Earliest Evidence of Equid Bit Wear Uncovered in the Ancient Near East

View of the donkey in situ. (Credit: Tell es-Safi / Gath Archaeological Project)
View of the donkey in situ. (Credit: Tell es-Safi / Gath Archaeological Project)

An international team of archaeologists has uncovered the earliest example of the use of a bridle bit with an equid (horse family) in the Near East.  The discovery provides the first evidence of the use of a bit (mouthpiece) to control an animal long before the appearance of the horse in the Near East.

Evidence of the bridle bit was derived from the skeleton of a donkey dating to the Early Bronze Age III (approximately 2700 BCE) found at the excavations of the biblical city of Gath (modern Tell es-Safi) of the Philistines, the home of Goliath, located in central Israel. The donkey was laid as a sacrificial offering before the construction of a house in a domestic neighborhood.

The international team, including archaeologists from Bar-Ilan University, the University of Manitoba (St. Paul’s College), the University of Saskatchewan (St. Thomas More College), Ariel University, and Grand Valley State University, published their findings in the journal PLOS ONE. Prof. Haskel Greenfield, of the University of Manitoba, the paper’s lead author, said:

Prof. Aren Maeir, from Bar-Ilan University’s Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology, has led the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project since its inception more than 20 years ago. The excavations take place every summer in the Tel Zafit National Park, about halfway between Jerusalem and the coastal city of Ashkelon. Maeir said:

The authors propose that the wear on the tooth of the donkey was made with a soft bit, likely made from rope or wood. Maeir added:

Examples of these later bits were found in Israel at Tel Haror.

The donkey is one of four that were found buried under neighborhood houses, which indicates the importance of the donkey in this society — most likely as a beast of burden used in trade, the researchers said.

Vertical aerial view of Area E, where the donkey was found in an Early Bronze Age neighborhood. Credit: Skyview Inc. Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2018-05-archaeologists-uncover-earliest-evidence-equid.html#jCp

Vertical aerial view of Area E, where the donkey was found in an Early Bronze Age neighborhood. (Credit: Skyview Inc.) Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2018-05-archaeologists-uncover-earliest-evidence-equid.html#jCp

In a previously published study, the researchers provided evidence, based on isotopic analyses, that this very donkey was born in Egypt and brought to Canaan sometime during its lifetime. This demonstrates that this animal — and most likely others — was transported over large distances. Using bits allowed donkey herders to control the animals more easily during their transport.

Studies of the dental isotopes from the same donkey demonstrate, as well, that it was born and raised in Egypt and brought to the site only in the last few months of its life before it was sacrificed and buried beneath the floor of the house as it was being rebuilt.

Domestic horses were not yet present in the Near East at that time. As a result, donkeys were not only used as beasts of burden, but also were used to pull and be ridden by the newly emerging elites in these early city-states.

Provided by: Bar-Ilan University [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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