An international team of archaeologists uncovered the earliest example of the use of a bridle bit on an equid, which belongs to the horse family, in the Near East. According to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE, the discovery provides the first evidence of the use of the bit (mouthpiece) to control an animal long before the appearance of the horse in the Near East.
The researchers found the evidence of the bridle bit on a skeleton of a donkey dating to the Early Bronze Age III, approximately 2700BC. The skeleton was found at the excavations of the biblical city Gath (now Tell es-Safi) of the Philistines, the home of Goliath who was mentioned in the Bible and the Quran. The city located now in central Israel.
The study said that the donkey was laid as a sacrificial offering before the construction of a house in a domestic neighbourhood.
The international team that conducted the study consisted of archaeologists from Bar-Ilan University, the University of Manitoba (St Paul’s College), University of Saskatchewan (St Thomas More College), Ariel University, and Grand Valley State University.
Haskel Greenfield, from the University of Manitoba in Canada, the paper’s lead author, said in the statement on the paper: “this [discovery] is significant because it demonstrates how early domestic donkeys were controlled, and adds substantially to our knowledge of the history of donkey (Equus asinus) domestication and evolution of riding and equestrian technology.”
He added that the discovery “is also significant that it was discovered on the remains of an early domestic donkey that was sacrificed probably as an offering to protect what we interpret to be a merchant domestic residence uncovered during our excavations,”
“The use of a bridle bit on a donkey during this period is surprising, since it was commonly assumed that donkeys were controlled with nose rings, as depicted in Mesopotamian art,” said Aren Maeir, from Bar-Ilan University’s Martin (Szusz) department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology.
Maeir has led the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project since its inception more than 20 years ago. The excavations took place every summer in the Tel Zafit National Park, about halfway between Jerusalem and the coastal city of Ashkelon.
The researchers suggested that the bridle bit on the tooth of the donkey was made from a soft material, likely rope or wood. “Only later, from the Middle Bronze Age and onward (after 2000BC), was it thought that bits, in particular metal bits, were used—first with horses that were introduced to the Near East at the time, and subsequently with other equids, such as donkeys,” added Maeir. Examples of these later bits were found in Israel at Tel Haror.
The researchers explained that the donkey is one of four that were found buried under neighbourhood houses, which indicates the importance of the donkey in that society, most likely as a beast of burden used in trade.
In a previously published study, the researchers provided evidence, based on isotopic analyses, that the ancient donkey was born in Egypt and brought to Canaan sometime during its lifetime. This demonstrates that the animal, and most likely other animals, 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 also demonstrate 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.