NAHAL REPHA’IM BASIN, ISRAEL – Archaeologists were greeted with a surprising find when they opened up a 4,000-year-old Canaanite tomb: a jar full of nine decapitated toads. It seems they were left there to be a snack for the deceased.
It’s not uncommon for ancient burials to contain food for the deceased, so on the surface, this might seem like a normal discovery. However, this is only the second recorded instance of finding toads buried as a food source in this area.
“Finding toads is pretty unusual,” said the dig’s co-coreator, Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologist Shua Kisilevitz said, “To the best of my knowledge, the only other place in Israel with a toad find was in Wadi Ara, and dates to the Late Bronze Age.”
This dig dates to the Middle Bronze Age, and the jar of toads was found in a jar placed in one of 67 man-made shaft tombs in an ancient cemetery. This indicates that toads were actually part of the local people’s diet, and was consumed fairly often – probably as a snack.
Other food-finds dating to this period in the area contain sheep, oxen, goats, and even gazelles.
Why were the heads removed? It could be ceremonial, but the reason is most likely practical. Toads have toxic skin. In South America, toad heads and toes were removed in order to make it easier to skin them.
The tomb contains an interesting puzzle that has nothing to do with toads, though. It’s a 3-4 foot long shaft carved out of limestone, which leads to a small man-made cave that’s about 3 feet in diameter, and just over 2.5 feet tall. Inside the cave was a partial skeleton lying in a fetal position, with his skull on a headrest.
“The interesting thing is how did they get the body in?” said Kisilevitz. It’s a fair point. The size of the burial shaft makes it only possible for one person to enter it at a time. They have to go in, and need help getting out. The shaft can be seen in the video below:
Besides the toad jar and the body, the team also found a few other intact pottery vessels. These contained pollen from date palms and myrtle bushes, which only raise more questions because neither are indigenous to the area.
Because these plants would have had to have been imported and planted, this leads archaeologists to question whether or not these plants played an important role in Middle Bronze Age Canaanite burial customs.
The research from this dig will be presented at a conference on October 18 at the University of Jerusalem, and is open to the public.