Long-lost Phoenician figurines could reveal secrets to ancient cult

“They were wrapped in newspapers from the 70s and covered in these brittle plastic bags that crumbled as soon as you touched them.”

Phoenician figurines (photo credit: JONATHAN J. GOTTLIEB/TANYA SOKOLSKY)
Phoenician figurines
A treasure trove of Phoenician figurines and ceramic vessels – that sat in the storerooms of the National Maritime Museum in Haifa for decades – were rediscovered three years ago, when three archeologists from the University of Haifa examined them and realized they held important clues about the religious and social life of the Phoenicians who sailed the waters of the Mediterranean and beyond.
The three archeologists, Meir Edrey and Assaf Yasur-Landau of the Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies, Haifa Center for Mediterranean History, Department of Maritime Civilizations, and Adi Erlich of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology, Department of Archaeology and Department of Art History, recently published their findings in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.
The research shows that while it was long believed that these figurines and vessels had been aboard one or more shipwrecks, they were not from the same era, rather, they were cast into the Mediterranean over several centuries to appease the gods and to ask for divine favors. Another possibility is that these votive offerings were meant as a substitute for the then-common practice of child sacrifice.
The treasure trove of Phoenician figurines and ceramic vessels sat in the storerooms of the National Maritime Museum in Haifa for decades (Credit: MEIR EDREY)
The treasure trove of Phoenician figurines and ceramic vessels sat in the storerooms of the National Maritime Museum in Haifa for decades (Credit: MEIR EDREY)
THE STORY of how the figurines got into and out of the museum storage room and into the forefront of the new research is a drama in itself. They were chance find by Rubi Shusmos about a kilometer off the coast of Shavei Zion, a moshav in northern Israel, in the early 1970s.
Shusmos was not an archeologist but a “fisherman and a diver, who was an antiquities robber,” said Edrey. “He looted and sold a lot of what he found, maybe hundreds of objects. My theory is that he tried to sell the figures to the museum, which is how the site became known.”
Eventually, museum officials persuaded Shusmos to reveal the location of the finds. Underwater surveys and excavation sessions were launched by Elisha Linder of the University of Haifa in cooperation with the Maritime Museum and with the assistance of volunteers from the Underwater Exploration Society of Israel.
“The most beautiful pieces were shipped to museums,” such as the Hecht Museum at Haifa University and the National Maritime Museum.
But about half the finds were stored way and forgotten for about half a century, until the museum was reorganizing and wanted to get rid of them. When it contacted Dr. Ehud Galili, a retired researcher from the Israel Antiquities Authority and a research fellow at the University of Haifa, he realized one man’s trash was another man’s treasure. He got in touch with Edrey, Erlich and Yasur-Landau.
“These boxes had not been opened since the 70s,” said Edrey. “They were wrapped in newspapers from the 1970s and covered in brittle plastic bags that crumbled as soon as you touched them.”
Rats roamed freely through the store room. “It was like something from an Indiana Jones movie,” Yasur-Landau added.
The terracotta figures and ceramic vessels had never been registered with the Antiquities Authority or examined in detail. Over 300 figurines and fragments were studied as part of this research – although, Yasur-Landau said, “the site could have contained thousands. There is no way to know how many were taken and sold and what are the perimeters of the site.”
WHEN THEY began their research, the experts noted several facts about the objects that cast doubt that they had been carried aboard ships. Most were from the Persian period, while others could be dated from the Iron Age and the Hellenistic period.
The researchers concluded that they had been accumulated at the site for more than 400 years, from the 7th to 3rd centuries BCE.
They believe that there were so many objects in this single location because they were offerings of a cult that seems to be related to fertility, rather than the cargo of a shipwreck. Many figurines bear markings and symbols connected to Tanit, a Phoenician goddess.
Some have their hands over their stomachs and others have protruding bellies and carry children in their arms.
The researchers believe that the Phoenicians of this era dedicated pregnant figurines to Tanit, possibly to symbolically substitute the sacrifice of their children if their wishes were granted. Other finds from the site include a clay leg, which is thought to represent an offering by a person who wanted his leg healed, further strengthening their hypothesis of the site being used for cultic activities.
Since the Phoenicians were so dependent on the sea for their livelihood, it makes sense that besides worshiping in land based-temples and sanctuaries, they also practiced rituals at sea, possibly seeking to continue to reap the profits from their seafaring expoits and they may have wished for a longer sailing season and calmer seas.
Such sites exist throughout the Mediterranean and the spot where worshipers cast offerings is not unique to Shavei Zion. Figurines have also been found near other Phoenician sites, mainly in the waters off Tyre in southern Lebanon.
Three of the Phoenician figurines (Credit: JONATHAN J. GOTTLIEB/TANYA SOKOLSKY)
Three of the Phoenician figurines (Credit: JONATHAN J. GOTTLIEB/TANYA SOKOLSKY)
BUT WHAT why was the Shavei Zion site chosen for this kind of worship?
“That’s the big question,” said Erlich. “It could have been to commemorate a certain event that took place there. Somebody could have had a vision there, or been saved from a disaster.”
Yasur-Landau said that “it’s between two large Phoenician sites, Achziv and Acre. But we don’t yet know why [specifically] here.”
In a recent New York Times article on the find, historians and researchers from around the world, including Dr. Helen Dixon of East Carolina University, hailed the new findings as a breakthrough in understanding the meaning of these figurines and vessels.
The University of Haifa researchers are currently at work on another paper that will explore more deeply the terracotta figurines and what they represent.
Erlich said the experts are focusing on answering several questions. “It’s hard to tell exactly who or what was worshiped, although we know about some Phoenician legends... People were visiting this site for at least 200 years, so it was part of the social and religious memory of the people.”
It is important to note that while there have been other underwater sites found off the coast of Israel, this is something that had not been found here before.
“We know about the other underwater sites: about shipwrecks and harbors that were submerged, and Stone Age settlements that disappeared below the sea. But this is a brand-new type of underwater site for Israel and they will be looking for others,” said Yasur-Landau.