Haskel Greenfield peers into the mouths of donkeys (and other critters) for new information concerning Bronze Age civilization in Middle East

left: Haskel & Tina Greenfield at a dig
in Israel a few years back
right: skeleton of a donkey
uncovered during the dig

By MYRON LOVE There is a Biblical story doubtless known to regular shul goers in which an ass talks. For those readers who are not familiar with it, the story can be found in Numbers 23-35 in the Torah.


In short, Balak, the King of Moab, is terrified of the Israelites who are growing in power. He calls upon the prophet Balaam to put a curse on the Israelites. The Lord appears to the prophet in a dream and warns him not to go. Nonetheless, Balaam, persuaded by Balak’s promise of riches, sets out on his trusty donkey. En route, an angel of the Lord armed with a sword, blocks the way. The donkey sees the angel and refuses to go on. Three times, the donkey refuses to move and three times Balaam whips the beast.
Finally, the Lord opens the donkey’s mouth to speak and the animal asks Balaam why he keeps beating his trusty servant. At that moment, Balaam’s eyes are also open and he see the angel who instructs him to deliver the words of praise from the Lord to the Israelites for Balak.

Well, in a similar vein, internationally-known archaeologist Haskel Greenfield is also looking to the stories that donkeys have to tell as to the development of the evolution of Middle Eastern society during the early Bronze Age circa 2500-2600 BCE.
Greenfield is a long time University of Manitoba professor. He has the rank of Distinguished Professor, of which there are only 25 at the university. He is also Coordinator of the Judaic Studies Program at the U of M and Co-Director of the Near Eastern and Biblical Archaeology Lab at St. Paul’s College.

This past April, Greenfield, along with colleague Dr. Tina Greenfield (his wife and collaborator, at U. of Saskatchewan), and Professors John Wilkins (U. of M.) and Elizabeth Arnold (Grand Valley State University), and Gideon Hartman (University of Connecticut) – received a $393,960 Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to study how early complex societies were provisioned during the Early Bronze Age (3600-2000 BCE) in the southern Levant. This was the time of the first cities developing in the region.
The scholars are using a unique approach by focusing on the movement of biological goods and transport, particularly through the major forms of transportation in those days, i.e., donkeys. By the analysis of the teeth of donkeys, sheep, goats, and other livestock, they will be able to understand where the animals were born, and how they were raised, fed, and cared.

Since 2008, the Greenfields and their students have been working on the site known as Tell es-Safi, about 30 (45 km) miles southwest of Jerusalem, known in ancient times as Gath, the hometown of Goliath of David-and-Goliath fame. “We finished our excavations in 2017,”Haskel Greenfield says. “For the past four years, we have been working in our lab, analysing and cataloguing our findings. While we have published dozens of articles already on the project, we will have our first volume out by the end of the year – with hopefully two or three more to follow. The site was so rich that we recovered more information from it than ever expected. It is taking years to process and write up the data”.

One of the unexpected finds from the Tell es-Safi work that the Greenfields encountered was the discovery of several complete donkey burials. “The burials weren’t random,” Greenfield notes. “They were buried in shallow graves beneath the floors of houses, but close to the periphery of the site.” The locations of these burials, he surmises, may be an indication of merchant quarters that were common to cities already in ancient times.
“Our analysis of the isotopes on animal teeth have shown that while there is evidence that sheep and goats were raised locally, the over half the donkeys (and one goat) came from elsewhere, specifically Egypt,” he observes. They were born and raised in Egypt, and slaughtered soon after arriving at the site of Tell es-Safi.
“As the era we are studying is still considered prehistoric in that neither cuneiform, hieroglyphics, nor evidence of any other form of writing for this period throughout the region. Based on our discoveries at Tell es-Safi, we are trying to extend our research across the region – by looking at the animal remains from many sites across the length and breadth of ancient Canaan. We will be able to learn quite a bit from the donkeys and other animals about such things as trade, migration, food, and even climate.”
“We are trying to identify their ages and sex and learn how they were raised, what they ate, how they were managed, and where they came from. At different sites, some animals may have come from Egypt, while others may have a Mesopotamian connection. The region alternated between being within the spheres of influence of the two major early civilizations, depending which was stronger at any given time.”

Greenfield reports that his research team is expanding its investigation into the lives of donkeys and other animals beyond Tell Es-Safi/Gath to other urban centres in the region. He notes that at around 2500 BCE, all the large cities in the region collapsed and were abandoned. “We (archaeologists) aren’t sure why this happened,” he says. “We have found no evidence of destruction. We only know that around 2200 BCE, there was a major drought in the region. But, this is too late to be the cause of the urban collapse 300 years before. Hence we are trying a new approach by examining the isotopes in animal teeth to see if they record shifts in water and vegetation that might signal a change in climate.”
While the popular image of the working archaeologist is someone on his hands and knees sifting dirt at a potential site, Greenfield notes that, as he is almost 68 now, his days of working on digs are likely behind him. “Two years ago, I was invited to work at the famous archaeological site of Tell Beth Shemesh,” he says, “but, regrettably, the director of the dig recently passed.”
He adds that he still has a lot of lab work ahead of him, and years of writing. That includes analysing material from excavations, not only in Israel, but also in Jordan. “I was hoping to be in Israel this summer, but family affairs (the passing of his younger brother, Avi) and the pandemic made it impossible. I am hopeful that I will be able to visit Israel in the fall, and the sites in Jordan next spring,” he says hopefully. When doing this kind of work, one must always be hopeful”.