In various underwater surveys conducted off Tel Ashqelon between 1998 and 2005 (Permit No. A-3817; map ref. 15662/61907), five small lead figurines were uncovered. The surveys, on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, were directed by E. Galili with the assistance of J. Sharvit, D. Moskovitch, H. Sal’i, A. Jacobovitch and Y. Ayalon, who recovered the figurines.
The lead figurines (Fig. 2) were cast in a shallow, open mold, as can be seen from their flat shape and the solidified upper surface.
Figurine 1 (length 7.4 cm, 27 gr; Fig. 2:1) has a torso, two arms and two legs, but no head. It clearly represents a deformed, decapitated human body. The left arm is folded over the stomach, as if holding it.
Figurine 2 (length 5.8 cm, 19 gr; Fig. 2:2) is of a man standing on a flat surface with legs wide apart. His head is tilted to the right, and the right arm is short, perhaps amputated. An exaggerated, elongated penis is represented by a vertical bar reaching the base surface. An unidentified protrusion, not part of a normal body, extends upward from the left shoulder.
Figurine 3 (length 7.7 cm, 14.5 gr; Fig. 2:3) depicts a contorted, headless human figure. The body seems to twist at the waist; the torso is well formed; both arms are clearly visible, the right hand covers the groin while the left is pulled back. One of the legs, kicking backward, misses its lower part. The missing lower leg and head may have been deliberately amputated, or the figuring may have been carelessly formed or damaged while in the sea. The figure may represent a dancing person, or a twisted, dead body.
Figurine 4 (length 10 cm, 89 gr; Fig. 2: 4) represents a complete human figure. One arm is missing, except for a short stump protruding from the shoulder. The legs are folded at the knees, the feet pointing forward in an unnatural position.
Figurine 5 (height 5 cm, width 2 cm; Galili and Sharvit 2000: Fig. 173) is cast similarly to the others, and depicts a well-dressed woman wrapped in toga, her head covered by an extension of the toga or a scarf.
The small, very elementary lead figurines are identified as ‘vodoo dolls’, probably intended for magical acts. Similar lead dolls used for witchcraft are known from the Greek-Roman world (Faraone 1991). Nine similar lead dolls, which were recovered in the Tel Maresha excavations, were dated to the Persian–Hellenistic periods. The Maresha dolls depict naked men and women, with their hands tied behind their backs (Rockefeller Museum catalogue 1943:30, 937–945; Vukosavovic2010:38–39).
The location of the Ashqelon finds close to the shore suggests that the dolls did not originate in a sailing, anchoring or wrecked watercraft, but were deliberately thrown to the sea from the coast, as part of ceremonial, sacral or ritual activities associated with supernatural forces. These dolls may have been used as votive objects or effigies representing prisoners condemned to torture or death after battle. It is also possible that they represent people who are to be cursed, malevolently bewitched or on whom an evil spell would be cast. Alternatively, they may have been used in benevolent witchcraft, to be sacrificed in lieu of a sick person, or someone expecting trouble. In a ceremony called Rassasia, practiced in Israel even today for removal of the evil eye, molten lead is poured into water and the resulting forms are interpreted.
A variety of miniature lead artifacts, possibly used in rituals or witchcraft, was recovered in the shallows off Ashkelon in addition to the ‘voodoo dolls’ described above (Galili and Rosen 2015a; Galili and Rosen 2015b). Such a significant concentration of witchcraft-associated lead artifacts is rare in Israel. It may be possible to link these finds with the mention in Talmudic literature of witchcraft in Ashkelon (Ilan 2001).
Faraone C.A. 1991. Binding and Burying the Forces of Evil: The Defensive Use of “Voodoo Dolls” in Ancient Greece. Classical Antiquity 10:165–220.
Galili E. and Rosen B. 2015a. Protecting the Ancient Mariners: Cultic Artifacts from the Holy Land Seas. Archaeologia Maritima Mediterranea 12:35–101.
Galili E. and Rosen B. 2015b. Yavne-Yam Anchorage and Ashqelon Coast: Miniature Votive Anchors. HA-ESI 127.
Galili E. and Sharvit J. 2000. Tel Ashqelon, Coastal and Underwater Survey. HA-ESI 111:83*–85*.
Ilan T. 2001. A Witch-Hunt in Ashqelon. In A. Sasson, Z. Safrai and N. Sagiv eds. Ashkelon: A City on the Seashore. Ashqelon. Pp. 135–146 (Hebrew).
Vukosavovic F. 2010. Angels and Demons, Jewish Magic through the ages (Biblical Lands Museum). Jerusalem.