TELL ES-SAFI, Israel — It’s rare you get a kick out of a 4,500-year-old donkey.
More astonishing is to find out the animal was deliberately buried under a house floor that ancient people would have walked on every day. Yet there it was — a perfectly arranged collection of bones lying undisturbed since its owners carefully placed it in the ground at the time the pyramids were under construction.
A prehistoric version of covering your ass, and only half a metre deep.
My co-workers — many from the University of Manitoba — and I had begun our third day excavating a neighbourhood in an early city in present-day Israel. As a career journalist who recently retired from newspapers, I’d always wanted to get my hands dirty with an archeological field school by probing the remnants of primitive civilization.
Cara, the young woman working next to me, and I were on our knees using trowels to dig pottery shards and deer-bone fragments from the sediment of an open-air room bordered by stone walls.
After an hour, Cara had exposed the joined ends of two bones that formed what looked like the hip joint of a large animal. Nearby, she uncovered another strange bone, which our supervisor thought might be an upper jaw associated with the hip. He called over zooarcheologist Tina Greenfield, who took a quick look and grinned. The jaw was dominated by two large front teeth that could only belong to a donkey, she said, and the hip joint was likely part of the same animal.
As news spread, the 30-odd excavators put down their tools to see for themselves. If true, this would be another burial of a sacrificed donkey — the fourth such skeleton found under the same room in the past two field seasons. Cara giggled with excitement.
Greenfield gently picked at the jaw with a kebab stick. She determined the skull was intact, but the bone crumbled easily. She kicked everyone out of the room, drew up an excavation plan and spent the next two weeks carefully exhuming the fragile frame.
I watched the slow emergence of this magnificent artifact from the other side of the wall. Despite my grey hair, I was too inexperienced to handle the bones directly as an undergrad student volunteering at Tell es-Safi. That didn’t stop me from pestering Greenfield and her colleague Liz Arnold with questions. Interrogating people remains an enduring habit.
Like the others before it, this donkey was young — about four years old — female and buried in a pit. It lay on its left side with its legs folded neatly below the body. There was no sign of butchering, trauma or disease. The animal was placed in a particularly shallow pit and covered with dirt.
"We have a narrow space for laying the donkey inside it," said Greenfield, an archeology professor at the University of Saskatchewan. "This is the fourth donkey in this tiny room. That’s a lot of donkeys under the floor... One donkey under the floor? OK. Two? OK. But four? Come on. The stench must have been beyond (foul)."
Pity the ass, that maligned beast of burden whose homely looks and brainless nature have made it the butt of ridicule for centuries. After the discovery, many of us cracked ass jokes and became more asinine. But long before Winnie the Pooh introduced us to his gloomy friend Eeyore and Puck made an ass out of Bottom, the burro was actually a status symbol.
Equus asinus was domesticated probably in Egypt or Mesopotamia around 3000 BC and became widespread in the Canaan region of Israel a few hundred years later.
Donkeys were the most valuable livestock you could have in the early Bronze Age of the Near East. They hauled plows — central to food production — and served as the pickup trucks of ancient trade and transport long before camels. They provided meat, hide and dung. Compared to cattle and horses, they were easy to feed and look after.
They packed goods and bore people, both elites and commoners. Even after the arrival of domestic horses, they carried nobles and carted them around in wagons.
"Kings rode donkeys. Donkeys pulled royal chariots," Greenfield said.
So why on Earth would you deliberately kill something so valuable in the prime of its life when it could give you 15 years of labour? And why bury it without harvesting its meat?
To decipher the puzzle, we must dig deeper into who the owners were.
Based on the remains of this Canaanite neighbourhood, the residents appear to have been middle class and industrious. They lived in a large urban centre on a hill overlooking the lowlands of south-central Israel. Each of their houses had a large courtyard and narrow rooms for cooking, sleeping and storage. Some spaces were roofed over, while others remained open to the elements. Most walls had a three-course stone foundation topped with a mud-brick superstructure. Dirt and cobblestone floors were the norm.
People were illiterate, but they understood urban planning. A narrow alleyway separates some of the six buildings that U of M teams helped uncover. The alley is just wide enough for a donkey packing a double-sided load.
The donkey house was likely one of the wealthier households on the site’s west side, where fresh air blows from the Mediterranean. Most residents were believed to be herders and traders who relied on donkeys as beasts of burden to move freight across the region, said Haskel Greenfield, Tina’s husband and the U of M professor supervising the excavation.
"We speculate the occupants were involved in the transport of goods, possibly as merchant families. For them, the donkey would have been very special since their livelihood depended on it."
So special, in fact, they used a 500-kilometre trade route to acquire one. The first donkey skeleton discovered at the site shows strong evidence the animal was born and raised in Old Kingdom Egypt. Isotopic tests suggest the adult female’s early tooth development happened in the Nile Valley. It was slaughtered only a few months after it arrived at Tell es-Safi, said zooarcheologist Liz Arnold, who did the analysis.
Its burial, the only one outside the main donkey house, is the most unusual. Like the others, the animal was young, bound, slaughtered and buried in a shallow pit dug through a house floor. It showed no sign of butchering except one — the head and most of the neck were cut off and placed on the stomach so they faced the rear end of the body.
There’s no indication the slayers threw the carcass haphazardly into the pit after the donkey died. The burial appears to have been a sacrificial offering to some god before the residents rebuilt the neighbourhood, Haskel said.
But why sacrifice an ass?
People practising ancient Near East religions preferred healthy animals for sacrifices because they appeased the gods, sanctified agreements or protected the dead. One burial tomb in Syria features at least two donkey skeletons buried with humans, and Old Kingdom Egyptians were known to entomb them with nobles.
Such lofty treatment likely rubbed off on commoners. The merchants and herders at Tell es-Safi would have held specialized positions in their community. They seemed to revere donkeys as cult figures by giving them their own exclusive interment, Tina Greenfield said.
"Maybe this is what each of the individual families did. When they had a special donkey, they could bury it underneath their house," she said. "So it was really understandable to have that (first) donkey underneath that house. Where it got to be tricky was when we find all the other donkeys."
The remains of the four animals unearthed in the donkey house were in separate corners of only the excavated portion of the building. Another could by lying under a massive cliff of sediment that accumulated on the rest of the house complex after the last residents abandoned it.
There’s no evidence it’s a donkey temple. People buried them years apart and less than a metre deep at different stratigraphic levels. They dug each pit only to contain the animal and likely had to "squish" them in, Tina said.
"They were kind of small for these animals... these pits weren’t wide enough to accommodate the whole body horizontally."
The fact the carcasses were so shallow underfoot makes the upstairs-downstairs scenario more bizarre. Even though they were covered over, the stench of decaying flesh must have been intolerable.
"Who wants to live in a house on top of three or four stinky donkeys?" Tina said. "We’re really at a loss. We’ve queried everybody: ‘Does anybody know what this could possibly represent? Do we have parallels anywhere in the Near East?’ No one is coming up with anything."
For a jaded reporter like me, the excavation was a long way from the crime and health beats I’d built a career on. Here was a forensic enigma no witness or detective could solve. Archeology attracts me because I love deducing mysteries. I was living the dream.
I helped transport the skull of the 2017 donkey, which was encased in protective plaster. Once a group of us had pried it from its earthen pedestal, we flipped it upside-down. With me in the middle, three of us lifted the heavy block and carried it like a large baby from the trench to the surface. I nearly slipped off the top of a narrow balk (dirt wall) and relied on a co-worker to guide my feet.
We placed the block in a sand-filled wheelbarrow and slowly eased it down a steep slope to a car. We placed it in the back seat and posed for photos, laughing like kids. The zooarcheologists later cleaned the skull and other bones in a university lab.
The project, run by St. Paul’s College and the U of M since 2008, was funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. It was sponsored by Bar-Ilan University under the direction of Prof. Aren Maier. Sadly, the 2017 season was the last at the site. Tractors have covered the houses with fill. They’ll remain hidden until perhaps another university resumes the excavation a generation from now.
This summer, Tina Greenfield plans to work at Tel Burna, another early Bronze Age site about 10 kilometres away. Anyone can participate in the dig as a volunteer or student registered for field credit through Israel’s Ariel University. The field season is scheduled June 24 to July 20. To find out more, visit telburna.wordpress.com.
Based on my front-row experience, the journey and expense are worth it. All you need is your health, reasonable fitness and a ravenous curiosity about the past.
No lazy asses need apply.
Don Plant is a freelance writer who grew up in Winnipeg and lives in Kelowna, B.C. He studies archeology at the University of British Columbia.