Jews aren’t allowed to eat pork, right? The command forbidding it is found in Leviticus 11:7 and Deuteronomy 14:8. Both note that even though the pig has “cloven hooves” like cattle or sheep, it doesn’t “chew the cud,” so it was considered unclean.
Deuteronomy wasn’t written until late in the seventh century and into the sixth century BCE, and Leviticus probably didn’t reach a final form until a couple of centuries later, but the tradition of the pork taboo clearly goes back further.
One method used to distinguish whether an ancient site was occupied by Hebrews is through a close examination of faunal remains – if the percentage of pig bones is very low, chances are that Israelites lived there.
Every archaeological expedition saves bones from each level for examination by an osteologist who can identify what animals were present and suggest what type of meat the people ate.
Hebrews weren’t the only people who weren’t hog wild about pork, but that’s in part because raising pigs requires a good source of water, and much of Palestine is on the dry side.
The Philistines, who occupied the well-watered coastal plain, were a famous exception, as evidenced by the higher prevalence of porcine remains from Philistine sites.
Sites associated with Israelite settlements typically contain very few pig bones, which makes a recent find all the more remarkable.
An article in the June issue of Near Eastern Archaeology (abstract here) reports that the entire skeleton of a young pig was found in Jerusalem, in a building dated to the Iron IIB period (eighth century BCE).
The structure was located on the eastern slope of the City of David, not far from the present visitors’ entrance to Warren’s Shaft and the Siloam Tunnel, famously attributed to Hezekiah.
The tunnel closed off outside access to the spring, but the building likely predated Hezekiah, so whoever lived there would have had good access to the fresh water.
Evidence from the dig, including material artifacts and a much higher proportion of sheep bones to goat (lamb was more expensive), suggests that the building belonged to someone relatively high on the economic scale.
The pig was found in a small back room containing large storage jars. Many other animal bones were found in the general area, and many showed evidence of butchering and roasting.
The squealer, however, did not meet its end at the point of a butcher’s knife. A violent disaster of some sort – perhaps even an earthquake such as the one reported in Amos 1:1 – caused the building to collapse.
The young pig appeared to have been caught between two large storage jars when the roof and walls collapsed, smashing the large vessels and burying the contents of the room. The pig’s skeleton, still largely articulated, was found in an upright position, with no signs of butchery or burning.
That is not to say the porker wasn’t being fattened up for the table: Why else would it have been in the same location with a bunch of charred bones from sheep, goats, and cattle?
But wait – wasn’t this Jerusalem? One might expect rural farmers to eat the occasional pig with little fear of criticism from the religious establishment; the faunal assemblage from most Israelite sites contains less than 2% of pig bones, but rarely zero.
Small amounts of pig bones have been found in other excavations in Jerusalem, too, including near the Temple Mount and in other parts of the City of David.
Still, a whole pig?
It’s possible that the building belonged to someone from a different ethnic background, but it’s also certain that many Hebrews were less than faithful in following the law.
Just read the prophets.
Even so, it would have taken some nerve to raise a pig within sight of the temple. Maybe that’s why the porker met its fate inside a tiny storeroom no bigger than a medium-sized closet.
The owner may have had some hutzpah, but he apparently tried to keep his pig private.
And the point of all this? It just leads me to wonder – as faithful as we may claim to be – what we may be hoping to keep under wraps.