Based on pottery found there, the destruction is dated to the 10th century B.C.E. Was this a destruction by King Solomon in his wide-ranging program of “cleaning up” the lowland area and pushing back a Philistine advance or something else? Carbon 14 dating will hopefully create some answers about Libnah’s history and the particular history of this monumental building and its cultic past.