Posts Tagged ‘israel’
This past week a group of Israeli archaeologists uncovered a particularly stunning and intriguing group of ancient ritual vessels dating to approximately 3,500 years ago. The objects were found at a site whose name and location have not officially been released in order to avoid looters, which is reportedly just south of Haifa on Jordan’s coast. Based on the vague structural patterns discerned so far, namely a step or potentially a series of steps leading into a natural hollow in the landscape, it either represents a small rustic temple or the merely the ceremonial resting place of the ritual vessels associated with a presumably nearby undiscovered temple: only further excavation will reveal which. The cache of remarkable and intact objects features, among a variety of other things: a cultic incense burner, a particularly beautiful cultic cup featuring the face of a woman (pictured), storage vessels for sacred oils, and a series of flatware, presumably for feasts. All of these vessels were deliberately, and carefully, buried; which has left them particularly intact, a rarity among pottery from this tumultuous time period (trust me on that one, I once excavated a piece of Iron Age cultic incense burner of a similar make from a nearby site and am entirely jealous that they’ve found a complete one). The archaeologists attached to the site, Uzi Ad and Dr. Edwin van den Brink, speculate that these ritual vessels were most likely entombed as such for one of two reasons. Either the local Iron Age chaos of the region threatened the objects, and potentially their temple; and they were subsequently hidden and no one ever came back for them. Or the cult or temple they were associated with fell out of favor, and the items were ritualistically buried as a sort of funerary sacrament for the defunct religion. Overall, it’s an exceptional and exciting find and one which has prompted me to explore the origin and nature of the ritual vessel in more depth.
The Psychology & Origin of the Idea of a “Cup”
Imagine yourself back in the good ole hunter-gatherer days. You sleep in caves and outdoors, you subsist off the land entirely, you move around a lot. You have few worldly possessions, and what you do have you use to hunt with. But what do you store your food and water in? Think about it. You kneel down at a nice lil’ gurgling creek and scoop out water with your hands, but you don’t get very much water. You try using leaves. But while the big leaves are useful for carrying those pesky berries you’ve been collecting for dinner, the water spills out when you travel over long distances and you can’t set it down to drink it later. You need something more substantial. And thus the cup was inevitably born. Cups and bowls carved from rock and wood, made from animal bladders and bone, and molded from clay and metal would have revolutionized the business of eating, living, and yes, praying, for the ancient man (and woman).
It seems like such a simple idea to the modern world. We’ve grown up with the idea of containment: with cardboard boxes, plastic bags, and the convenience of rolling suitcases. You’ve had bottles, sippy cups, wine goblets, champagne flutes, soup bowls, mixing bowls, and all sorts of useful containers around since infancy. But in a world just evolving and creating these things, consider the importance of that initial cup or bowl. The magick it must have held for its creators. You put something in it and it stays. It captures things inside and doesn’t let it out. It is as if you have made a permanent new set of hands, separate from yourself, which can hold the water you were trying to drink from that rambling stream much better than you can. And on top of that, there is simply the act of creation itself. Where once there was nothing, you have made something. You have given birth to this tiny little creature made from mud that can do your bidding and hold your water, grapes, seeds, and what have you. It’s quite a novel concept. Often it is the first creation of fire that is seen as the dawn of civilization, I suggest that it was the first cup instead.
It is difficult to pinpoint the evolution of the idea of the cup and other similar vessels and match them up with the human timeline; but it seems likely that its widespread use was a hunter-gatherer, homo sapien sapien phenomenon. Vessels, especially tiny oil lamps, begin appearing in the archaeological record alongside the infamous cave paintings of continental Europe. In order to light their way around the darkened caves to paint their lovely animals, bird-men, and hunting scenes, these early men and women took little bowls of lit oil in there with them. Archaeologically speaking, where the negative items in the record often are more significant than those we have evidence from, if such bowls were being used to such novel usage then and are accidentally preserved as such, it is likely that by this time the vessel was in much more mainstream usage and that few of these everyday cups and bowls remain for archaeologists to find.
With the advent of pottery about 18,000 years ago, bowls, cups, and other vessels appear more regularly in the archaeological record. From then on much of the archaeological record itself is actually determined entirely by the styles and types of pottery being created. When a man is found with a handled cup with a wide lip archaeologists can estimate he lived circa X thousand years ago, whereas when a man is found with a shallow bottomed bowl with a rippled top edge, scholars can say that he was approximately from Y thousand years ago. It’s a system called typology and it’s been a boon to archaeologists for the past two centuries, one which admittedly is being reevaluated and expanded with the advent of technologies like radiocarbon dating which can test the dating sequences in real time.
The Specialization of the Ritual Vessel
But then, like any priceless item, the value of cups and bowls become distinctly overlooked once there are many of them. Anthropologically, psychologically, and even economically speaking, when we start having plates and windows and cars made out of diamonds, we’ll stop valuing them as highly as we do. And the same thing happened to the once special “cup”. If everyone has something that can hold water, oil, or food it stops being a special invention. It stops being a magickal object of supernatural power and just becomes an everyday item. Or so it seems.
Humans, however, are keen on the specialization of things; and when applied to a civilization’s seemingly uninteresting cups and bowls, this penchant for specializing and using certain items for specific uses makes for quite a more interesting story. Just as we now have the dinner plate versus the side plate, the wine glass versus the coffee mug, so too the early civilizations had a variety of types of vessels. And to some of them, they ascribed that earlier wonder they once felt for this ‘idea of the cup,’ and these became the ritual vessels of the title.
The cups, bowls, and plates for offerings became imbued with the power of the offering, they too were part of the ceremony, part of the power between the supplicant and the god and/or goddess. In richer communities where there were many containment vessels, specific vessels were made ONLY for ritual use: be this holding sacred oil for temple fires, perfumes to anoint statues of the gods with, or carrying the special bits of sacrificial meat up to your nearby temple in. Often these ritual vessels have particularly ornate decoration carved or painted on them. These decorations range from simple designs to more complicated imagery, including the occasional image of the vessel being used in rituals on the vessel itself or an inscription describing the ritual or spell the vessel was intended to partake in. Ritual vessels are often more decorated than was typical for everyday rough and ready vessels which were far more likely to break through constant usage and handling. Ritual vessels on the other hand, were set apart from other objects and used only in special circumstances and therefore in a certain sense “lived” longer. They could be passed down through generations as well, imbuing them with further oomph via associations with ancestors and their worship, a huge part of early ritual and one which has persisted in various forms into the modern world.
So, the next time you bust out your grandmother’s china for Thanksgiving dinner, raise a glass in a toast, or just simply take a sip from your coffee cup: take a second to realize the remarkable meaning and journey of the vessel you’re using and the power it once, and could still, wield.
For more on the Israeli discovery, click here.