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Biblical Archaeology Review 46:2, Spring 2020

Strata: Facelift: Shining Up a Silver Shrine

In 1990, the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon uncovered a small shrine within a house on the ramparts of Tel Ashkelon, located on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. Inside a ceramic vessel rested a small calf figurine. Made of bronze and gilded with silver, the calf had a detached leg but was missing only its left ear. Although the calf itself was virtually intact, the vessel surrounding it lay in pieces.

The calf was sent to the Israel Museum for restoration. After cleaning and stabilizing the metal, specialists determined that the calf was composed of a bronze alloy of copper, lead, tin, and arsenic. However, its ears, horns, and tail were made of pure copper. It was once fully covered with a thin sheet of silver, portions of which remain. Most of its body had been cast as a single piece, but the right foreleg (found detached) and the left hind leg had been cast separately and joined to the body, as had the copper appendages. The figurine measures about 4 inches long and 4 inches high. Judging by the tenons at the end of its legs, the calf would have been mounted on a platform.

Pieced back together, the conical ceramic vessel had a beehive-shaped top, flat bottom, and rectangular doorway. The door, which once fit into this space, is missing. Standing about 10 inches tall, the vessel would have served as the calf’s house.

The shrine dates to c. 1650–1600 B.C.E., during the Middle Bronze Age when Ashkelon was a Canaanite city. The calf likely was a religious item associated with the Canaanite storm god Ba‘al.