Zev Radovan

A humped bronze bull, found on a ridge in northern Samaria, marked what may be the oldest known Israelite sacred site. The largest such figurine ever found in the Levant, it measures 5 inches high and 7 inches long. Inlays of glass or semiprecious stones probably once filled the deep eye sockets. The small hump on its back, above the forelegs, identifies the animal as a Zebu bull (Bos indicus), a type that originated in India and reached the Near East by the fourth millennium B.C.E.

The figurine was produced by the so-called lost-wax casting method. First the ancient artisan sculpted the bull in wax, modeling each pair of legs in a long strip and then draping the strip over the body so that one leg came down on each side. The wax figure was next covered with wet clay; when the clay hardened, molten bronze was poured into the resulting mold, melting and replacing the wax. When the pottery exterior was broken away, the bronze image—identical to the wax original—emerged. Extremely common in Near Eastern mythology, the bull motif sometimes represents the West Semitic storm god Hadad, known in the Bible as Baal. Although not apparent in this photo, the bronze bull’s genitalia are well defined, perhaps suggesting the virility of the pagan god. Based on its size and craftsmanship, the bull was probably an object of worship rather than a votive offering. The site of its discovery lies at the center of a number of small Iron Age I settlements (c. 1200 B.C.E.)—probably of the early Israelites—and includes a 70-foot-diameter circle of unworked field stones, potsherds and a possible stone altar. These finds suggest an open-air cult site that might be called a bamah.