written by Adam Zertal
An ancient cultic site beneath the altar
As we dug deeper into the strata of fill, it became clear that the cultic center, even the large altar itself, had been preceded by another cultic site. On the natural bedrock, beneath the geometric center of the altar, we discovered a round structure, about 6.5 feet in diameter, built of unhewn stone. It was found full of yellowish material, above which was a thin layer of ashes and burned animal bones. At first we thought this was part of the altar. Shortly, however, levels of habitation preceding the large altar emerged in other parts of the site as well. Around the early, circular structures were signs of further cultic activity: an earthen floor paved with pottery, a large collar-rimmed jar, and other vessels. The pottery findings in both phases were very similar, so much so that we believe the same people, or the same generation, built both phases of the site. There is no difference in the pottery; but, in contrast, there is a fundamental difference in the perception of the site, which may be put briefly as follows: in the second half of the 13th century, as far as we can tell, a modest cultic site was established on Mt. 'Ebal. A rough wall, constructed of large boulders, was built to enclose a sacred area. In the center was a round structure, possibly used for sacrifice, and around it other activities took place.
We do not know the origins of the great sanctity attributed to the mountain, but it appears that this sanctity only dates from the time of the Israelite settlement. For there is not the slightest sign of any Canaanite cultic tradition, nor any Canaanite finding which dates to the Late Bronze Age, anywhere on Mt. 'Ebal. It stands to reason that founding a cultic center on Mt. 'Ebal was intended as nothing other than a counter-weight to the presence of Canaanite Shechem and its cultic sites.
After several decades of the site's existence, a revolutionary change occurred there. From a small place, sacred to one family or perhaps to the region, it suddenly became a central cultic site of supra-tribal or perhaps even national importance to the entire alliance of the tribes. A new temenos was built, as well as a broad, paved gateway. A large and complexburnt offering altar, comprised of the platform itself, a surround, a small and a large ramp, and paved courts, was built on top of the earlier round structure. When this larger complex was constructed, so it seems to us today, the remains of bones and ashes from the earlier rites were gathered together and used to fill the new altar. Burying the earlier structure in the center of the newer one apparently symbolized the continuity of the tradition of sanctity attached to the site.
Many pottery vessels were discovered on the site, all belonging to the Early Iron Age (the time of the Israelite settlement, 1250 - 1000 B.C.E). Prominent types include the pithos (large collar-rimmed storage jar), jars, cooking pots, kraters, jugs, and bowls. Yet what was most interesting was the discovery of two scarabs (Egyptian-style signet rings in the shape of a beetle, common in the Ancient Near East throughout the second millenium B.C.E.). One was found in the altar's fill, the second inside an offering structure. One displays a geometric design consisting of a four-petal rosette in the center, with four shoots between the petals and a uraeus (an Egyptian cobra, believed in Egypt to have magical powers of protection and holiness) coming out of each shoot. The other displays a kneeling Egyptian archer and the cartouche of Thutmosis III, the great Egyptian conqueror. On the basis of similar findings in Egypt, Canaan and Cyprus, B. Brandl of the Hebrew University ascribes these scarabs to the second half of the 13th century B.C.E. In other words, they date to the time of the great Egyptian pharaoh, Ramses II, who is considered the pharaoh of the exodus from Egypt. Finding these scarabs here does not mean they were brought directly from Egypt; that would be going too far. More important, however, is that they fix a date for the construction of the altar - approximately 1250 B.C.E.