Thursday, October 2, 2008

Beekeeping in Iron Age Israel

I love honey and I love bees. I don't have my own hive (the yard is too small), but I sometimes help my neighbor with her honey-harvest. I find ancient beekeeping to be a fascinating subject. The Egyptians left record of their beekeeping in wall paintings and reliefs. The Greeks' warm Mediterranean climate allowed for ceramic bee hives—pottery is poor insulation for cold winters (Crane, The Archaeology of Beekeeping). In a siege, the Greek hives could be dropped on the enemy below, exploding in a swarm of pot sherds and angry bees! Pliny's writing describes the pros and cons of wide variety of bee hive types (Natural History, Book 11). A wicker skep and log-hive have been discovered in a late Iron Age German context (Crane). 

There is quite a bit of evidence suggesting how an Iron Age individual might keep a hive of bees. Yet, it wasn't until 2005 that an archaeological discovery revealed beekeeping on a large, commercial-scale. "It is the Land of Honey: Beekeeping at Tel Rehov," by Amihai Mazar and Navar Panitz-Cohen describes the large apiary situated within the ancient city of Tel Rehov, Israel. The article is in Near Eastern Archaeology Vol. 70, No. 4, December 2007. pp. 202-219.

The hives are un-baked clay cylinders stacked on their sides in at least 3 tiers. They are all about 80 cm long and 40cm in diameter. One end of the cylinder is closed off, except for a small hole—the entrance for the bees. The rear of the cylinder has a clay lid. Chemical analysis has shown the presence of beeswax. The are 3 rows of stacked hives, with two aisles between them. The bee entrances face away from the aisle, so the beekeepers could walk along opening the lids without bees flying a them. implying as many at least 100 hives. Each hive could have held 10-15,000 bees. There could have been as many as 1 million bees flying in and out of town! Such a huge operation must have been maintained by a centralized government.

The article begins with an introduction to the setting. Tel Rehov is situated on great mound west of the Jordan river, and some miles south of the Sea of Galilee. Excavations at Tel Rehov started in 1989. Since 1997 the work has been funded by an individual, a guy from Minnesota! The authors then get very specific with the location of the apiary, noting the area in relation to the rest of the city, it's strata (depth in the ground) accompanied by maps of the city as a whole and its position among local buildings. In general, the piece is well-illustrated with color photographs, and B&W illustrations.

A detailed description of the beehive construction is given, along with the layout of the apiary. The authors explain the great economic value of the apiary, providing the reader with the many ancient uses of bee products. Figures for this apiary's honey and wax production are estimated, and speculation is made over who operated this industry. A description of altars and other cultic objects lead to thoughts on the religious rites practiced in association with the beekeeping. Mention is made to the pottery finds, although it does not seem that these common containers were to the particular to work at the apiary. Various dating techniques arrive at different time-frames, but the most likely date for the apiary is somewhere in 960-870 BCE (BC). 

I was very interested to read the section, "Honey and Bee-Keeping in the Bible and the Ancient Near East" Until this article my familiarity with ancient beekeeping extended only to the Iron Age Greeks, Romans and Germans. The article notes the Bronze Age bee, honey, and beekeeping writings of the Egyptians, Israelites, Hittites, Assyrians, and people of Ugarit. 

An ethnographic approach was taken by the authors—studying modern-day beekeepers to inform the interpretation of the ancient apiary.  Traditional Arab villages throughout the Mediterranean continue this style of beekeeping.  The hives they build are similar to those found at Tel Rehov! Mazar and Panitz-Cohen visited a Galilean town where they were surprised to see stacks of clay hives nearly identical to their excavation.
Mention is given to the continuing scientific analysis of the hives' organic matter, and the article ends with their summarized assessments of the find. 

You can tell my the length of this review I have a passion for ancient beekeeping. The discovery first came to my attention in December 2007. included a short story in its news of the day. I used that article to find out the name of the archaeologist. I contacted him through his university email, and he directed me to this more in-depth article. I was excited by a number of things. The age impressed me—the hives are nearly 3000 years old! I was intrigued by the location and the fact that the find included a large apiary, rather than an isolated single hive. Although published in a scholarly journal, the article was very readable and approachable to a general audience. In addition to providing details of the find at Tel Rehov, the authors' multi-dimensional approach sets the hives within the larger context of ancient Near East economics and religion.

A free PDF of "It is the Land of Honey: Beekeeping at Tel Rehov" is available from The Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I found this only after buying the printed issue and writing this review!

Crane, Eva. The Archaeology of Beekeeping. Cornell University Press, 1983. ISBN: 0-8014-1609-4. An excellent book, this is out of print and rather pricey on the second-hand market. However, it is available at university libraries or through interlibrary loan.

The same authors have published an article on this beehive find in the journal Antiquity, Volume 82 Number 317 September 2008. "Iron Age Beehives at Tel ReḼov in the Jordan Valley" p 629-639. For £15.00 you can order and download a PDF of the article.

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