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The Ancient City: The Domestic Sphere

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Although many of our textual sources about ancient Judah and Jerusalem focus on the big public issues such as nation, king, and temple, the unsung labour of the domestic and private sphere were the foundation of ancient Judean society—as they are with any other society. Although the objects in this collection may not have quite the cachet of palace gates and monumental walls, everyday household items such as figurines, jewellery, or pottery vessels, reveal a much about the lives of those who used them. A Cypriot jug or a pottery sherd with Phoenician decoration is a sign of international commerce, for example, when it is found in a Judean house. The presence of a figurine or an amulet of a god or goddess, on the other hand, is a sign of the religious beliefs of the house's occupants. Ovens and storage jars can help archaeologists date occupation or destruction levels very precisely, using scientific methods to test the traces of food or other organic material still left on them. Even everyday pottery vessels like bowls, jugs, cooking pots, and kraters, provide the backbone of dating of archaeological sites, by revealing the slow change of ceramic styles over long periods—which in turn allows archaeologists to date archaeological layers.

Our knowledge of life in the city and its environs comes in part from the biblical texts and in part from archaeological excavations at sites in and around the city. The activities illustrated by this collection centre on private spaces, especially the home. It focuses on the House of Ahiel and its surrounding neighbourhood in Jerusalem, exploring aspects of daily life associated with this particular house, such as food preparation, consumption and storage, hygiene, cultic activities, and textile production, as well as bringing in everyday objects discovered outside the city, to help imagine what life there might have been like before its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

No one knows how big Jerusalem was just prior to its destruction. Population estimates range from as low as 15,000 people to at least as high as 25,000, due to uncertainty about ancient population density and disagreements over the size of the city. Whatever its exact size, the city was tucked away in the hill country, off the beaten path from the main thoroughfares nearer the coast. 

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Storage vessels from the House of Ahiel

The ability to store food is easily taken for granted in a modern context, but could easily spell the difference between life and death in the ancient world. Food storage was crucial to a family's ability to survive the winter each year, as well as its ability to survive crises such as famine or siege. The administrative ability of the Judean state to control and direct food resources was also fundamental to its citizenry's survival in such crises. The collection of vessels shown here comes from a service room in the House of Ahiel (named after the man whose name appears on clay shards also found in the house). Excavators discovered thirty-seven storage jars in the room, most of which had been marked by a rosette-type stamp impression. These stamp impressions were part of the state's administrative system for the distribution or taxation of produce in the last years of the kingdom of Judah, just prior to the destruction of 586 BCE. 

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Carved wooden items from the House of the Burnt Room

Fragments of carved wooden items from the House of the Burnt Room, Jerusalem These tiny fragments of carved wooden items come from a house in Jerusalem, in the City of David area. Their presence suggests that at least some members of the local population were rich enough to afford luxury items like furniture. The items were made mostly of boxwood, which does not grow locally in the southern Levant. Identifying the wood as something not grown locally means that its presence in Jerusalem had to come from trade, with either the raw material or, more likely, the finished objects imported and sold in the city. 

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The House of Ahiel

The typical domestic unit in the cities of Judah during the late Iron Age was the four-room house. The House of Ahiel, excavated in the City of David in Jerusalem, follows this typical type: there are side rooms, separated by monolithic pillars and piers, and adjoining service rooms to the north. These service rooms provide good examples of spaces dedicated to food preparation and food storage, as well as the house's toilet facilities.

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Lower grinding stone in the House of Ahiel

The grinding of grains into flour was perhaps one of the most laborious and time-consuming aspects of food production in the ancient world and therefore a very regular part of domestic life. The tool used for grinding up the grains in ancient Judah consisted of a larger lower grinding stone, which served as the main grinding surface, and a smaller upper stone that was rubbed against the lower one. The grains, caught between the two stones, was crushed and pulverized, eventually broken into pieces small enough to serve as flour for baking The size of the lower grinding stone means that it would likely have been difficult to move, and suggests that the stone may be in, or close, to the place where it was used, in the service rooms of the House of Ahiel.See also: cooking pot and baking tray; clay oven.

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An Iron Age toilet

This is a toilet installation in one of the service rooms to the north of the House of Ahiel in the City of David in Jerusalem. The installation was set into a thick plaster floor over a deep cess pit. Unsurprisingly, the excavations of the cesspit turned up faecal remains, as well as human parasite eggs and other organic matter, including fish bones. The presence of a stone toilet seat and cess pit shows a significant level of sophistication in the hygiene practices within the city, or at least in parts of it, while the remains from the cess pit shed light on the diet of the ancient inhabitants. The parasite eggs may reflect the difficulties brought upon the city by the prolonged siege of the Babylonian army in 588–586 BCE, while the fish bones suggest commercial activities between the city and traders operating more widely afield.

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Loom weights near the House of the Bullae and a spindle whorl from the House of Ahiel

The manufacture of cloth and garments formed an important part of daily life in a late Iron Age household, as attested by the presence of loom weights and spindlewhorls in excavated homes. This group of 24 clay loom weights were found in the City of David in Jerusalem. Two other collections of of clay loom weights were found on a possible living surface immediately below the House of the Bullae. The location of these loom weights suggest that in a previous period (before the floor of the House of the Bullae was laid down) the room contained a loom and was used for the manufacture of cloth.  The spindle whorl, made of decorated limestone, come from the House of Ahiel, also in the City of David. An image of a reconstructed warp-weighted loom gives an idea of the way that these loom weights would have been used in an Iron Age domestic context.

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Offering Stand from Megiddo

This two-part cult stand from Megiddo is unusually well preserved. Often only one part of two-part stands survive. The offering stand is conical, made of clay, and yellow in colour, with a red wash on the bottom part of the stand up to the ridge above the window and on the bowl. The bowl and the upper part of the stand are encircled with leaves, and those on the stand have a red line decoration. The bowl would have been joined to the stand by a pin going through the hole visible on the neck of the stand. The inside of the bowl was discoloured by fire. The offering stand was found in an area with only fragmentary architectural remains, but a wealth of domestic finds, such as ovens, silos, mortars, pottery, and evidence of textile and (bronze) metal work. As there was no evidence of a temple in the area where the stand was found, it is most likely an example of domestic cultic practice. A variety of offerings could have been placed in the bowl, including liquids for libations, grains or food offerings, or incense. The discolouration by fire suggests incense or some kind of offering by burning is likely. Without an inscription on the stand it is impossible to identify which deity was venerated through its use, but the leaves probably point to a fertility deity linked with agriculture. Offering stands of various types, shapes and sizes have been found from all over the Levant; they seem to have been a normal part of cultic practice, whether used more officially in temples or as part of daily life in the domestic sphere.See also the Altar from Tel Rehov, the Horned Incense Altar from Megiddo and the Musicians Cult Stand from Ashdod.

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Cooking pot and baking tray from Jerusalem

Elements of daily life are—by their very nature—often simple, practical and unassuming. They are not the elements that attract the eye of the visitor to a museum or exhibition, and rarely receive more than cursory attention. Yet food production and consumption is an essential part of life—and not merely from the point of view of subsistence. Customs and taboos relating to food appear in all cultures and are very frequently important in marking out both the shared practices of neighbouring cultures and their points of difference.See also: clay oven; grinding stone.

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Bone needle and bone implement from Jerusalem

Clothing forms an important part of daily life and is a key venue for the expression of individual and group identity. The climate in Jerusalem is such that textiles themselves very, very rarely survive to be found in an archaeological context. However, the tools used for spinning and weaving, such as spindlewhorls and loomweights, as well as the tools used for sewing—such as this needle—do survive. They provide a small glimpse about where and how ancient textiles were produced.

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Clay figurine of a woman baking from Achziv

This clay miniature is from a tomb at Achziv. The subject of this tableaux is ambiguous, because of the rather rudimentary way it is modelled, but it is generally interpreted as representing a woman kneading the dough for baking. It is part of a wider tradition of figural representation in clay.

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Reconstruction of a four-room house

The Harvard Semitic Museum has produced a full scale reconstruction of a four-room house, the typical home in Iron Age Judah. The reconstruction gives an idea of what an Iron Age Judean house would have looked like, divided into four rooms or spaces: three spaces separated by large pillars, and a fourth space in the back. The reconstruction also shows an upper floor, which does not survive directly in the archaeological record, but may be assumed from the presence of staircases in these homes. The first photo shows a general view of the house, with a reconstructed loom on the upper floor. The second photo shows examples of foodstuffs available during the Iron Age and vessels used in food preperation. The third photo shows a mortar and pestle, a set of grinding stones, and storage vessels in the background.

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Chair model from Lachish

The miniature figural world of Judah included not only female figurines and horses (with or without rider), but also model furniture such as this chair and the couch from Beersheba. Little is known of the use and meaning of these figurines. However, the fact that they are found in both domestic and funerary contexts suggests that they must have formed part of daily life and its rituals. It should be remembered that furniture was probably owned only by those better off in society and was probably a status symbol. A chair, in particular, may be understood as a throne, and in this sense it may represent authority—the authority of a king or queen, or the authority of a male or female god. As the archaeological context does not shed any clearer light, however, these suggestions remain speculative.

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Model couch from Beersheba

The figurine repertoire of Judah includes not only female figurines and horses (with or without rider), but also models of furniture, such chairs and this couch or bed. Little is known of the use and meaning of these figurines. However, the fact that they are found in both domestic and funerary contexts suggests that they must have formed part of daily life and its rituals. It should be remembered that furniture was probably owned only by the better off and was probably a status symbol. Some scholars also suggested that couches like this one should be associated with fertility and birth. This particular example in Beersheba was found with a female figurine. At present, far too little is known from secure archaeological contexts to provide a conclusive answer.

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Clay oven

This image shows the remains of a clay oven (tabun) just outside the House of Ahiel in Jerusalem, excavated as part of by Kathleen Kenyon's expedition to Jerusalem. Similar clay ovens are still in use in parts of the Middle East. They were (and still are) often found in courtyards, and are especially used for the preparation of flat bread.See also: cooking pot and baking tray; grinding stone.

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Horse and rider figurines from Lachish and Judah and a horse figurine from Jerusalem

Fragments of figurines of four-legged animals are by far the most common figurine type in Judah and Jerusalem, and are part of a wider repertoire of clay figurines. The horse and rider figurine type is common through the southern Levant during this period, and survives well into the Persian period (539–333 BCE). The particular style shown here, with very simple modelling and a pinched head, is typical of Judah.Few figurines survive intact or nearly so; the ones that do survive generally come from tombs. The horse here comes from Cave I in Jerusalem and the horse with a rider—the head broken off in antiquity—is from Tomb 106 in Lachish. The two complete figurines are unprovenanced, but are probably from Judah. The exact meaning and use of these figurines remains unknown. They do however, open a window on the way social meaning was contructed and manipulated in ancient Judean society. Horses were used only by the royal family and the military. Horses and riders, therefore, are likely to represent military power, and their frequent presence in the figural repertoire suggest that military power was a significant concern for the inhabitants of Judah.

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Clay figurines and models from Jerusalem and Judah

The variety of figurines found in Jerusalem and Judah are aprt of a general phenomenon and should not be studied in isolation. While the individual items and types are—of course—interesting, it is important to understand that they form part of a repertoire of figurines: a miniature world that includes female figurines, horses with and without riders, as well as furniture. Studies on figurines have tended to focus on specific types, but this risks isolating them from other kinds of figurines. Considering the female figurines alone, for example, it is easy to imagine them related to fertility ritual or female goddess. In reality they form a smaller part of the wider figurine repertoire. The majority of figurines are animals, which can generally be interpreted as horses; some appear with riders, others without. The use and meaning of the figurines is not very clear. Explanations range from cultic or apotropaic use, especially for the female figurines, to toys, usually with reference to the animals. Their archaeological context, which is primarily domestic and occasionally funerary, suggests that they were part of daily life. Whatever their immediate use, the repertoire provides a small window onto social meanings and identities that were represented and manipulated through the medium of clay figurines. 

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Female figurines from Jerusalem and Bethlehem and figurine and fragments from Lachish

Female figurines with prominent breasts and a moulded or pinched head on a solid pillar type base are common at Judean sites. For this reason figurines of this type have become known as Judean Pillar Figurines. They are well attested in Jerusalem, Lachish, and other sites in Judah.The figurines shown here are from Jerusalem (Jewish Quarter), Bethlehem, and Lachish. The fragments from Lachish remind us that most figurines are often found in a fragmentary state, having been broken and thrown away with common refuse in antiquity.  The meaning and use of these figurines is unclear. The figurines are clearly female, leading to suggestions that they are linked with fertility and childbearing, representing a goddess such as Asherah or Ashtarte or perhaps the women who worship the female deity. They differ, however, from the much clearer Late Bronze Age plaque figurines of such goddesses, insofar as these figurines lack any clear indicators that they are, indeed, goddesses. Some scholars have suggested that they might have had an apotropaic (for warding off evil) use. The figurines are found quite commonly in domestic contexts, and occasionally in funerary ones. This indicates that, whatever their specific use, they formed part of the daily life and rituals of ancient Judah and Jerusalem. They should not be isolated from the rest of Judah's figurine repertoire—most notably the horses and riders, as well as couches. They all formed part of a miniature world in which social meanings were represented and manipulated.