In the ancient Near East, altars are typically classified on the basis of their material and style of construction. However, the flexibility and comprehensiveness of a typology based on function and location allows altars to be described within an archaeological context useful in analysing written sources such as the Hebrew Bible. The term altar refers to any surface on which an offering to a deity is placed. The use of altars is widespread geographically and chronologically throughout the Near East, with types ranging from plain rock surfaces to elaborate installations within temple complexes. Although altars were associated with the presence of a deity, their location was not limited to the area of temples. Altars were often located on hilltops, raised platforms, and rooftops, as well as in a range of settings not characterized by height. The term altar should not be applied to the interior raised platform, or “dais,” found opposite the entry to many temples, on which the image of the deity was displayed.
A distinction is made archaeologically between altars found outside structures (type I) and those found within structures (type II), both having a number of subtypes.
- 1. Rock altars: type la. An example of a rock altar is the stepped stone block with channels and cup marks found at Tel Sera῾, west of Jerusalem. This installation has been associated with the account of the sacrifice of Manoah in Judges 13. It is often impossible to verify the date or religious function of this type of altar because of the lack of associated artifacts. It should also be noted that seemingly “secular” installations, such as threshing floors, may have had religious/cultic connections in ancient times. [See Sera῾, Tel.]
- 2. Open altars: type Ib. Installations known as open altars had clear cultic functions but were not located within temple complexes. An example is the Early Bronze Age structure (4017) at Megiddo, in ancient Palestine, a large altar (8 m diameter) mounted via steps. [See Megiddo.] In later periods this type of installation is found surrounded by a number of temples (although it does not afford direct access to them). Other buildings sometimes found near open altars may have had a function within the cult, but they are not considered temples. Throughout the Near East evidence of open altars comes primarily from the Bronze Age.
- 3. Enclosed altars: type Ic. Found commonly throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages, enclosed altars were located within the forecourt of temple complexes. Examples of this type may be seen in the temple areas at Kition on Cyprus. [See Kition.] Another prominent example is the stone and earth altar of the Judahite temple at Arad. [See Arad.] Biblical evidence (1 Kgs. 9:25, for example) indicates a similarly located altar in the courtyard of the Solomonic Temple in Jerusalem, but this has not been verified archaeologically. Both the archaeological and written evidence identify open and enclosed altars (Heb., mizbēaḥ), often with “horns,” as the site of burnt offerings. The written evidence suggests that the materials used in the construction of these altars included earth, stone, and metal, although there are no known excavated examples of metal.
- 4. Incense altars: type IIa. It is unlikely that altars found within buildings were used for the burning of animal sacrifices. It was the practice within temples, however, to burn several types of incense. A variety of stone and ceramic stands have been identified as incense altars, and a number of the former, which may have had a religious function, have also been identified in “secular” contexts. Incense altars became ubiquitous in the southern Levant during the Persian period.
- 5. Presentation altars: type IIb. The “presentation” altar is found within temples and related buildings but is not associated with burning. It is a surface upon which offerings to the deity, such as grain, could be placed. At times, presentation altars took the form of benches (often plastered mud brick); stone “tables” or ceramic stands also served this function.
- 6. Libation altars: type IIc. Offerings to deities also included liquids, such as water, wine, and oil. Installations with depressions—plastered mud brick or large stone basins (e.g., the Gezer stelae field), detached stone tables with carved depressions (e.g., Hazor, area H), or bowls placed on ceramic stands—held such offerings. This type of altar is often found within the temple itself (cf. Lachish Palace Temple) or in its courtyard (e.g. ῾Ein-Gedi). [See Gezer; Hazor; Lachish; ῾Ein-Gedi.]
Altars were the focal point of communication between the human and divine realms and are ubiquitous in those areas of the Near East where religious practice included the transmission of foodstuffs to the gods.
- Barrick, W. Boyd. “High Place.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, pp. 196–200. New York, 1992. Summary of an important study that distinguishes altars from cultic areas known as high places.
- Bergquist, Birgitta. “Bronze Age Sacrificial Koine in the Eastern Mediterranean? A Study of Animal Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East.” In Ritual and Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East, edited by J. Quaegebeur, pp. 11–43. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 55. Leuven, 1993.
- DeVries, Lamoine R. “Cult Stands: A Bewildering Variety of Shapes and Sizes.” Biblical Archaeology Review 13 (1987): 26–37. Popular presentation of information about ceramic stands, especially in cultic contexts.
- Galling, Kurt. Der Altar in den Kulturen des alten Orients eine archäologische Studie. Berlin, 1925. Classic study of the phenomenon of altars in the ancient Near East.
- Gitin, Seymour. “Incense Altars from Ekron, Israel, and Judah: Context and Typology.” Eretz-Israel 20 (1989): 52⋆–67⋆. Authoritative study of four-horned incense altars in the Iron Age.
- Haak, Robert D. “Altar.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, pp. 162–167. New York, 1992. Convenient summary of information concerning altars in the written and archaeological record.
- Hägg, Robin. “Open Cult Places in the Bronze Age Aegean.” In Biblical Archaeology Today, 1990: Proceedings of the Second International Congress on Biblical Archaeology, Jerusalem June–July 1990, edited by Avraham Biran and Joseph Aviram, pp.188–195. Jerusalem, 1993.
- Meyers, Carol L. “Altar.” In Harper's Bible Dictionary, pp. 22–24. San Francisco, 1985. Overview of the types and functions of altars mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.
- Stendebach, Franz Josef. “Altarformen im kanaanäisch-israelitischen Raum.” Biblische Zeitschrift 20 (1976): 180–196.
- Weiner, Harold M. The Altars of the Old Testament. Leipzig, 1927.
Robert D. Haak