Mystery Solved

Ancient chicken bones and snail shells date the destruction of a Greek city

Researchers could even determine the season when the siege began.

© German-Israeli Tell Iẓṭabba Excavation Project

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As winter turned to spring in the year 107 BC, residents of the Greek town of Tell Iztabba were plunged into a season of destruction.

The town was destroyed that year by the ancient Hasmoneans, who clashed with the Hellenistic (Greek) Seleucid empire during the second century BC.

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And it’s thanks to a new archaeological analysis that researchers can pinpoint the year — and even the season — when the siege of the town started.

© German-Israeli Tell Iẓṭabba Excavation Project

Writing this week in the journal Antiquity, researchers from Germany and Israel detail how they used ancient chicken bones, snail shells, and fossilized plants to date the fall of Tell Iẓṭabba.

The remains of the town are located in modern-day Beit She’an, Israel.

© German-Israeli Tell Iẓṭabba Excavation Project

Previous analysis of ancient vases, coupled with written accounts, placed the destruction of Tell Iẓṭabba between 111 and 107 BC.

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But more recently excavated coins coupled with written accounts of the Hasmonean siege of nearby Samaria place the date in 107 and 108 BC.

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And to pin down the season when Tell Iztabba was invaded, researchers looked at the leg bones of chickens that were left behind in homes destroyed by the Hasmoneans.

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“Analyzing them revealed residues containing medullary bone deposits in the marrow that served to produce eggshells during the laying season in spring. This indicates that the chickens were slaughtered in spring.

-Study authors Achim Lichtenberger and Oren Tal, in a press release.

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They also found the remains of shells from field snails, which people typically ate in the springtime.

And the researchers were also able to identify the remains of at least eight wild plant species that typically produce fruit in the spring and early summer.

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The physical evidence also lines up with accounts of Hasmonean conquest written in the ancient Hebrew Scroll of Fasting, Megillat Ta’anit.

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According to the text, residents in the region were expelled during the Hebrew month of Sivan, which coincides with May and June.

The fall of Tell Iẓṭabba also makes sense in the context of the time — Hellenistic military conquests usually took place in the spring.

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© German-Israeli Tell Iẓṭabba Excavation Project

This new level of detail helps clarify the timeline of Hasmonean conquests, and also shows how the changing of the seasons could have influenced behavior in the ancient world.