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Storm God's Home? Ancient Cult Complex Found in Israel

 / Updated  / Source: Live Science
Image: Face mask
Fragments of face masks, like this one, were discovered in the 3,300-year-old cult complex at Tel Burna.Itzhaq Shai

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A massive cult complex, dating back about 3,300 years, has been discovered at the site of Tel Burna in Israel.

While archaeologists have not fully excavated the cult complex, they can tell it was quite large, as the courtyard alone was 52 by 52 feet (16 by 16 meters). Inside the complex, researchers discovered three connected cups, fragments of face masks, massive jars that are almost as big as a person and burnt animal bones that may indicate sacrificial rituals.

The archaeologists said they aren't sure who was worshiped at the complex. "The letters of Ugarit [an ancient site in modern-day Syria] suggest that of the Canaanite pantheon, Baal, the Canaanite storm god, would have been the most likely candidate," Itzhaq Shai, a professor at Ariel University who is directing a research project at Tel Burna, told LiveScience in an email. [See Images of the Cult Building and Related Artifacts]

Image: Cult complex
The foundations of the ancient cult complex in Israel, shown here from above, were made of field stone.Itzhaq Shai

The researchers said they can't rule out that a female deity, such as the ancient war goddess Anat, was worshiped there, Shai said.

The artifacts include fragments of two masks. "The burna mask fragments, both of noses, are quite interesting, because they are quite large, although ... they were clearly meant to be worn," Shai said.

The three connected cups, which were found in the cultic complex, were probably imported from Cyprus, the researchers say. The artifacts' use remains a mystery. The researchers also found massive "pithoi" vessels (large storage jars), some almost as big as a person.

Image: Face mask
Fragments of face masks, like this one, were discovered in the 3,300-year-old cult complex at Tel Burna.Itzhaq Shai

"The pithoi were likely used as storage for tithes brought to the cultic complex, although this is also being further analyzed through residue analysis," Shai said. A tithe, in this instance, would be goods given to the cultic complex by those who used or lived near it.

The complex yielded many other finds, including a cylinder-shaped seal, goblets, chalices, broken figurines that look part-human and part-animal, and even a scarab, an artifact with an Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription on it.

The discovery was presented recently at the European Association of Archaeologists' annual meeting in Istanbul.

— Owen Jarus, LiveScience

This is a condensed version of a report from LiveScience. Read the full report. Follow LiveScience on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

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