Have archeologists found the only female ruler of ancient Canaan?

Ceramic plaque suggests Beit Shemesh was governed by the 'Mistress of the Lionesses'

lioness (photo credit: Courtesy Tel Aviv University)
(photo credit: Courtesy Tel Aviv University)
Beit Shemesh now has a male haredi mayor - but Tel Aviv University archeologists have found evidence that a mysterious woman ruled the ancient town when it was part of the Canaan around 1350 BCE, before the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their return to their homeland. Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz and Dr. Zvi Lederman of the department of archeology and ancient Near Eastern civilizations recently uncovered an unusual ceramic plaque of a goddess in female dress, suggesting that a mighty female "king" may have ruled the city. If true, they say, the plaque showed the only known female ruler of the region. The plaque itself presents a royal, supposedly male figure and deities that once appeared in Egyptian and Canaanite art. The figure's hairstyle, though, is feminine and its bent arms are holding lotus flowers, which is uncharacteristic of men. Art historians suggest that the plaque may be an artistic representation of the "Mistress of the Lionesses," a female Canaanite ruler who was known to have sent letters to the Pharaoh in Egypt reporting unrest in her kingdom and calling for help. "We took the image to an art historian who confirmed our hypothesis that the figure was a female," says Lederman. "Obviously something very different was happening in this city. "We may have found the 'Mistress of the Lionesses' who'd been sending letters from Canaan to Egypt. The destruction we uncovered at the site last summer, along with the plaque, may just be the key to the puzzle." Around 1350 BCE, there was unrest in the region, and Canaanite kings expressed their fears using clay tablet "letters" to the Egyptian Pharaoh, asking for military assistance. But among all the correspondence by kings were two rare and unusual letters among the 382 el-Amarna tablets uncovered by Egyptian farmers a few decades ago. The two letters came from a "Mistress of the Lionesses" in Canaan. She wrote that groups of bandits and rebels had entered the region and that her city might be endangered. Because the el-Amarna tablets were found in Egypt rather than Canaan, historians have tried to trace the origin of the tablets. "The big question became, 'What city did she rule?" the researchers said. Lederman and Bunimovitz believe that she served as king (rather than "queen," which at the time described the wife of a male king) over a city of about 1,500 residents. A few years ago, TAU's Prof. Nadav Naaman suggested that she might have ruled the city of Beit Shemesh, but there has been no proof until now. "The city had been violently destroyed, in a way we rarely see in archeology," says Bunimovitz, who points to many exotic finds buried under the destruction, including an Egyptian royal seal, bronze arrowheads and complete large storage vessels. They suggest a large and important city-state, well enmeshed within east Mediterranean geopolitical and economic networks. The TAU archeologists say that the new finds might turn the interpretation of pre-biblical history on its head. The people of the time were pagans who had a very elaborate religious system. "It was a very well-to-do city," says Lederman. "Strangely, such extensive destruction like what we found in our most recent dig is a great joy for archeologists because people would not have had time to take their belongings. They left everything in their houses. The site is loaded with finds," he says, adding that the expensive items found in the recent level marks it as one the most important inland Canaanite cities. The discovery of the plaque, and the evidence of destruction recorded in the el-Amarna tablets, could confirm that the woman depicted in the figurine was the mysterious "Mistress of the Lionesses" and ruled Canaanite Beit Shemesh. "There is no evidence of other females ruling a major city in this capacity," Lederman and Bunimovitz say. "She is the only one. We really hope to find out more about her this summer."