The Israelites of the Iron Age (c. 1200–586 B.C.E.) are not remembered for their arts and crafts. The Biblical writers relate that King Solomon hired Phoenicians to cut the wood required to build the Jerusalem Temple and cast its bronze furnishings (1 Kings 5:6–9; 1 Kings 7:13–14). It is possible that the prohibition against making graven images discouraged much in the way of original artistic development in Israel.
The Canaanites, who lived in the southern Levant during the preceding Middle and Late Bronze Ages (c. 2000–1200 B.C.E.), however, were known for their intricate ivory carvings and work in bronze, gold, and silver, as seen in the impressive objects found in their temples, palaces, and tombs. Some of these Canaanite craft traditions persisted into the Iron Age, including the ivory inlays found and possibly produced in the Israelite capital of Samaria in the ninth or eighth centuries B.C.E.a
Another Bronze Age Canaanite craft tradition that continued into Iron Age Israel was basalt vessel carving. The discovery of a unique workshop for basalt vessels at Hazor1 in 2010 sheds new light on this largely overlooked Israelite craft and allows us to study various aspects of basalt vessel production for the first time.2 It also invites investigation into the connection between the Late Bronze Age Canaanite inhabitants of Hazor and the Israelites who rebuilt the site in the succeeding Iron Age.
Located in northern Israel near numerous basalt outcrops, Hazor had a tradition of basalt carving from at least the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000–1500 B.C.E.). In the 1950s and in 1968, famed Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin and his team unearthed at Hazor some of the most impressive stone sculptures known from Bronze Age Canaan, including altars, orthostats, stelae, vessels, and statues. The Hazor Excavations directed by Amnon Ben-Tor since the 1990s have unearthed more orthostats, a large square podium associated with a Canaanite palace, and a headless sculpture of a male figure standing behind a large vessel. All these stone artifacts were made of basalt, hinting at the possibility that Hazor 047was a center for the manufacture of basalt sculpture in the second millennium B.C.E.3
But it was a bit of a surprise to find evidence for basalt carving at the site in a later Israelite workshop. In addition to providing evidence for this little-known Israelite craft, the workshop is the only one of its kind in the Near East from the Iron Age, when Hazor was a central administrative city and home to a wealthy ruling class. It contained more than 20 unfinished basalt vessels—also called preforms or wasters—as well as tools that may have been used to carve them. Add this to the assemblage of a similar number of unfinished basalt vessels found scattered throughout the main excavation areas at Hazor in the 1990s and early 2000s, and we have evidence for a specialized basalt vessel industry at the site spanning the Bronze and Iron Ages.
Who were the basalt vessel carvers at Israelite Hazor, and is there a connection between the Israelite basalt carving industry and that of their Canaanite predecessors?
By the Iron Age, basalt vessel manufacturing was already a longstanding tradition in the region, as beautifully carved deep basalt vessels/mortars are known from the Natufian period (c. 13,000 B.C.E.). Basalt vessels then continued to form important components of prehistoric stone industries and peaked during the Early Chalcolithic period (c. 4500–3900 B.C.E.). Although not as outré as their prehistoric predecessors, Bronze Age (c. 3200–1200 B.C.E.) basalt vessels reflect great skill and variety. Indeed, the vessels found at Hazor include at least four types popular from the Middle Bronze Age through the Iron Age.
The Iron Age basalt workshop at Hazor was discovered on the northern edge of the tell, in an area that served as the main point of passage between the lower and upper cities and the location of an administrative palace during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages. Defined by walls on its northern and 048eastern sides, the workshop lay outside the southern wall of a large agricultural storeroom. It is not clear how the workshop, which has not yet been fully excavated, relates to the storeroom. Three layers of beaten earth floor were identified in the workshop containing unfinished basalt vessels and many basalt chips as well as lots of ash, organic material, pebbles, and pottery sherds scattered throughout. Two short walls delineate a confined space in the northeastern part of the workshop where seven loom weights were recovered.
The iron chisels, flint tools, and basalt hammerstones found in the workshop may have been used in the manufacture of the vessels, while the presence of loom weights and spindle whorls may indicate textile production in this same space.
The unfinished basalt vessels are made primarily of compact, non-vesicular basalt and represent four main typological categories: plates/platters, pedestal bowls, tripod bowls, and bowls with everted (out-turned) walls. The completely preserved specimens from many Bronze and Iron Age sites, including Hazor itself, give us a good idea of what these vessels would have looked like had they been completed. With the exception of vessels in their initial stages of manufacture (probably done off-site, at quarries), our Hazor examples document all stages of production. Many of the unfinished vessels have evidence of battering, pecking, and chiseling on their interiors and exteriors, which allows us to reconstruct the manufacturing process and the use of various tools in the carving of these vessels.
A geochemical and petrographic study of the unfinished vessels and the basalt outcrops in the vicinity of Hazor showed that at least two major preferred sources were used, and these were not the closest basalt sources to the site. In fact, there is a basalt flow just along the lower city of Hazor, but this material was not used to manufacture the artifacts found in the workshop. This raises questions about access and control of desired raw material and the choices made by the Hazor stone artisans, who had to transport the partially worked basalt vessels some distance to the workshop.
The location of the workshop in close proximity to a large storeroom suggests state control of specialized craft activity rather than a domestic industry or independent commercial operation.4 Since the workshop is attached to an elite area, we propose that the vessels were luxury items, in contrast to utilitarian 049items, which are usually manufactured by independent specialists. The Israelite basalt vessel carvers at Hazor did not specialize in the manufacture of any particular vessel type. Most of the types common in the preceding Bronze Age are represented among the vessels found in the Iron Age workshop. Thus, we tentatively suggest that the production of basalt vessels in this workshop was controlled by the Israelite elite at Hazor and that the final products were made for elites, who controlled the distribution of these items and enjoyed the profits of their trade. In the future, we plan to sample similar vessels at contemporary sites to see if they were made of material from the same basalt outcrops and, hence, possibly manufactured in the ninth-century workshop at Hazor.
Finds of impressive basalt artifacts from the Middle and Late Bronze Ages indicate that Hazor was a center for basalt carving in that period. However, our workshop clearly dates to the ninth century, and it was Israelite specialists who produced the same types of basalt vessels that were popular already during the second millennium B.C.E. Could there be a connection between the Canaanite and Israelite basalt-carving traditions at the site?
After Canaanite Hazor was destroyed and abandoned in the context of widespread social dislocation in the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age, around 1250 B.C.E., it was not resettled until about 200 years later—most likely by early Israelites.5 Even though we don’t know where the Canaanites went after they had abandoned the site, the evidence suggests that the Iron Age inhabitants had some understanding of and even reverence for the Late Bronze Age ruins at the center of the city. This is seen in the decision to leave the ruins of the Late 050Bronze Age ceremonial palace untouched and build around rather than on top of them for the duration of the Israelite occupation of Hazor.6
It is also evidenced in the existence of a “ruin cult” in this area that was identified by the late co-director of the renewed excavations at Hazor, Sharon Zuckerman.7 Interestingly, the 11th-century Israelite site included two cult places within view of the Canaanite ruins, which Zuckerman believed to reflect “conscious appropriation” of the Bronze Age remains by the Iron Age inhabitants.8 The focus of these cult places was a single basalt standing stone, known in Hebrew as a maṣṣebah. Zuckerman suggested that these basalt stones might have been picked up from among the Canaanite ruins and revered as memorials of the city’s glorious past,9 since basalt craftsmanship reflects the significant resources available to the Canaanite elite that some 051two centuries earlier ruled Hazor. In addition, a Late Bronze Age jug containing bronze objects, including a figurine of a seated god, was found near the standing stone in one of the cult places.
It would then seem that the Israelite settlers of Iron Age Hazor not only were familiar with Canaanite architecture and material culture, but also respected and possibly even revered it. Finely worked basalt stones are rare in Iron Age structures and are only seldom reused. Despite technological advances from the Bronze to Iron Age transition that may have allowed for more efficient stone cutting, the Israelite ruling elite did not generally attempt to rival their Canaanite predecessors by reviving the tradition of basalt architecture. The ninth-century elites at Hazor, however, may have chosen to emulate their Canaanite predecessors by reviving the tradition of producing smaller basalt items, including the vessels found in the workshop. Perhaps they even accessed the same basalt outcrops as did the Late Bronze Age inhabitants of Hazor.
The basalt vessels from the workshop at Hazor are now being studied in the Laboratory for Ground Stone Tools Research at the Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa, where they are undergoing a micro- and macroscopic study for production wear. Together with the unique workshop at Hazor, they promise to shed new light on a neglected Israelite craft tradition and allow new opportunities to investigate the production, distribution, and consumption of elite artifacts during the Iron Age. This research also highlights Hazor’s role as a center for artistic innovation in the Late Bronze Age, when it was “the head of all those kingdoms” (Joshua 11:10), and suggests that the memory of this role was alive centuries later in the minds of the Israelite inhabitants of Hazor.
The most important city-state in the southern Levant during the second millennium B.C.E., Hazor was known for its magnificent architecture and artifacts that attest to the craftsmanship of its Canaanite population. Following a hiatus of 200 years, Hazor was resettled by the Israelites, who, it seems, inherited one particularly Canaanite craft tradition. Explore the surprising continuity in the production of basalt vessels at Hazor.