Skip to main content

Ancient Animal Sacrifice In Jerusalem

Sacrificial system

animal bones in dump

(Image credit: Guy Bar-Oz)

An article in the September issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science suggests that animal sacrifice powered the economy of ancient Jerusalem.

Landlocked but thriving

An undated photo of a rare snowfall in Jerusalem.

(Image credit: Jersusalem snow image via Shutterstock)

Jerusalem was a landlocked and resource poor region. Yet despite that, at its peak, it was a bustling city with 30,000 citizens. Religious texts from the second temple period describe a massive sacrifice system, with 1.2 million animals slaughtered a day. That suggested the economy was buttressed by the huge number of animals sacrificed at the temple. But archaeologists weren't sure whether these descriptions were hyperbole.

Massive slaughterhouse

19th century Jerusalem painting

(Image credit: Gideon Hartman)

Recently, archaeologists discovered a city dump outside the old city walls of Jerusalem. The dump dated to between about 37 B.C. and A.D. 66, and contained an unusually high proportion of animal bones for an agricultural society.

Butchery evident

an ancient animal bone with cut marks

(Image credit: Vladimir Naikin)

The sheep and goat bones showed cut marks, clear signs of butchery, indicating that the animals were used for meat consumption. Historically, whatever parts of the animal weren't sacrificed as a burnt offering were eaten in feasts.

Distant locations

Animal bones with cut marks

(Image credit: Vladimir Naikin)

In addition, an analysis of the chemical isotopes, or elements with different numbers of neutrons, in the bones revealed that they came from far-flung, rural desert locations distant from Jerusalem.

Bustling trade


(Image credit: John Pallister)

The findings bolster the notion that the economy of Jerusalem at that time was powered by animal sacrifice. During the second temple period, Jews were spread far from Israel, yet they were still religiously required to sacrifice animals. So they probably paid local representatives to herd animals to Jerusalem on their behalf, creating a massive sacrificial economy in the city.

Tia Ghose
Tia has interned at Science News,, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and has written for the Center for Investigative Reporting, Scientific American, and ScienceNow. She has a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California Santa Cruz.