Archaeologists excavating an ancient cemetery in Israel have uncovered an idol which they believe dates the worship of the goddess Asherah back an incredible 7,500 years.
During excavations that took place in the 1980s on a mountainside near Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city on the northern tip of the Red Sea, archaeologists found the remains of a cemetery that extends far back into antiquity. They also found other ruins and markers that show this location was an important place of worship long ago, and have now uncovered what is believed to be an Asherah idol. This particular site was constructed approximately 7,500 years old and was dedicated to the goddess Asherah, who in later times was worshipped as the wife of Israel’s creator god Yahweh.
Mixing the characteristics of a mother goddess, fertility goddess, and the embodiment of all that was feminine in nature, the Asherah idol (who was also called Athirat or Ashera at different time) was an important figure in the religion of the Canaanites, who occupied the lands of modern-day Israel in the second millennium BC. Once the Israelites appeared in Canaan they actually absorbed Asherah into their religious traditions, with archaeological evidence suggesting the Israelites first began worshipping the mother-fertility figure in the 12th century BC.
But as the discovery of the new Asherah idol site shows, this goddess was known to occupants of the Levant (modern Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria) long before the peoples mentioned in the Hebrew Bible first appeared. The site at Eilat was constructed in the Late Neolithic or Stone Age period, and it is easily the oldest Asherah idol site ever found.
Experts have been studying the remains and artifacts found at the site for more than four decades, and even in the 2020s fresh revelations are emerging from this research.
This juniper tree trunk found in a grave in Eilat, Israel is the earliest Asherah idol discovered so far in the Near East, dated to 7,500 years ago. (Uzi Avner / Researchgate)
Asherah Idol Part of Red Sea Pre-Biblical-Era Cemetery
The first true excavations at the Eilat sites were carried out by Israeli archaeologist Uzi Avner and his partner Israel Hershkovitz in the late 1980s, after construction activity in the area had revealed the presence of something historically significant under the ground.
What Avner and Hershkovitz found on the mountainside near Eilat was more extensive than anyone would have imagined. They unearthed 11 plain graves and 20 more elaborate tumulus tombs at the cemetery, which despite some past grave robbing were still filled with some skeletal remains and a diverse collection of burial goods. Radiocarbon dating of bone samples showed that the cemetery was in use for more than a thousand years, from around 5450 to 4250 BC.
A 7,500-year-old burial of woman with child found in one of the Eilat Red Sea graves. (Uzi Avner / Researchgate)
While there was nothing especially unique or notable about the 11 common graves, the tumulus tombs were constructed with great care. Large rocks supported by stone pavements were arranged above the burial chambers, which did not include complete skeletons but instead only selected bones.
Interestingly, Avner believes the differences between the two types of graves are not a reflection of ancient class status. He says the simple graves represented an initial burial, and that once bodies decayed some of the bones were then removed and placed inside the tumulus chambers along with various types of grave goods. Some of the tumulus chambers were connected with each other and one contained the remains of multiple individuals, indicating that kinship or family relationships were acknowledged and respected even after death.
The list of burial goods found in the tombs included practical items and tools like arrowheads, grinding stones, scrapers, and stone bowls, the latter of which were decorated by geometric shapes. Fragments of pottery were also found in the tumulus burials, along with collections of animal bones from a broad range of species. One notable find inside the chambers were some impressive collections of small precious personal objects, made from shells, pieces of coral, minerals, and semi-precious stones.
The latter category included quite a few beads, some of which were made from seashells obtained locally. But the bead collections also included samples that were made from materials only available in far-off locations. Prominent among these were the oldest-known faience and glazed steatite beads ever found, all of which came from sources in Mesopotamia.
These artifacts were all found in and around the 7,500-year-old cemetery in southern Israel. 1. Shell jewelry; 2. Faience, steatite beads; 3. Flint scrapers; 4.Shells, coral from Eilat bay; 5. Copper bead; 6. Sandstone bowl bits; 7. Arrowheads; 8. Basalt axe; 9. Minerals. (Uzi Avner / Researchgate)
Another significant finding at the site were the remains of hearths, which presumably would have been used to create feasts to honor the dead. Signs of feasting have been found near other ancient burial sites, but this is the first time that several hearths have been found literally inside a cemetery (the main cluster included 66 hearths surrounding two tombs).
Asherah Idol Worship and the Standing Stones of Eilat
The archaeologists concluded this site was dedicated to Asherah because of the presence of one unique installation. This was a section of apparently sacred ground paved with small flagstones, and it was here that the archaeologists found a 11-inch (30-centimeter) tall wooden relic that they identified as the remains of a juniper tree trunk. This type of sacred wooden relic has been recovered from other archaeological sites in the Levant region, and it is known to represent the fertility goddess in all of her various names (she was referred to as Ashera in the Bible).
The presence of the juniper tree trunk makes it clear the site was reserved for goddess worship, and it is easily the oldest surviving Asherah idol found anywhere in the region (it was carbon dated to 4,540 BC).
Asherah was referenced negatively in the Hebrew Bible, seen by its composers as an obstacle to the triumph of Yahweh. Her worship was confined to the first few centuries of Israelite occupation of the lands of Canaan, and it seems all traces of Asherah goddess worship had disappeared from Hebrew religious practices by the early sixth century BC.
In addition to the sacred tree of Asherah, the archaeologists found other remains that reveal the true nature of the site. This included hundreds of small and modest-sized sacred standing stones, which in the Near East are known as masseboth (or masseba in the singular). First appearing around the year 1200 BC, this type of stone monument was frequently erected at sacred sites in the Near East and in the Levant in pre-Biblical times.
An anthropomorphic massebah with a nest of six skulls at its feet (Uzi Avner / Researchgate)
At Eilat, two types of masseboth were found associated with the tumulus chambers. One consisted of wide stones placed around the eastern perimeter of the tombs, and the other was comprised of stones that were installed inside the tomb chambers facing north. Based on findings at other sites, it is believed that the wide masseboth placed above the ground would have represented the fertility goddess, while the stones put inside the tombs would have represented the deceased’s ancestors.
Yet another important discovery reported at Eilat was the presence of two open-air sanctuaries, which were set off from other areas of the site by rows of fieldstones. The sanctuaries contained significant numbers of small masseboth, two feet (two-thirds of a meter) in height or less, which likely represented treasured ancestors or various deities in a long-lost prehistoric pantheon of gods.
Resurrecting the First Goddesses in the Land of the Israel
Many archaeologists and ancient historians don’t know about the people who resided in the lands of the Levant in prehistoric times. But as the study of the incredible site found at Eilat makes clear, these ancient societies were deeply spiritual in their orientation, and they subscribed to a metaphysical belief system that was passed forward thousands of years in time.
Even the ancient Israelites worshipped Asherah for a while before religious authorities were finally able to banish her from their monotheistic religion. She was largely forgotten in the region from then on, but fortunately archaeologists have been able to discover the truth about how influential this goddess figure actually was in the Near East in the remote past.
Top image: Left: This juniper tree trunk, found in a pre-Biblical grave in Eilat, Israel is the earliest Asherah idol discovered so far in the Near East. Right: Israelite ceramic figure of a nude woman, identified as an Asherah idol pillar. Source: Left: Uzi Avner / Researchgate ; Right: The Met
By Nathan Falde