Bird study backs Bible: Pigeons, doves sacrificed in ancient Jerusalem

From the story of Noah and the dove in the Book of Genesis to the issues of ritual sacrifices and dietary restrictions, birds play a very important role in the biblical text.

Ancient bird bones. (photo credit: COURTESY OF ABRA SPICIARICH)
Ancient bird bones.
Analysis of bird remains excavated in Jerusalem confirmed that specific species of birds – pigeons, doves – were indeed sacrificed in the Temple as the biblical text suggests, a new study published in the May issue of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) showed.
“[Noah] again sent out the dove from the ark. The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the waters had decreased on the earth,” (Genesis 8, 10-11, translation
From the story of Noah and the dove in the Book of Genesis to the issues of ritual sacrifices and dietary restrictions, birds play a very important role in the biblical text.
Zoo-archaeologist Abra Spiciarich, a Ph.D. candidate at Tel Aviv University, started her research as part of a grant focusing on biblical dietary laws. As she explained to The Jerusalem Post, one of the areas of interest was a comparison between birds present in Israel’s ancient landscape and those mentioned in the Scriptures.
Starting from this question, the researcher was able to identify evidence supporting the text also in the realm of ritual practices, as well as to open a window in how humans and birds interacted in the land between 3,500 and 2,500 years ago.
Pigeons and doves often appear in the Bible as animals fit to be offered to God. For example, as described in Leviticus, they were one of the options for an atoning sacrifice for those who committed several types of sin or who had become impure. Moreover, a mother was required to bring a turtledove after completing her purification period following childbirth.
However, as Spiciarich pointed out, some scholars were skeptical.
“All the animals that are defined as sacrificial in the Bible are domesticated species, while pigeons and doves are not what people think as domesticated. Therefore, some biblical scholars stated that people back then did not sacrifice pigeons or doves but rather chickens, which were domesticated,” she explained.
The researcher studied bird bones from 19 sites around the region.
Analysis of the remains from sites near the Temple Mount from the First Temple Period or Iron Age II (1000-586 BCE) documented a large amount of doves and pigeons. In sites where residential areas in Jerusalem stood on the contrary those birds were almost absent while evidence could be found for chicken consumption.
“Jerusalem is a very unique site, with so many excavations carried in the last century that give archaeologists the ability to look at different areas in different times,” Spiciarich explained. “I was able to identify different patterns between public and residential areas.”
The archaeologist pointed out that this trend becomes even more evident by studying animal remains in Jerusalem from later times.
“There is a big dump dating back to the Roman period and the trash closest to the Temple Mount presents a lot of pigeons and doves, while the trash from the residential areas has none,” she said.
“It really shows a border on how animals birds used, a topic on which we learn also from other texts, such as Josephus and the New Testament,” Spiciarich concluded. “The story is reflected both in texts and in archaeology.”
The paper also looked into the questions of what species were commonly used and eaten in the region starting from the Late Bronze Age (1500-1200 BCE), and highlighted that partridges and geese were among the most popular birds consumed. Furthermore, the researcher showed how changes in climate affected the region, its birds and their consumption by local populations.