The need to store food arose early in human history. Food had to be saved in times of plenty for times of need, especially when human resourcefulness created a surplus either by hunting and gathering or by production through domestication. With the evolution of social structures, surplus could be traded, a notion that made storage attractive. To carry out food storage successfully, two issues needed to be addressed: food processing and containers.

In some environments food tends to spoil, hence, it has to be processed so that it can be stored for long periods. Processed foods were not only consumed locally, but also sold or bartered. Food processing took the form of drying, salting, smoking, or producing by-products, such as wine. Because most vegetables were not processed, they were used as seasonal foods. Certain fruits, such as grapes, figs, dates, and apricots, could be hung on string for drying and storage, pressed into cakes, or kept in containers. In addition, grapes, and other fruit were crushed and their juice processed into wine, syrup, and vinegar and stored in containers. Olives were crushed and pressed, producing an oil that was also stored in containers. Treating raw olives with salt or other additives for consumption was introduced in the Hellenistic or Roman period (Borowski, 1987, p. 123). [See Olives; Viticulture.]

Other raw foods could also be processed for long storage and transport. Both meat and fish were preserved by being dried, salted, or smoked in thin strips. Fish bones discovered at sites distant from any body of water suggests that they had been transported there after being processed. Milk was churned, turned into cheese, and dried in blocks that could be reconstituted with water, a practice still prevalent among nomadic bedouin.

Grain for consumption could be preserved for a long period by heating to kill the germ, after setting aside seed for future seasons. This practice was not a common one, however. Grain was stored in bulk or in containers. To protect the seed from spoilage and rodents, it was fumigated (Borowski, 1987, p. 156). Because it was not processed before it was used, it was ground daily for baking and cooking. Storing flour was neither customary nor efficient, although a case is known of wheat flour stored in a Roman amphora (Renfrew and Bahn, 1991, p. 241).

In most instances, pottery vessels were used for food storage. Prior to the invention of pottery, in its absence, or for special purposes, however, containers were made out of animal skins, tree bark, wood, rush mats and baskets, and stone. Some of the earliest stone vessels found in villages in Mesopotamia, as at Maghzaliyeh, date to 6500–6000 BCE and were made of gypsum, in the tradition of Zagros Mountain societies (Huot, 1992, p. 189).

Whether storage was in private or public hands, special areas and facilities were set aside in the community, with an eye toward ease of use and efficient collection and distribution (Borowski, 1987, p. 82). Studies of space utilization at archaeological sites demonstrate that the majority of private dwellings contained areas designated for food preparation and storage (Daviau, 1990). This is corroborated by ethnoarchaeological studies that show well-defined space for food storage in dwellings (Kramer, 1979, pp. 144–145). In the Chalcolithic period, food-storage installations were built in the courtyard, which was surrounded by rooms (Porath, 1992, p. 45). In the Early Bronze Age, food was stored in large pithoi, and the jars were placed on the floors of rooms and courtyards or sometimes sunk into the floor (Ben-Tor, 1992, p. 67). In the Middle Bronze Age, with the development of the courtyard house, space for food storage was set aside in the courtyard and in some of the rooms, a practice continued into the Late Bronze Age (Ben-Dov 1992, pp. 100–104). With the development of the two-story residence, foodstuffs were mostly stored on the ground floor, in small rooms surrounding a central space, possibly a courtyard. Whether the ground-floor space was covered is still being debated. Iron Age houses in ancient Palestine are often found with storage rooms (Borowski, 1987, p. 82). Although cellars were not as common as storage rooms in dwellings or in public buildings, examples have been uncovered at Tell Beit Mirsim, Beersheba, and Tell Jemmeh (Borowski, 1987, pp. 75–76).

In dwellings, foodstuffs were stored mostly in jars, whose shape and size changed based on new influences in a period and needs. While storage jars in EB Palestine had a characteristic flat bottom, MB storage jars featured a pointed bottom that allowed the sediments in such liquids as oil and wine to settle. Such jars were also used to store grain; when used in large numbers, they were placed close to each other for support and cushioned with chaff and straw against breakage, as at Gezer (Borowski, 1987, p. 69). Individual jars were placed in corners, along walls, inside depressions in the floor, and in round clay stands.

The soft limestone bedrock of the Shephelah was hewn to create underground work and storage spaces, as at Mareshah (Marisa) as early as the Hellenistic period. During the Roman period, in part for reasons of security, the soft rock was hewn to create underground storage facilities for agricultural produce. Of interest are four rooms found at the Ahuzat Hazan hiding complex, where the floors were hewn with rows of depressions for storage jars, each connected to the other by a narrow channel in which spilled oil could be directed into a collection basin (Kloner and Teper, 1987, pp. 115–127). The size of this installation and the quantity of oil that could have been stored (10,500 liters) suggest that it did not belong to an individual, but may have played a role in the community's preparation for the impending turmoil that culminated in the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–135).

Certain food-processing activities, such as wine making, required particular storage facilities, such as those evident in the winery at Gibeon. [See Gibeon.] The excavator found a series of caves, used as fermentation cellars, in which the wine was kept undisturbed at a constant temperature until it was drinkable (Pritchard, 1964, pp. 1–27).

Public storehouses, under the control of the civic or religious authorities, were placed in a city's administrative section, near the main gate, near the governor's or the king's palace, or inside the cult compound. Most public storage installations were repositories for grain, oil, and wine—commodities that could be distributed to functionaries. For their daily needs, palaces and temples stored foodstuffs in facilities similar to those in private dwellings. These practices were common throughout the Near East: at the palaces at Ebla and Mari, in Syria, documents related to food supplies and agricultural production were found in the former, and related to food storage and disbursement in the latter. At Amarna, in Egypt, granaries and storage areas were uncovered, and at Kuntillet ῾Ajrud, a way station and cult center in the Sinai Desert, large pithoi found in long, narrow rooms demonstrate how foodstuffs were stored. Long and narrow rooms were popular for storage of foodstuffs, as evident from the tripartite buildings in Beersheba, Tel Hadar, and other sites.

Although their function is still being debated, the Samaria ostraca deal with the collection of oil and wine in ancient Israel, either as taxes in kind, provisions for the palace, or produce from royal estates shipped for certain functionaries (Smelik, 1991, pp. 56–57). [See Samaria Ostraca.] Distribution of food by the central government in ancient Israel is illustrated by the Arad ostraca, which contain instructions for rationing certain measures of bread or flour, wine, and oil to functionaries, possibly Greek mercenaries. From the ostraca it appears that the ration was one loaf of bread per person per day, and the bread remained edible for four days. [See Arad Inscriptions.] Beyond this period, flour was given in the amount of one liter per loaf. Wine was rationed at a quarter to a third of a liter per person per day (Smelik, 1991, p. 106). Additional information about the collection and distribution of foodstuffs by the central government in ancient Israel are the lmlk stamped jar handles, dated to the time of Hezekiah's revolt against Sennacherib In 701 BCE. The present consensus among scholars is that these stamped jar handles designated containers used for supplying Judean cities with provisions to withstand the Assyrian siege.

Foodstuffs were transported from one location to another on land by wagons and pack animals, mostly donkeys, and on sea by boats. On land, liquids were transported in jars as well as in skins. Other foodstuffs were probably transported in jars or sacks. Transport by boat involved the use of amphoras, tall jars designed to fit in the hold and stabilized by tying their large handles to beams in the body of the boat.

There are very few references to food storage in the Hebrew Bible. From 1 Kings 17:12, 14, and 16 it appears that household flour was kept in a jar (kad) and oil was stored in a flat jar (ṣappaḥat), possibly the Iron Age type known as a pilgrim's flask. Two terms are clearly associated with public food storage facilities: 'ôṣārôt (Jl. 1:17; Neh. 12:44; 13:12; 1 Chr. 27:25, 27–28; 2 Chr. 11:11) and miskĕnôt (2 Chr. 32:28). However, their literary context implies that these facilities were not used exclusively for foodstuffs.

What is known about food storage in antiquity will increase as the technology of archaeology advances. That is, chemical analyses of storage jars and other vessels will give more accurate assessments of the commodities they held. More sophisticated studies of space utilization will help to identify the configurations of storage space and the nature and quantities of the goods stored in them.

[See also Granaries and Silos.]


  • Ben-Dov, Meir. “Middle and Late Bronze Age Dwellings.” In The Architecture of Ancient Israel: From the Prehistoric to the Persian Periods, edited by Aharon Kempinski and Ronny Reich, pp. 99–104. Jerusalem, 1992.
  • Ben-Tor, Amnon. “Early Bronze Age Dwellings and Installations.” In The Architecture of Ancient Israel: From the Prehistoric to the Persian Periods, edited by Aharon Kempinski and Ronny Reich, pp. 60–67. Jerusalem, 1992.
  • Borowski, Oded. Agriculture in Iron Age Israel. Winona Lake, Ind., 1987. The most recent work on the topic; combines biblical and archaeological information.
  • Daviau, Paulette M. Michele. “Artifact Distribution and Functional Analysis in Palestinian Domestic Architecture of the Second Millennium B.C. (Bronze Age).” Ph.D. diss., University of Toronto, 1990. Study of space utilization.
  • Huot, Jean-Louis. “The First Farmers at Oueili.” Biblical Archaeologist 55 (1992): 188–195. Early Mesopotamian settlement; issue devoted to the region.
  • Kloner, Amos, and Yigal Tepper. The Hiding Complexes in the Judean Shephelah (in Hebrew). Tel Aviv, 1987. The only treatment of the topic.
  • Kramer, Carol. “An Archaeological View of a Contemporary Kurdish Village: Domestic Architecture, Household Size, and Wealth.” In Ethnoarchaeology: Implications of Ethnography for Archaeology, edited by Carol Kramer, pp. 139–163. New York, 1979. Comparison of space utilization in a modern village with archaeological finds.
  • Netzer, Ehud. “Domestic Architecture in the Iron Age.” In The Architecture of Ancient Israel: From the Prehistoric to the Persian Periods, edited by Aharon Kempinski and Ronny Reich, pp. 193–201. Jerusalem, 1992.
  • Porath, Yosef. “Domestic Architecture of the Chalcolithic Period.” In The Architecture of Ancient Israel: From the Prehistoric to the Persian Periods, edited by Aharon Kempinski and Ronny Reich, pp. 40–48. Jerusalem, 1992.
  • Pritchard, James B. Winery, Defenses, and Soundings at Gibeon. Philadelphia, 1964.
  • Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice. New York, 1991. Excellent work on the topic.
  • Smelik, K. A. D. Writings from Ancient Israel: A Handbook of Historical and Religious Documents. Translated by Graham I. Davies. Louisville, 1991. Excellent treatment of written records from ancient Israel.

Oded Borowski