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Animal Husbandry in Ancient Israel: A Zooarchaeological Perspective on Livestock Exploitation, Herd Management and Economic Strategies

Animal Husbandry in Ancient Israel: A Zooarchaeological Perspective on Livestock Exploitation, Herd Management and Economic Strategies

By Aharon Sasson (Approaches to Anthropological Archaeology). Pp. xiii + 153, figs. 34, tables 31. Equinox, London 2010. ISBN 978-1-84553-179-9 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The volume under review is a fine-application zooarchaeological study attempting to understand the animal husbandry, subsistence patterns, and related economic strategies in the Iron Age southern Levant. The volume is based on the author’s M.A. and Ph.D. dissertations at Tel Aviv University, portions of which have already appeared as published articles. In an attempt to present an overview of Iron Age animal husbandry in ancient Israel (i.e., the region of present-day Israel/Palestine), Sasson combines several sets of varying yet complementary data and analyses.

In the first major part of the book (ch. 2), using a comparative perspective, Sasson surveys and discusses archaeological and ethnographic studies on animal husbandry and economic strategies in the Bronze and Iron Age Levant. As opposed to most previous views, he believes that the evidence indicates the dominant subsistence strategy was that of survival subsistence and that previous research that had envisioned a developed market economy and thriving nomadic/pastoral and rural/urban interactions are simply wrong. In addition, he claims that while the rural/urban existence was at survival levels only, the nomadic lifestyle was the chosen, and preferred, subsistence strategy.

The second major part of the book (chs. 4–6) deals with a variety of analyses on the faunal remains from Iron Age Tel Beer-Sheva, a small multiperiod site located to the east of the modern city of Beer-Sheba in the north-central Negev Desert. The discussion of the faunal remains from this site is divided into three parts: (1) a general presentation of the species types, frequencies, and age and gender division, along with a discussion of special bone tools seen in the assemblage (ch. 4); (2) a spatial analysis (ch. 5), using GIS tools, for the faunal remains from stratum II at Tel Beer-Sheva, including analysis of stratum-wide spatial differentiation and a limited amount of micro-spatial analysis; and finally, (3) a case study of taphonomic analysis of the bones from the site, in which he discusses butchery marks and body part utilization, processes occurring to the bones before deposition (such as gnawing by dogs), post-depositional processes, and finally, the effect that the actual archaeological excavation has on the preservation of the faunal remains (ch. 5).

The third major part of the volume (ch. 7) is an ethnographic study of animal husbandry and human diet at “pre-Modern” (actually pre–mid 20th century C.E.) villages in Ottoman and British Mandate Palestine, based on various historical records. From this analysis, he demonstrates several interesting points, such as a distinct similarity between animal use in these villages and that seen in the faunal remains from Iron Age villages (such as Izbet Zartah). Also, he claims that these village societies retrieved all the needed protein from their livestock and were not dependent on pastoralists to provide this.

Following these three sections, the author summarizes and raises several interesting points, including: (1) both pastoralists and sedentary groups chose a survival subsistence strategy in the Bronze and Iron Ages; (2) there is little if any evidence of trade in animals in these periods, both for the pastoral and sedentary societies, and that animals were utilized maximally, not only for milk and meat, by these societies (the author believes that a market economy did not exist before the Roman period in the Levant); and (3) cattle husbandry was very limited in these societies, and the animals for all intents and purposes were kept only for plowing needs.

While I find this in general a very well-researched and well-written study that presents new data and suggests some interesting and even groundbreaking suggestions on subsistence and trade patterns in the ancient Near East, I do have some reservations about the volume.

First, I find it hard to accept without any reservations Sasson’s claim that market economies were nonexistent in the Levant in the Bronze and Iron Ages based on faunal analyses. Extensive documentary evidence from contemporary written sources indicate that some facets of market economy did exist, even if this cannot be seen in all parts of the ancient Near East, in all periods, in all portions of the relevant societies, and in some of the facets of given societies. While it may very well be that we have to reassess the role of animals and their use in market-oriented economies, I find it hard to accept that there were no market-like mechanisms in the distribution of other commodities.

Second, while Sasson bases much of his work on the analysis of the faunal remains from Tel Beer-Sheva, there is virtually no discussion of the context of the finds from this site. In other words, there is no extended discussion of the geographical background of the site, the historical, stratigraphic, and architectural context of the site—so much so that even in his in-depth spatial analysis of the faunal remains from stratum II (ch. 3), I could not find any mention of the date and historical background of this stratum and how this might have affected the faunal assemblage.

Finally, while the spatial analyses that were conducted were important, I believe that the author missed the opportunity to conduct a fine-tuned spatial analysis of specific houses, rooms, and other structures and areas and to make comparisons among these contexts in stratum II. This is particularly striking, given that a relatively detailed spatial analysis of many other classes of finds from this stratum was conducted and published by Singer-Avitz (“Beersheba: A Gateway Community in Southern Arabian Long-Distance Trade in the Eighth Century B.C.E.,” Tel Aviv 26 [1999] 3–75).

Despite these comments, I found this study to be very interesting and thought provoking, and I believe that it is important reading for all those studying the Bronze and Iron Age Levant specifically but also those dealing with premodern subsistence strategies in general. I believe the combination of a general overview, discussion of specific archaeological faunal data, and more recent ethnographic sources provides important insights on a central part of ancient societies—the human/faunal interaction.

Aren Maeir
Institute of Archaeology
Bar-Ilan University
Ramat-Gan 52900

Book Review of Animal Husbandry in Ancient Israel: A Zooarchaeological Perspective on Livestock Exploitation, Herd Management and Economic Strategies, by Aharon Sasson

Reviewed by Aren Maeir

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 4 (October 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1164.Maeir

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