Courtesy Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Iron incense shovels (mah ot; singular, mah ah), found beside a stone altar in the sanctuary at Tel Dan, were probably used during religious rites (c. eighth century B.C.). The upper half of a jar containing incense ashes and animal bones lay upside down in a hole between one shovel and the altar. The earliest of their kind ever found, these shovels, or firepans, resemble incense shovels pictured on synagogue mosaic floors of the fourth to fifth centuries A.D.

Leviticus 16 describes how such shovels were to be used by the high priest in the Temple on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur): “He shall take a panful of glowing coals scooped from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of finely ground aromatic incense, and bring this behind the curtain [hung before the Ark of the Covenant]. He shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, so that the cloud from the incense screens the cover that is over [the Ark of] the Pact, lest he die” (Leviticus 16:12–13).