Contextualizing an Iron Age IIA Hoard of Astragali from Tel Abel Beth Maacah, Israel


  • Matthew Susnow The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  • Nimrod Marom The University of Haifa
  • Ariel Shatil Israel Antiquities Authority, Rockefeller Museum
  • Nava Panitz-Cohen The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  • Robert Mullins Azusa Pacific University
  • Naama Yahalom-Mack The Hebrew University of Jerusalem



astragali, Tel Abel Beth Maacah, Iron Age IIA, hoards, Levant


Astragali, the knuckle or ankle bones of mammals, have been collected, used and modified by humans in different parts of the world for millennia. Large hoards dating from Iron Age IIA (tenth–ninth centuries BC) are attested at a number of sites in the southern Levant, and a recently discovered hoard of 406 astragali at Tel Abel Beth Maacah in northern Israel presents an opportunity to investigate this phenomenon, shedding light on the function of these bones and why they bore special status and meaning that crossed cultural and temporal boundaries. In this study, the zooarchaeological analysis of the astragali provides the basis for an extensive discussion of the hoard’s formation process and function that explores ethnographic literature, archaeological data and ancient Near Eastern and classical documentary sources. The findings of this study demonstrate that while the individual bones had many different functions, once deposited together the astragali took on a new meaning, possibly related to divinatory practices.

Author Biographies

Matthew Susnow, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Matthew Susnow is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University. He has excavated at a number of Bronze and Iron Age sites in Israel, including Tel Abel Beth Maacah, where he is currently responsible for the analysis and publication of cultic finds from the site, including the astragalus hoard. His research interests include Bronze Age religion in Canaan, ritual theory and performance, cultic traditions in Iron Age Israel, ceramic analysis and textual analysis.

Nimrod Marom, The University of Haifa

Nimrod Marom is an archaeozoologist currently teaching in the Department of Maritime Civilizations at the University of Haifa. He has excavated in Israel and Turkey and has published zooarchaeological material from many sites in Israel. His research focuses on the human impact on wild animal communities of the Judean Desert (DEADSEA-ECO project) and on the movement of animals and animal related knowledge along the Mediterranean coast of Israel (the Zooarchaeology of Southern Phoenicia Project). 

Ariel Shatil, Israel Antiquities Authority, Rockefeller Museum

Ariel Shatil currently works for the Israel Antiquities Authority as a field archaeologist, having acquired his degree in archaeology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2008. He has excavated many sites in Israel including the City of David and the Neolithic site of Moza, and he is an area supervisor at the Tel Abel Beth Maacah excavations. Ariel specializes in the exploitation and technology of hard animal materials and works on bone tool assemblages from prehistoric to modern times.

Nava Panitz-Cohen, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Robert Mullins is professor and chair of the Department of Biblical and Religious Studies at Azusa Pacific University, where he has taught for over a decade. He has excavated at a number of sites in Israel and Turkey, served as co-editor of the publication of the Tel Beth Shean excavations, and is currently co-director of the Tel Abel Beth Maacah excavations. His research interests include Egypt and Canaan during the Late Bronze Age, early state formation during the Iron Age and the history of Israelite religion.

Robert Mullins, Azusa Pacific University

Nava Panitz-Cohen is senior researcher and adjunct lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She works as research assistant for Professor Amihai Mazar and has excavated at Tel Batash, Tel Beth-Shean and Tel Rehov, working also on the publication of these sites. She presently serves as the editor of the Qedem Monograph Series and as co-director of the Tel Abel Beth Maacah excavations. Her main research interests include Bronze and Iron Age ceramics, with a focus on technology.

Naama Yahalom-Mack, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Naama Yahalom-Mack is senior lecturer of Bronze and Iron Age archaeology and the head of the Laboratory for Archaeological Materials and Ancient Technologies in the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is currently the co-director of the Tel Abel Beth Maacah excavations. Her research interests focus on archaeometallurgy, the provenancing of archaeological materials as a proxy for reconstructing ancient trade interactions, and the incorporation of scientific analytic methods in archaeology.




Brown, F., S.R. Driver and C.A. Briggs 1906 Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

CAD 7 (I and J):

Oppenheim, A.L. (ed. in charge) 1971 The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. I and J. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

CAD 8 (K):

Oppenheim, A.L. (ed. in charge) 1971 The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. K. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

CAD 12 (P):

Roth, M.A. (ed. in charge) 2005 The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. P. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

CAD 17 (Š/1):

Reiner, E. (ed. in charge) 1989 The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Š Part 1. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

YOS 10:

Goetze, A. 1947 Old Babylonian Omen Texts. Yale Oriental Series, Babylonian Texts 10. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press

Other references

Affanni, G. 2008 Astragalus bone in ancient Near East: ritual depositions in Iron Age I in Tell Afis. In J.M. Córdoba, M. Molist, M.C. Pérez, I. Rubio and S. Martínez (eds.), Proceedings of the 5th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, 77-92. Madrid: Universidad Autónoma de Madrid.

Aharoni, Y. 1975 Investigations at Lachish: The Sanctuary and the Residency. Lachish V. Tel Aviv: Gateway.

Ahern, E.M. 1982 Rules in oracles and games. Man (new series) 17: 302-12. DOI:

Amandry, P. 1984 Chapitre IX, os et coquilles. In L’Antre Corycien II. Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique, Supplement 9: 347-80. Paris: École Francaise d’Athenes. DOI:

Beeri, R., and D. Ben-Yosef 2010 Gaming dice and dice for prognostication in the ancient Near East in light of the finds from Mount Ebal. Revue Biblique 117: 410-29.

Boertien, J.H. 2013 Unraveling the Fabric: Textile Production in Iron Age Transjordan. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, Netherlands.

Bottéro, J. 1949 Les inventaires de Qatna (suite). Revue d’Assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale 43: 137-215.

Cassuto, D.R. 2019 The Fabric of Society: Textile Production Workshops in the Southern Levant—a Case Study from Iron Age Tell e·-S·âf?/Gath. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

Choyke, A. 2010 The bone is the beast: animal amulets and ornaments in power and magic. In D. Campana, P. Crabtree, S.D. deFrance, J. Lev-Tov and A. Choyke (eds.), Anthropological Approaches to Zooarchaeology, 197-209. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Cohen, Y. 2020 Babylonian šumma immeru Omens: Transmissions, Reception and Text Production. dubsar 9. Münster: Zaphon.

Crist, W., A.-E. Dunn-Vaturi and A. de Voogt 2016 Ancient Egyptians at Play: Board Games across Borders. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Dagan, A., M. Eniukhina and A.M. Maeir 2018 Excavations in Area D of the lower city: Philistine cultic remains and other finds. Near Eastern Archaeology 81: 28-33. DOI:

Dandoy, J.R. 2006 Astragali through time. In M. Maltby (ed.), Integrating Zooarchaeology, 131-37. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Dasen, V., and U. Schädler 2017 Jeu et divination. Un nouveau témoignage de l'époque Romaine. Archeologia 553: 60-65.

David, F.N. 1962 Games, Gods and Gambling. New York: Hafner Publishing.

Dewez, M.C. 1974 New hypotheses concerning the engraved bones from La Grotte de Remouchamps, Belgium. World Archaeology 5: 337-45. DOI:

Finkel, I.L. 2007 On the rules of the Royal Game of Ur. In I.L. Finkel (ed.), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum Colloquium, with Additional Contributions, 16-32. London: British Museum Press.

Foster, G. 1984 The bones from the altar west of the painted stoa. Hesperia 53: 73-82. DOI:

Gilmour, G. 1997 The nature and function of astragalus bones from archaeological contexts in the Levant and the eastern Mediterranaen. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 16: 167-75. DOI:

Golani, A. 2014 Cowrie shells and their imitations as ornamental amulets in Egypt and the Near East. Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean 23(2): 71-94.

Grabundžija, A., C. Schoch and A. Ulanowska 2016 Bones for the loom. Weaving experiment with astragali weights. Contributions of the Institute of Archaeology in Zagreb 33: 287-306.

Greer, J. 2013 Dinner at Dan: Biblical and Archaeological Evidence for Sacred Feasts at Iron Age II Tel Dan and their Significance. Leiden: Brill. DOI:

Guillaume, P. 2013 Games. In I. Finkelstein, D. Ussishkin and E.H. Cline (eds.), Megiddo V. The 2004-2008 Seasons (3 volumes), 1106-14. Tel Aviv: Emery and Claire Yass Publications in Archaeology.

Guy, P.L.O., and R.M. Engberg 1938 Megiddo Tombs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Haddow, S.D. (ed.) 2015 Çatalhöyük 2015 Archive Report by Members of the Çatalhöyük Research Project. Online:

Hallo, W.W. 1983 The first Purim. The Biblical Archaeologist 46: 19-29. DOI:

Hardin, J. 2010 Lahav II. Households and the Use of Domestic Space at Iron II Tell Halif: An Archaeology of Destruction. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns. DOI:

Harding, G.L. 1945 Two Iron Age tombs from ‘Amman’. Quarterly of the Department of Antiquities in Palestine 11: 67-80.

Hesse, B. 1990 Pig lovers and pig haters: patterns of Palestinian pork production. Journal of Ethnobiology 10: 195-225.

Horowitz, W., and V. Hurowitz 1992 Urim and Thummim in light of a psephomancy ritual from Assur (LKA 137). Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 21: 95-115.

Hulster, I.J. de, and T. Kauhanen 2020 Abel and Dan (2 Sam 20: 18–19) in textual criticism, tradition history, and archaeology. Textus 30: 1-21. DOI:

James, F.W., and P.E. McGovern 1993 The Late Bronze Age Egyptian Garrison at Beth Shan: A Study of Levels VII and VIII. Philadelphia: The University Museum.

Keel, O. 2010 Corpus der Stempelsiegel-Amulette aus Palästina/Israel. Katalog II. Fribourg: Academic Press.

Kilmer, A.D. 1991 An oration on Babylon. Altorientalische For­schungen 18: 9-22. DOI:

Lapp, P. 1964 The 1963 excavations at Ta’annek. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 173: 4-44. DOI:

Lewis, R.B. 1988 Old world dice in the protohistoric southern United States. Current Anthropology 29: 759-68. DOI:

Loud, G. 1948 Megiddo II. Seasons of 1935–39. Text. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MacKinnon, M. 2010 ‘Left’ is ‘right’: the symbolism behind side choice among ancient animal sacrifices. In D. Campana, P. Crabtree, S.D. DeFrance, J. Lev-Tov and A. Choyke (eds.), Anthropological Approaches to Zooarchaeology: Complexity, Colonialism, and Animal Transformations, 250-58. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Marcuson, H. 2016 ‘Word of the Old Woman’: Studies in Female Ritual Practice in Hittite Anatolia. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago.

Marom, N. 2020 Analysis of animal bones from selected contexts in the 2010 and 2012 excavation seasons. In A. Mazar and N. Panitz-Cohen (eds.), Tel Reh·ov: A Bronze and Iron Age City in the Beth-Shean Valley V. Jerusalem: Qedem.

Marom, N., S. Bechar, N. Panitz-Cohen, R.A. Mullins and N. Yahalom-Mack 2020 Faunal remains from Tel Abel Beth Maacah: social changes in the late second millennium BCE Hula Valley. Journal of Archaeological Science Reports 32: 1-10. DOI:

Marom, N., and S. Zuckerman 2012 The zooarchaeology of exclusion and expropriation: looking up from the lower city in Late Bronze Age Hazor. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 31: 573-85. DOI:

Mazar, A. 1985 Excavations at Tell Qasile II. The Philistine Sanctuary, Various Finds, the Pottery, Conclusions, Appendixes. Jerusalem: Qedem.

Mazar, E. 1996 The Achziv Burials: A Test-Case for Phoenician-Punic Burial Customs. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel (in Hebrew).

Meier, J. 2013 More than fun and games? An experimental study of worked bone astragali from two Middle Bronze Age Hungarian sites. In A. Choyke and S. O’Connor (eds.), From These Bare Bones. Raw Materials and the Study of Worked Osseous Objects, 166-73. Oxford: Oxbow Books. DOI:

Minniti, C., and L. Peyronel 2005 Symbolic or functional astragali from Tell Mardikh-Ebla (Syria). Archaeofauna 14: 7-26.

Na’aman, N. 2018 Source and composition in the story of Sheba’s revolt (2 Samuel 20). Revue Biblique 125: 340-52.

Panitz-Cohen, N., and R.A. Mullins 2016 Aram-Maacah? Aramaeans and Israelites on the border: excavations at Tell Abil el-Qameh· (Abel-beth-maacah) in northern Israel. In O. Sergi, M. Oeming and I.J. de Hulster (eds.), In Search for Aram and Israel: Politics, Culture, and Identity, 139-67. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Panitz-Cohen, N., R.A. Mullins and R. Bonfil 2013 Northern exposure: launching excavations at Tell Abil el-Qameh· (Abel Beth Maacah). Strata 31: 27-42.

Second preliminary report of the excavations at Tell Abil el-Qameh· (Abel Beth Maacah). Strata 33: 35-60.

Popkin, P. 2013 Hittite animal sacrifice. Integrating zooarchaeology and textual analysis. In G. Ekroth and J. Wallensten (eds.), Bones, Behaviour and Belief: The Zooarchaeological Evidence as a Source for Ritual Practice in Ancient Greece and Beyond, 101-14. Stockholm: Swedish Institute at Athens.

Poplin, F. 1984 Contribution, ostéo-archéologique à la conaissance des astragales de L’Antre corycien. In L’Antre Corycien II. Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique, Supplement 9: 381-93. Paris: École Francaise d’Athenes. DOI:

Rainey, A. 2015 The El-Amarna Correspondence: A New Edition of the Cuneiform Letters from the Site of El-Amarna based on the Collations of all Extant Tablets. Leiden: Brill. DOI:

Reese, S. 1985 Shells, ostrich eggshells and other exotic faunal remains from Kition. In V. Karageorghis (ed.), Excavations at Kition V. The Pre-Phoenician Levels II, 340-415. Nicosia: Department of Antiquities.

Sasson, A. 2007 Corpus of 694 astragali from Stratum II at Tel Beersheba. Tel Aviv 34: 171-81. DOI:

Schädler, U. 1997 Astragalspiele gestern und heute, Teil I: Geschicklichkeitsspiele. Fachdienst Spiel 2: 20-25.

Schaeffer, C.F.A. 1962 Ugaritica IV. Découvertes des XVIIIe et XIXe campagnes, 1954-1955. Bibliothéque Archéologique et Historique 74. Paris: P. Geuthner.

Smith, A.T., and J.F. Leon 2014 Divination and sovereignty: the Late Bronze Age shrines at Gegharot, Armenia. American Journal of Archaeology 118: 549-63. DOI:

Susnow, M., W. Horowitz and N. Yahalom-Mack 2021 Perforated astragali in the Levant and four Babylonian omens. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 80: 91-100. DOI:

Tufnell, O., C.H. Inge and L. Harding 1940 Lachish II. (Tell ed Duweir) The Fosse Temple. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

van Binsbergen, W. 1996 Time, space and history in African divination and board-games. In D. Tiemersma and H.A.F. Oosterling (eds.), Time and Temporality in Intercultural Perspective: Studies Presented to Heinz Kimmerle, 105-25. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

von den Driesch, A. 1976 A Guide to the Measurement of Animal Bones from Archaeological Sites. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Vyatkina, K. 1964 The Buryats. In M. Levin and L. Potapov (eds.), The Peoples of Sibera, 203-42. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Yahalom-Mack, N., N. Panitz-Cohen and R.A. Mullins 2018 From a fortified Canaanite city-state to ‘a city and a mother’ in Israel: five seasons of excavation at Tel Abel Beth Maacah. Near Eastern Archaeology 81: 145-56. DOI:

An Iron Age I cultic context at Tel Abel Beth-Maacah. In A. Berlejung and A.M. Maeir (eds.), Research on Israel and Aram: Autonomy, Independence and Related Issues, 233-50. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Zeder, M.A., and B. Hesse 2000 The initial domestication of goats (Capra hircus) in the Zagros Mountains 10,000 years ago. Science 287: 2254-57. DOI:

Zeder, M.A., and H.A. Lapham 2010 Assessing the reliability of criteria used to identify postcranial bones in sheep, Ovis, and goats, Capra. Journal of Archaeological Science 37: 2887-905. DOI:

Zomer, E., and I.L. Finkel 2019 No. 4 games text. In E. Zomer (ed.), Middle Babylonian Literary Texts from the Frau Professor Hilprecht Collection, Jena. Texte und Materialien der Hilprecht Collection 12: 49-57. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. DOI:



How to Cite

Susnow, M., Marom, N., Shatil, A., Panitz-Cohen, N., Mullins, R., & Yahalom-Mack, N. (2021). Contextualizing an Iron Age IIA Hoard of Astragali from Tel Abel Beth Maacah, Israel. Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology, 34(1), 59–83.