Not found in the fossil record of the Levant until the Late Pleistocene, lions (Panthera leo) arrived as tropical elements entering an already diverse fauna. If artistic and literary evidence are any guide, lions were known all over the ancient Near East. With more than 150 citations in the Hebrew Bible, they apparently were familiar in biblical times. Lions were finally hunted to extinction in Palestine in the nineteenth century CE. Elsewhere in the region they were not exterminated until after World War I. Several subspecies of lion ranged throughout the greater Near East until modern times, but it is impossible to determine which were closest to ancient Levantine populations.
Lion imagery was ubiquitous in the cultures of the ancient Near East. In religious and royal symbolism the lion appears as aggressor, victim, and protector of gods and kings. Given its prominence in literature and iconography, it is surprising that the bones of lions are such very rare finds at archaeological sites. The most spectacular discovery has been the skull and mandibles of a lioness found on the floor of a twelfth-century BCE Pre-Philistine temple in Jaffa, Israel. Half a scarab seal found in close proximity led the excavators to suggest that a lion cult was practiced in the temple. The right mandible has two sets of deep cut marks that are consistent with opening the oral cavity from the basal surface of the jaws while leaving the head attached to the skin. Two lion bones associated with Iron I pottery in a noncultic Iron II building were recovered from Tel Miqne/Ekron. A third lion bone was of Iron II date. At Tel Dan, one lion foot bone was recovered from the mid-ninth-century BCE deposit in the altar room complex in the sanctuary; the cut marks on this bone are consistent with skinning. A fragment of a mandible was found in a metalworking area of Iron I date at the same time. These bones are in collections studied by Paula Wapnish and Brian Hesse (see Wapnish and Hesse, 1991).
At the site of Ḥesban, in Jordan, an ankle bone of Roman date and a shoulder from a lion cub (date uncertain) were recovered. Farther afield, from the site of Habuba-Kabira in northern Syria, four lion bones were noted, two from the Uruk period (fourth millennium) and two from the Middle Bronze Age. From Lidar Höyük in southeastern Anatolia, a lower jaw and lower leg bone were discovered in Late Bronze deposits, and one first phalanx noted from the Hellenistic period.
Documentation of the lion in ancient Egypt comes almost exclusively from artistic representations, from the Old Kingdom onward. However, the remains of seven partial lion skeletons are reported from the grave complex of Hor-Aha in Umm el-Qaab. These bones date from the first dynasty (early third millennium), and are mostly of young animals, suggesting to the investigators that they might have been kept in captivity.
- Boessneck, Joachim. Die Tierwelt des Alten Ägypten. Munich, 1988.
- Boessneck, Joachim, and A. von den Driesch. “Besprechung der Tierknochenfunde aus dem Grabkomplex des Horus-Aha im Umm el-Qaab bei Abydos.” Internationale Archäologie 1 (1991): 55–62.
- Cornelius, Izak. “The Lion in the Art of the Ancient Near East: A Study of Selected Motifs.” Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 15 (1989): 53–85. .
- Kaplan, Jacob, and Haya Ritter-Kaplan. “Jaffa.” In The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, edited by Ephraim Stern, vol. 2, pp. 655–659. Jerusalem and New York, 1993. .
- Wapnish, Paula, and Brian Hesse. “Faunal Remains from Tel Dan: Perspectives on Animal Production at a Village, Urban and Ritual Center.” Archaeologica 4 (1991): 9–86. .