Archaeologists have uncovered a young donkey that was laid to rest on its side more than 3,500 years ago, complete with a copper bridle bit in its mouth and saddle bags on its back, in southern Israel.
Its accessories - and the lack of butchery marks on its bones - lead researchers to believe the pack animal was sacrificed and buried as part of a Bronze Age ritual.
Donkeys were valuable beasts of burden in the ancient Near East. Donkey caravans helped open up vast trade networks across the Levant and Anatolia in the 18th and 17th centuries BC, according to archives from Amorite settlements like Mari in modern-day Syria, LiveScience reported.
Ancient Egyptian inscriptions from around the same time show that hundreds of pack donkeys were used in large-scale expeditions to mining sites in the eastern desert and southern Sinai, researchers said in the journal PLOS ONE.
The animals have even been linked with royalty.
The donkey found in Israel seems to have been symbolically important, though this particular animal likely was never made to do hard labour before its death, said a team headed by archaeologist Guy Bar-Oz, of Israel's University of Haifa.
The grave was found in a temple courtyard, in the heart of the sacred precinct of Tel Haror, a Middle Bronze Age city near Gaza that was fortified by massive ramparts and a deep moat and dates back from around 1700 BC to 1550 BC.
The donkey, estimated to be about 4 years old, was laid on its left side with its limbs neatly bent, the researchers said, and a copper bridle bit, a mouthpiece used to help steer animals, was found in its mouth.
Some parts of the bit were extensively worn and it likely wasn't functional at the time of the burial. But an examination of the donkey's teeth suggests it was never meant to be practical.
"The absence of any sign of bit wear on the lower premolars indicates that the animal was not ridden or driven with a bit for prolonged periods of time," the researchers said.
"Moreover, the young donkey was still in the process of shedding its teeth and permanent teeth were just erupting. Based on its age, the Haror donkey would probably have been too young to be a trained draught animal," they said.
The researchers said this is the only known Bronze Age bridle bit to be found in the mouth of an equid (mammal of the horse family) and that it likely served as a symbol of status, evoking the chariots that pulled soldiers, people of high-rank, and in a ritual context, images or statues of deities.