A Unique Vessel from Tell es-Safi/Gath and its Interpretation

Coming out of Passover (and finally, back to bread … :-)), I wanted to mention an interesting find from the excavation. In the Jewish tradition, it is customary to read the Song of Songs (Canticles) on the Sabbath that falls within the week of Passover (and now you are saying to yourself – what does this have to do with Tell es-Safi/Gath!? patience grasshopper …).

In the Song of Songs 2:5 it reads (KJV): “Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.” “Flagons” is the KJVs translation of the Hebrew ashishot, which nowadays is usually more correctly translated as “raisin cakes.” This word is quite rare in the Bible, appearing only 3 other times (see, in particular Hosea 3:1).

Now I do realize that the Song of Songs is one of the latest books in the Bible (most probably of Hellenistic date), but, nevertheless, one can see in this passage (and in many other parts of the book), distinct realia of biblical times. A possible hint to this may perhaps have been found in our excavations.

In the Stratum A3 (mid to late 9th cent BCE) destruction level, which we relate to Hazael’s conquest of Gath (e.g., II Kings 12:18), among the hundreds of well-preserved finds, a unique vessel was found.

wine_press_and_juglet.jpg The unique vessel and the juglet that was found next to it

This vessel has the shape of a roughly made, low-sided platter/basin. The inner surface of the vessel had originally been burnished, which due to repeated abrasion was mostly removed, as if the inner surface had served for grinding or pounding. This vessel is quite unusual, both at Tell es-Safi/Gath, but at other Iron Age sites as well. Clearly, it served for a very specific function. Right next to the vessel we found a complete juglet and rather large grinding stone. Most interestingly, in the archaeobotanical analysis of the soil samples that were taken for “floatation” from this context, Yael Mahler-Slasky (who completed a PhD under Prof. M. Kislev on the archaeobotany of various Philistines sites), found large quantities of raisins and grape pips.

Yael conducting the floatation on soil samples from the excavations. 


In light of the apparent function of the vessel (for grinding/pounding, etc.), and the various finds from its vicinity, this vessel most probably served for the production of a grape-related produce.

On the one hand, perhaps it served as a small grape press, for the production of a wine-like substance. This would fit in well with what we know about the Philistines, who both in the biblical text and from the archaeological remains were quite fond of alcoholic beverages (e.g., as depicted in the Samson cycle).

On the other hand, perhaps this vessel was used to grind/pound grapes and raisins, as part of the preparation of raisin cakes (ashishot), as mentioned in the Song of Songs and Hoseah …

As of now, we can’t give a definite answer to this, although hopefully, organic residue analysis of these vessels may provide in the future a more definite answer to this!