Ancient puzzle: 4,000-year-old decapitated toads found in Israeli tomb

It’s been three years since archaeologists uncovered a 4,000-year-old tomb near the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo in Israel. They were surprised by what they found inside: numerous vessels containing date palms and myrtle bushes, neither of which were native to the area, and — strangest of all — the decapitated bodies of at least nine toads.

The tomb was uncovered prior to the expansion of a neighborhood in the Hahal Repha’im basin, which was fertile ground for settlement during the Canaanite period four millennia ago. Excavators uncovered two settlements, two temples and several cemeteries in the area that “provide new insight into the life of the local population at that time,” according to excavation directors Shua Kisilevitz and Zohar Turgeman-Yaffe.

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“For an archaeologist, finding tombs that were intentionally sealed in antiquity is a priceless treasure, because they are a time capsule that allows us to encounter objects almost just as they were originally left,” they said on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“At that time, it was customary to bury the dead with offerings that constituted a kind of ‘burial kit,’ which, it was believed, would serve the deceased in the afterworld. When we removed the stone that blocked the tomb opening, we were excited to discover intact bowls and jars.

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“In one of the jars, to our surprise, we found a heap of small bones. The study of the bones … revealed at least nine toads. Interestingly, they had been decapitated.”

Israeli scholars believe the date palms and myrtle bushes were planted at the site intentionally, because they were not in their natural habitat, and that they may have come from a nearby orchard that was planted for the purpose of funerary offerings.  Experts think that the jar with the headless toads was also among the offerings.

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The date palm symbolized fertility and rejuvenation during the period, said Dr. Dafna Langgut of Tel Aviv University.