Science

When a king means business: Archaeologists find stone toilet that desecrated massive shrine

Archaeologists unearthing a stone toilet from a gate shrine at Tel Lachish, Israel
Archaeologists unearthing a stone toilet from a gate shrine at Tel Lachish, Israel
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Some of the artefacts found at the Tel Lachish site
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Some of the artefacts found at the Tel Lachish site
Archaeologists at the site of the largest gate shrine from the First Temple period (8th century BC) in Tel Lachish, Israel
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Archaeologists at the site of the largest gate shrine from the First Temple period (8th century BC) in Tel Lachish, Israel
Archaeologists unearthing a stone toilet from a gate shrine at Tel Lachish, Israel
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Archaeologists unearthing a stone toilet from a gate shrine at Tel Lachish, Israel
A helicopter view of the Tel Lachish excavation site in Israel
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A helicopter view of the Tel Lachish excavation site in Israel

Known for his sweeping reforms and dedication to eradicating the pagan idolatry that had grown rampant during his father's reign, the methods employed by King Hezekiah, who ruled over the Kingdom of Judah from approximately 727–698 BCE, have been well-documented in the Book of Kings ("He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles…"), but this is the first time that evidence has emerged to support biblical assertions of his hardline stance against religious cults.

This comes as a result of archaeological excavations conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority that uncovered the largest shrine in a city gate from the First Temple period at at the historical Tel Lachisch site earlier this year. Measuring approximately 80 x 80 ft (24 x 24 m), the six-chambered gate is consistent with the historical and archaeological knowledge that positions Lachisch as the second-most important city in the Judahite kingdom after Jerusalem during the 8th century BC.

A helicopter view of the Tel Lachish excavation site in Israel
A helicopter view of the Tel Lachish excavation site in Israel

During its heyday, it served as a bureaucratic center, courthouse and meeting place for the city's ruling elite. "The city elders, judges, governors, kings and officials – everyone would sit on benches in the city gate," says Israeli excavation director Sa'ar Ganor. Indeed, said benches were found during the excavation, as well as other such artifacts as jars, grain scoops and jar handles bearing an official's name or a royal insignia.

Apart from being the nerve center of the city's bureaucratic system, the site also housed a gate shrine, which was accessible via "steps … in the form of a staircase [that] ascended to a large room where there was a bench upon which offerings were placed." While finding religious artifacts such as altars and ceremonial artifacts is par for the course at such sites, what has gotten archaeologists buzzing is something far more incongruous: "A stone fashioned in the shape of a chair with a hole in its center." In other words, a toilet.

Archaeologists unearthing a stone toilet from a gate shrine at Tel Lachish, Israel
Archaeologists unearthing a stone toilet from a gate shrine at Tel Lachish, Israel

Installing such an object in the Holy of Holies, a sacred inner sanctum in the shrine accessible only to a High Priest, would have been considered "the ultimate desecration" of a holy space, which was most likely what Hezekiah in mind. A purely symbolic act – lab tests have confirmed that the commode was never used – it was meant to show pagan worshippers that he meant business when he declared he was getting rid of religious cults.

While such practices, most notably King Jehu's destruction of temples dedicated to the pagan god Baal, have been documented in the Bible, this is the first time that archaeological evidence has confirmed it.

Other findings that corroborate the desecration theory include two altars with four-horned corners that had been "intentionally truncated," says Ganor. After the toilet was installed, the Holy of Holies was sealed until the site was destroyed by the Assyrian army in 701 BC. During the excavation, archaeologists also discovered such weaponry relics as slingshots and arrowheads, indicative of the hand-to-hand combat that took place at the gates.

Some of the artefacts found at the Tel Lachish site
Some of the artefacts found at the Tel Lachish site

While the gate is currently closed to the public for conservation purposes, plans for a new visitor center at Tel Lachisch are in the pipeline. Among the artifacts that visitors will be able to see when it opens are the relief found in the king's private chambers as well as an altar from Hezekiah's reign, says Shaul Goldstein of Israel's Nature and Parks Authority.

The video below will give you further insight into the discovery from Ganor.

Source: Israel Antiquities Authority

A Gate-Shrine Dating to the First Temple Period was Exposed in the Tel Lachish National Park

11 comments
Jerry Peavy
"hardline stance against religious cults."? King Hezekiah was in fact promoting a religious cult himself!
Wolf0579
Truly a shame that King Hezekiah was unable to eradicate the monotheistic cults of the time. Imagine the lives multitude of lives that would be lived to their natural conclusion, and the knowledge that would be gained, and not lost or destroyed by religionists. The human race would have colonized mars long ago, and we would likely be taking our first tentative steps toward the stars.
KirkAugustin
Nonsense. First of all, a toilet in a temple would NOT at all have been desecration, but an expensive means of keeping priests from having to share public latrines. Second is that this most likely is NOT a toilet, regardless of our preconceptions on shape. Stone like that is far too heavy, cold, rough, sharp, etc. Toilets of the time were either made of ceramic or wood.
flyerfly
@Jerry... so you think every religion is a cult? I suspect that with a broad brush like that even those who believe in a big bang where trillions of tons of matter came out of nothing could be members of a "cult". @Wolfo579 There are good "religionists" and bad. History has proven wonderful technological advancements under good religion, those who adhere to the Biblical religion and are not just posturing. Everyone knows there are those who consider themselves religious but don't really follow the Bible... @KirkAugustin. It was obvious from the article here and elsewhere that this was NOT a temple but a shrine. Nobody puts a toilet in close proximity to a shrine like that (at least not that I have seen). I have been all over the world and this does look like a toilet to me. Also people back then made things from stone a great deal...Stone is no harder or colder than ceramic so your argument would say that we in the modern age are equally foolish for making cold hard toilets. Also it would not surprise me if they had nice wood covers back then just like we do now. We are entirely to full of ourselves to think that we in the modern era are the only ones to have thought of comfortable toilets. Thousands of years can make a nice toilet loose its nice lid and become etched to the point it looks rough and uncomfortable. Bottom line...there are things in this world that might make you want to think about your notions about people in the past and what certain books like the Bible say is history...what if it really is true?
GlassHalfEmpty
Read this folks: ----- "Installing such an object in the Holy of Holies, a sacred inner sanctum in the shrine accessible only to a High Priest, would have been considered "the ultimate desecration" of a holy space, which was most likely what Hezekiah in mind. ------ Wow, what a self contradicting thing to write! There was only one Holy of Holies, at the Jewish temple! And Jezekiah certainly did not attempt to desecrate it ! The author is amateurishly mixing up pagan shrines, Jewish temples, kings, etc.
toddzrx
Ah, the ignorance of NewAtlas readers, as shown in these comments. Jerry: study up on what a "cult" is. Cults are an offshoot of an established religion. Hezekiah's problem was that many Jews of his time were mixing non-Jewish religious beliefs and practices with those of authentic Judaism. If you are going to claim that Hezekiah was promoting a cult, pray tell, what cult would that be? Or, are you just taking an anti-theistic cheap shot with your comment? Wolf: sorry to inform you of actual history my friend, but the modern scientific age which this very website celebrates every day was largely started not by atheists (which are a largely modern phenomenon) nor polytheists, but by the very monotheists you denigrate. That would be Kepler, Pascal, Leibnitz, and Newton, to name a few off the top of my head. Kirk: have you ever been to Israel? I have, twice. Wood was and is hard to come by there, and stone has long been the building material of choice until modern times. Maybe the scholars and archeologists who made the discovery actually do know what they're talking about?
apprenticeearthwiz
Cults shitting on previous cults. So what's new? All religions are cults, created and developed by the wealth and power of their respective cultures in order to enhance that wealth and power. All religions are built around a set of profoundly humanist principles which engage with most of us in our social species. The religious leaders then corrupt these principles. For the believers in the audience, please remember christ warned again and again about the religious leaders. Who do you want to believe?
Captain Danger
@Wolf0579 I gather from your comments that you think that with only one religion and no war the human race would be much more technologically advanced. I would contend that the majority of technological advance has been an offshoot or war or at least ideological competition between nations.
ChrisWalker
those poles sound a lot like Native American Totem Poles. didnt know they had a lot of extra wood in Arabia to waste on Religious poles of importance
AnthonyBryant
In the middle ages a similar device was used to check the gender of a prospective pope. A junior cardinal would feel beneath the hole and pronounce ' Habemos testiculos et bien pendente'.