A rectangular shovel with a shallow rectangular pan, with the two long sides and one short side flaring upward, whereas the other short side has no rim, so that the object can be used as a real shovel.
The corners, where the rim of the short side meets the rim of the long sides, have been decorated with two small round discs or cups, a phenomenon that an sometimes be observed on other shovels as well.
The handle has the form of a decorated pillar with Corinthian capital. The sides of the pan have been decorated with the same motif as the pillar. The small cups show a decoarion on the inside of concentric circles.
M. Narkiss has suggested in 1935 that such objects were snuff-shovels (mahtah) of the type known from the Hebrew Bible as having served in the Jerusalem Temple to clean the menorah (cf. Exod 25:38; 37:23), a view that is now more or less generally accepted, although the translation has since been slightly altered into incense shovel.
Round shovels were also used. Both types of shovels were probably equipped with perforated lids in ancient times, witness the numerous fragments of lids that have been found in certain excavations. Rectangular bronze shovels appear as early as the eight century B.C. at Tell Dan, whereas another one, decorated with a small lion, was found at Makmis and dated to the Persian Period.
Rectangular bronze shovels were particularly popular in Hellenistic and Roman Periods, being used by various groups throughout the Mediterranean for burning frankincense. One of the earliest examples of how they were used can be found on an Etruscan bronze basket dating to the Hellenistic Period. The use of these objects was widespread; worshipers of Serapis used them (see an inscribed shovel in the Brooklyn Museum) as well as Christians (for example a shovel excavated in Sardis, decorated with a cross). Other specimens were discovered in Roman Syria and in Jordan, probably used by pagans for fumigation during worship and as funerary gifts. As a result we cannot always be certain that a shovel is Jewish.
In the Bible a clear distinction was drawn between incense (for which the Hebrew text uses the word ketoreth) and frankincense (lebonah). The former was to be handled only by priests (descendents of Aaron), and only in the worship of the God of Israel (cf. Exod 30:1-10); those who used it for other purposes could be struck with leprosy (king Uzziah, 2 Chr 26:16-19) or be killed (Nadab and Abihu, Lev 10:1-2; Korah, Num 16:6, 17, 21).
In connexion with ketoreth the Hebrew Bible often mentions the mahtah. As said above, this word means a utensil used to clean the menorah in the inner sanctuary of the temple of Jerusalem, but it is also an object that was translated in the Septuagint and by Philo as “fire pan”. These pans served a double purpose. They were used to carry coals from the altar of burnt offering to the altar of incense that was located inside the tabernacle and later inside the temple of Jerusalem. The pans also functioned as incense shovels on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year when, during one of the most significant and holy moments of the festival, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies carrying an incense shovel.
Objects with a similar shape were depicted on mosaic floors of the synagogues of Hamat Tiberias (ca. 300 C.E.) and Beth Shean (6th century C.E.), in both cases together with religious symbols as the menorah and the shofar; but they can also be seen on lead sarcophagi, in oil lamps, on stone reliefs and stone capitals etc. Incense shovels became part of the iconographic repertoire current among the Jews of late antiquity (for an overview see Rutgers 1999, p. 179-180). The mahtah was designed exclusively for the burning of ketoreth, and when depicted could be read as a reference to the temple of Jerusalem, and to the most significant moment in the worship there.
For lists of published rectangular bronze shovels see Goodenough (1954) 4.197; Yadin (1963), 54-57; Rutgers (1999), 197-198.
Erwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (New York, Princeton University Press, 1954) 4, 195-208;
Rachel Hachlili, Ancient Jewish Art and Archaeology in the Land of Israel (Leiden, Brill, 1988), 257-266;
J.W. Hayes, Greek, Roman and Related Metalware in the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto, Royal Ontario Museum, 1984), p. 203-207;
O.W. Muscarella (ed.), Ladders to Heaven. Art Treasures from Lands of the Bible (Toronto, Royal Ontario Museum, 1981), p. 293, cat. no. 274;
Leonard Victor Rutgers, "Incense Shovels at Sepphoris?" in Eric M. Meyers (ed.), Galilee Through the Centuries. Confluence of Cultures. Papers Presented at the 2nd International Conference on Galilee in Antiquity Held at Duke University and North Carolina Museum of Art on Jan. 25-27, 1997 (Duke Judaic Studies Series, 1) (Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns, 1999) p. 177-198;
Ephraim Stern (ed.), The New Encyclopedia of Archeological Excavations in the Holy Land (Jerusalem, Carta, 1993), p. 908;
Kurt Weitzmann (ed.), Age of Spirituality. Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century. Catalogue of the Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 19, 1977, Through February 12, 1978 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979), p. 374-376 , nos. 342-343;
Yigael Yadin, Bar-Kokhba. The Rediscovery of the Legendary Hero of the Second Jewish Revolt Against Rome (New York, Random House, 1971), p. 108-109;
Yigael Yadin, The Finds from the Bar Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters (Jerusalem, Israel Exploration Society, 1963), p. 48-60.
1st–2nd century C.E.
Length 29.6 cm.
George Blumenthal Collection, New York.
In very good condition; the two incense cups have been reattached; a few minor fragments missing; a very nice green patina.