Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Earliest man-made beehives found at Tel Rehov

This discovery was made a year ago, but is just making its way into the mainstream press.

from Science News | "Honey Of A Discovery":

Scientists have unearthed the remains of a large-scale beekeeping operation at a nearly 3,000-year-old Israeli site, which dates to the time of biblical accounts of King David and King Solomon.

Excavations in northern Israel at a huge earthen mound called Tel Rehov revealed the Iron Age settlement. From 2005 to 2007, workers at Tel Rehov uncovered the oldest known remnants of human-made beehives, excavation director Amihai Mazar and colleagues report in the September Antiquity. No evidence of beekeeping has emerged at any other archaeological sites in the Middle East or surrounding regions.

“The discovery of an industrial apiary at Tel Rehov constitutes a unique and extraordinary discovery that revolutionizes our knowledge of this economic endeavor, particularly in ancient Israel,” says Mazar, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Many scholars assume that ancient Israelis made honey from fruits such as figs and dates. Nowhere does the Bible mention beekeeping as a way to produce honey, according to Mazar.

The earliest known depiction of beekeeping appears on a carving from an Egyptian temple that dates to 4,500 years ago. It shows men collecting honeycombs from cylindrical containers, pouring honey into jars and possibly separating honey from beeswax. Beehives portrayed in ancient Egyptian art resemble those found at Tel Rehov, as well as hives used today by traditional Mediterranean and Middle Eastern groups, says entomologist Gene Kritsky of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati.

“Tel Rehov is so important because it contains a full apiary, demonstrating that this was a large-scale operation,” Kritsky says.

Mazar’s team has so far uncovered 25 cylindrical containers for bees in a structure that is centrally located in the ancient city at Tel Rehov. High brick walls surrounded the apiary. Beehives sat in three parallel rows, each containing at least three tiers. Each beehive measured 80 centimeters long and about 40 centimeters wide.


In the best-preserved beehives, one end contains a small hole for bees to enter and exit. A removable lid with a handle covers the other end.

Chemical analyses of two Tel Rehov beehives revealed degraded beeswax residue in the containers’ unfired clay walls. The researchers are now examining pollen remains and bee bodies found in charred honeycombs from inside the hives.

A violent fire in ancient times caused walls surrounding the hives to collapse and destroy many of the bee containers. Radiocarbon measures of burned grain from the apiary floor and nearby structures provided an age estimate for the finds.

General view of the apiary (three lines of hives)

Mazar estimates that the ancient apiary contained at least 75 and perhaps as many as 200 beehives. A clay platform of the same width as a nearby row of hives probably served as a foundation for some of the hives. The facility held more than 1 million bees and had a potential annual yield of 500 kilograms of honey and 70 kilograms of beeswax, Mazar says.

A clay door of one of the hives

from the Tel Rehov Excavations website:

Amihai Mazar, Eleazar L. Sukenik Professor of Archaeology at the Hebrew University, revealed that the first apiary (beehive colony) dating from the Biblical period has been found in excavations he directed this summer at Tel Rehov in Israel’s Bet She’an Valley. This is the earliest apiary to be revealed to date in an archaeological excavation anywhere in the Ancient Near East, said Prof. Mazar. It dates from the 10th to early 9th centuries B.C.E.

Tel Rehov is believed to have been one of the most important cities of Israel during the Israelite monarchy. The beehives there were found in the center of a built-up area there that has been excavated since 1997 by Dr. Nava Panitz-Cohen of the Hebrew University. Three rows of beehives were found in the apiary, containing more than 30 hives. It is estimated, however, based on excavations to date, that in all the total area would have contained some 100 beehives.

Study of the beehives is being conducted with the participation of various researchers. Dr. Guy Bloch of the Silberman Institute of Life Sciences of the Hebrew University is studying the biological aspects of the finds; he already discovered parts of bees’ bodies in the remains of honeycomb extracted from inside the hives. Dr. Dvori Namdar of the Weizmann Institute of Science succeeded in identifying beeswax molecules from the walls of the beehives, and Prof. Mina Evron from Haifa University is analyzing the pollen remains in the hives.


Dating of the beehives was done by measuring the decaying of the 14C isotope in organic materials, using grains of wheat found next to the beehives. This grain was dated at the laboratory of Groningen University in Holland to the period between the mid-10th century B.C.E. until the early 9th century B.C.E. This is the time period attributed to the reign of King Solomon and the first kings of the northern Kingdom of Israel following the division of the monarchy. The city of Rehov is indeed mentioned in an Egyptian inscription dating to the time of the Pharaoh Shoshenq I (Biblical Shishak, whom the Bible notes as the contemporary of King Solomon and who invaded Israel following that monarch’s death.


A particularly fascinating find is an inscription on a ceramic storage jar found near the beehives that reads “To nmsh”. This name was also found inscribed on another storage jar from a slightly later occupation level at Tel Rehov, dated to the time of the Omride Dynasty in the 9th century BCE. Moreover, this same name was found on a contemporary jar from nearby Tel Amal, situated in the Gan HaShelosha National Park (Sachne). The name “Nimshi” is known in the Bible as the name of the father and in several verses the grandfather of Jehu, the founder of the dynasty that usurped power from the Omrides (II Kings: 9-12). It is possible that the discovery of three inscriptions bearing this name in the same region and dating to the same period indicates that Jehu’s family originated from the Beth Shean Valley and possibly even from the large city located at Tel Rehov. The large apiary discovered at the site might have belonged to this illustrious local clan.

Cultic objects were also found in the apiary, including a four-horned altar adorned with figures of naked fertility goddesses, as well as an elaborately painted chalice.

1 comment:

Rob said...

While admitting total ignorance of archaeo-apiary (though I may be able to claim coinage of a cool neologism), it would never have occurred to me that the ancient Israelites made their honey from fruit, as they were clearly familiar with the bee-generated stuff. In case we needed reminding, the best-selling British brand of golden syrup (not sure if you have it in the U.S. - like pale, runny, molasses) has on its label a picture of the answer to Samson's riddle: a dead lion with a bees' nest in it.


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