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Poultry Farming in Biblical Times

Were chickens or birds raised for eggs or meat in ancient times?

Cock swinging a censer

Q. Were poultry or fowl of any kind raised during biblical times? Birds and quail were caught and slaughtered and eaten but I find no reference to raising poultry for eggs or meat.

A. The Scriptures do not treat fowl as a major dietary element.  Most attention is paid to which birds can be used for sacrifice and which are absolutely forbidden for consumption (Lev 11:13-19; Deut 14:12-18).  Zooarchaeological evidence dated to the Iron Age period suggests that the following domesticated and wild birds were available and probably consumed: ducks, geese, quail, grouse, partridge, pigeons, doves, and others.  Chicken bones were recovered at several sites, including Jerusalem, in strata dated from the Iron Age II.

Artistic representations from the late Iron Age II—such as the famous seal belonging  “to Jaazaniah, servant of the king” found at Mizpeh, just north of Jerusalem, which depicts a fighting cock—suggest the presence of chickens in the region.  Evidence from Egypt, such as from the tomb of Tutankhamen imply that chickens were present there during the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1350 B.C.E.).

There is no archaeological evidence for raising chickens or other fowl for meat or eggs during the Israelite period, though fowling was practiced and eggs were collected in the wild (Deut 22:6; Isa 10:14).  One biblical reference however to “fattened fowl” (1Kgs 5:3 [1Kgs 4:23]) promotes the idea that similarly to fattened calves, fowl were also raised in controlled conditioned.

When it comes to later periods, such as the Hellenistic, there is plenty of archaeological evidence for raising pigeons in the form of columbaria (dovecots) hewn in bedrock discovered in Mareshah (in the Shephelah) and the surrounding area.

For more information on this topic, see pages 149-58 in O. Borowski, Every Living Thing: Daily Use of Animals in Ancient Israel. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1998.

  • Oded Borowski

    Oded Borowski is a professor of biblical archaeology and Hebrew at Emory University. He is the project director and field supervisor at Tell Halif and is the author of Daily Life in Biblical Times (SBL, 2003).