Research uncovers Israelites' 'foothold' in Jordan Valley

Foot-shaped enclosures identified as biblical ceremonial sites.

foot-shaped enclosures 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
foot-shaped enclosures 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The discovery of gigantic foot-shaped enclosures in the Jordan Valley may shed light on ancient Jewish holiday practices, according to University of Haifa researchers. The sites, identified with what the Torah terms "gilgal" (a camp or stone structure), were used for assemblies, preparation for battle, and rituals, according to a press release the university put out last week. The researchers, led by Prof. Adam Zertal, found five such structures, each shaped like an enormous foot. The term "gilgal" is mentioned 39 times in the Bible, the press release said - the most famous referring to the site where Joshua and the Israelites encamped after crossing the Jordan River into Israel. However, no archeological site had yet been identified with it. The five enclosures, presumed to have been established in the 13th-12th centuries BCE, were excavated between 1990 and 2008. In at least two cases, archeologists found paved circuits around the structures, believed to have been used to circle the sites during ceremonies. "Ceremonial encirclement of an area in procession is an important element in the ancient Near East," Zertal said. He added that the Hebrew word "hag" (festival) in Semitic languages originated from the verb "hug," meaning "encircle." According to Zertal, the foot shape would also explain another holiday-related term: aliya la'regel - the pilgrimage to Jerusalem on Pessah, Succot and Shavuot - literally translated as "ascending to the foot." "The discovery of these 'foot' structures opens an entirely new system of linguistic and historical perceptions," Zertal said. "Identifying the 'foot' enclosures as ancient Israeli ceremonial sites leads us to a series of new possibilities to explain the beginnings of Israel, of the People of Israel's festivals and holidays." He said the constructions had been used for assemblies during the first Iron Age, and when the religious center was moved to Jerusalem, the command of "aliya la'regel" (pilgrimage) became associated with the city. Zertal also noted that the foot traditionally symbolized ownership of territory, control over an enemy, connection between people and land, and the presence of a deity. The Bible alludes to some of these, as does ancient Egyptian literature, he said.