March 10, 2013 at 2:09 PM ET
Archaeologists in southern Israel say they've uncovered a young donkey that was carefully laid to rest on its side more than 3,500 years ago, complete with a copper bridle bit in its mouth and saddle bags on its back.
Its accessories — and the lack of butchery marks on its bones — lead researchers to believe the venerated pack animal was sacrificed and buried as part of a Bronze Age ritual.
Donkeys were valuable beasts of burden in the ancient Near East. Donkey caravans helped open up vast trade networks across the Levant and Anatolia in the 18th and 17th centuries B.C., according to archives from Amorite settlements like Mari in modern-day Syria. Ancient Egyptian inscriptions from around the same time show that hundreds of pack donkeys were used in large-scale expeditions to mining sites in the eastern desert and southern Sinai, researchers say.
The animals have even been associated with royalty. In 2003, paleoscientists discovered the skeletons of 10 donkeys nestled in three mud graves dating back 5,000 years ago when Egypt was just forming a state. The donkey skeletons were lying on their sides in graves at a burial complex of one of the first pharaohs at Abydos, Egypt. [See Images of the Sacred Donkey Burial]
The donkey found in Israel seems to have been symbolically important, too, though this particular animal likely was never made to do hard labor before its death, said a team headed by archaeologist Guy Bar-Oz, of Israel's University of Haifa.
The grave was found in a temple courtyard, in the heart of the sacred precinct of Tel Haror, a Middle Bronze Age city near Gaza that was fortified by massive ramparts and a deep moat and dates back from around 1700 B.C. to 1550 B.C.
The donkey, estimated to be about 4 years old, was laid on its left side with its limbs neatly bent, the researchers say, and a copper bridle bit, a mouthpiece used to help steer animals, was found in its mouth. Some parts of the bit were extensively worn and it likely wasn't functional at the time of the burial. But an examination of the donkey's teeth suggests it was never meant to be practical.
"The absence of any sign of bit wear on the lower premolars indicates that the animal was not ridden or driven with a bit for prolonged periods of time," the researchers write in a paper published online this week in the journal PLOS ONE. "Moreover, the young donkey was still in the process of shedding its teeth and permanent teeth were just erupting. Based on its age, the Haror donkey would probably have been too young to be a trained draught animal."
The researchers say this is the only known Bronze Age bridle bit to be found in the mouth of an equid and that it likely served as a symbol of status, evoking the chariots that pulled soldiers, people of high-rank, and in a ritual context, images or statues of deities.
There were no butchery marks or burning traces on the donkey's bones, suggesting the animal was not killed to be eaten. In contrast, a pile of scratched-up bones from sheep and goat were discovered just above the donkey's carcass, which the researchers believe could be evidence of a feast after the ritual slaughter.