When I began studying a tub-shaped basin discovered years ago in the “elite zone” of the ancient Philistine city of Ekron (modern Tel Miqne), I assumed it was what it looked like—a bathtub. But the more I studied this artifact, the less I was convinced it was actually a bathtub. This put me on a quest. Several years and projects later, I may have some answers regarding the exact function of this and similar tubs.
Bathtubs, or bath-shaped vessels—typically made of ceramic, stone, or metal—are known from many sites across the ancient Near East. The earliest examples, dating to the 18th century BCE, come from the palace of King Zimri-Lim at the site of Mari in eastern Syria. Although basins of all shapes and sizes have been called “bathtubs” in the archaeological literature, I have identified three major types. The first is elliptical to hourglass-shaped, with four handles or lugs—two on either of the long sides. This type is also known on Cyprus, where the earliest examples date to the 13th century BCE.
The second type is rectangular or triangular, with one short straight wall opposite a rounded wall. The long walls are parallel or bulge outward in the middle, or sometimes angle inward. This type originated in Mesopotamia, where a similar vessel appears at the end of the second millennium. Most of the ones found in Israel and Jordan are of this type and date from the eighth through sixth centuries BCE, when the region was under heavy Assyrian influence.
The third type appears at Hellenistic and Roman period sites. It has a raised seat at one end and a sunken depression at the other, with no visible handles. It is sometimes constructed as a fixed installation rather than a discrete, moveable object.
Interestingly, what we do not see in the southern Levant is local development from one form to another. Instead—assuming these three types reflect similar activities—bath-shaped vessels were introduced into the region multiple times, each time from a different place.1
When I first studied the basin from Ekron, I looked for similar vessels at other sites and noted that the Cypriot examples often came from industrial contexts. Their excavators typically suggested these were secondary contexts, meaning the vessels were first used elsewhere, where they would presumably have had an original function as bathing tubs. Although a few were found in “bathrooms,” these rooms were identified as bathrooms solely due to the presence of a tub. To escape such circular reasoning, I enlarged my study to include other artifacts found in these rooms, and I noticed that the tubs were often associated with textile tools. At the Cypriot site of Maa-Palaeokastro (about 6 mi northwest of Paphos), where more than a dozen tubs were found, there was such a large amount of textile equipment that the excavators suggested the textile workers took baths at the end of their shifts!
Instead of trying to fit the data into the traditional interpretation, I asked myself: How might a large basin function in the ancient textile industry? And there it was. Sumerian writings (c. 2100 BCE) and Mycenaean texts (c. 1450 BCE) mention fullers—professionals involved in wool fulling. Fulling uses hot water, a detergent, and agitation to shrink and matt the woven, woolen fibers of textiles. In the Roman period, when fulling is well documented through texts and archaeology, fulling was done in large basins, where the fuller gripped the tub’s high sides and trampled the textile underfoot. Although there has always been 018variation in detergents and agitation techniques, the overall process did not change much until the mechanized fulling mills of the Industrial Revolution.
Fulling creates a stronger weave that is more resistant to wind and water, giving a textile added value. Accordingly, ancient texts mention fullers enjoying high status and serving as craftsmen or specialists attached to elite households. The activities of a fuller and the resources required are similar to those needed to clean clothes, and thus fullers may have also acted as launderers. In the Bible, references to both fulling (Isaiah 7:3; Isaiah 36:2; 2 Kings 18:17) and washing clothes (Exodus 19:10; Leviticus 13) use the same verb, kabas, which means “to tread” or “trample” underfoot, a common action in both activities.
Could then some tubs be the archaeological footprint of fulling? I think the evidence clearly points in that direction. The site of Maa-Palaeokastro with its multiple tubs strongly resembles the architecture of Roman period fulleries. Organic residue analysis on several eighth- and seventh-century BCE tubs from sites in Israel, Jordan, and Turkey identified a compound similar to date palm oil, which is traditionally used as a soap for washing textiles. A graffito of a date palm and a weaving loom on a tub from Khirbet al-Mudayna in Jordan points to a relationship among these three elements. Finally, ethnographic observations of Levantine village life in the early 20th century showed that a large basin was a main feature in courtyards and kitchens and that its primary use was for laundry, fulling, and tanning.
As such, rather than seeing all tubs as bathtubs, we should take a broader perspective and recognize that at least some of these artifacts were likely better suited to craft production than personal hygiene.
When I began studying a tub-shaped basin discovered years ago in the “elite zone” of the ancient Philistine city of Ekron (modern Tel Miqne), I assumed it was what it looked like—a bathtub. But the more I studied this artifact, the less I was convinced it was actually a bathtub. This put me on a quest. Several years and projects later, I may have some answers regarding the exact function of this and similar tubs. Bathtubs, or bath-shaped vessels—typically made of ceramic, stone, or metal—are known from many sites across the ancient Near East. The earliest examples, dating to […]