In the 1992 and 1993 seasons at Ashkelon, over 12,000 animal bones were found in the destruction debris now dated to 604 B.C.E.
About half of these bones were found in the street outside the square building called the Counting House. This suggests that this area was used for carcass processing, although part of the accumulation may have resulted from the fact that this area is a slight downslope and may have accumulated remains through erosion.
Several other considerations, in addition to the accumulation of bones, indicate that this was a carcass-processing area. Of the 43 articulations (bones found in anatomical relationship) that were excavated, the largest concentration (16) was found in this same area. Most of these articulations were of non-meaty portions of the carcass—“wrists” and “ankles” still attached to the toe bones of sheep or goats. This concentration of articulations indicates a scene of primary carcass processing in the months prior to the destruction of Ashkelon in the winter of 604 B.C.E.
Five of the animals represented by these feet were 16 to 24 months old when they died. Assuming they were born in the seasonal pattern typical for sheep and goats in the Near East, these feet came from animals that died in late fall or early winter. The age of the animals at death is consistent with the historical record, since Nebuchadrezzar’s destruction of Ashkelon in early winter would have sealed the deposit before the feet had a chance to be scattered by exposure to the elements, scavenged by dogs or trampled by traffic.
Three vertebral column sections were also found in this area. These sections were probably also a by-product of primary butchery.
Because the societies of the ancient Near East had only a limited technical capacity to store fresh meat, slaughtered animals had to be quickly processed. Ethnographic analogies suggest that entire sheep and goat carcasses were hung up along the street, with the meat cut off at purchasers’ requests. Since the most desirable portions of the carcass may have been carried off for further processing with the bones still embedded in the meat, the by-products of the intitial steps of butchery (the skinning of the animal and the removal of non-meaty portions) are all that remain to mark the activity.
A cache of “ankle” bones (astragali) was also found in the Counting House. Some of these nearly cubical bones were polished on several surfaces, a common practice that allowed the bones to roll more easily when used as dice. But they also may have been used as counters. A number of other bones, mostly the articular ends of long bones, showed evidence of sawing. These bone sections are not just the by-products of butchery; they also represent the first step in the preparation of “blanks” for the large-scale manufacture of bone tools, amply evidenced from ten years of digging at Ashkelon.
In one of the shops off the Piazza Philistina (Room 431), two complete lower forelegs of cattle were found. The discovery of these meaty portions suggests that this was a butcher’s shop. A second concentration of cattle remains, again including meatier portions of the anatomy, was found in another room (Room 422). The spatial segregation of cattle remains from the remains of sheep and goats suggests that these animals were purveyed through separate marketing systems. Room 422 produced another surprise: Wings and legs from at least 12 small birds were found concentrated in one area. Perhaps both of these rooms were areas where meat was further prepared for cooking.
Nearly 1,800 fish bones were also recovered, a large part of which were found in a single room, the Wine Shop. This suggests that fish, too, were marketed and consumed through a system independent of barnyard stock.
What this patterning shows is that animals arrived at market through organized channels, not through sporadic marketing by individual households.
No camel remains and only nine pig, three gazelle and five deer bone fragments were recovered. Pigs, gazelle and deer may have been part of the domestic mode of subsistence and not regularly processed commercially.
Another anomaly: Sheep and goat remains outnumber cattle remains about eleven to one, a ratio unexpected in urban Philistia, where intensive agriculture dependent on animal labor likely supported the population. We suspect that this anomaly is due to the fact that only part of the site has been excavated. In some new area of excavation, we might well find an abattoir that once specialized in beef.