ASHKELON, ISRAEL -- Archaeologists excavating an ancient fortress-city have discovered a bronze and silver figurine they believe is a precursor to the biblical golden calf that enraged Moses when he descended from Mount Sinai.

The archaeologists said the tiny statue, which predates the biblical Israelites' exodus from Egypt, suggested the Hebrews drew upon an ancient Canaanite tradition when they betrayed Moses by worshiping a pagan deity in his absence.

"Hebrews came out of the Canaanite milieu," said Laurence E. Stager, a Harvard University archaeologist. "This figurine shows the calf was a religious object in the area centuries before Moses."

Stager, who is in charge of the dig where the figurine was found, said it was discovered June 26.

He said he and his colleagues have been working since to date the figurine and establish its significance.

The team has concluded the figurine, 4 1/2 inches high and 4 1/2 inches long, dates from the 16th century B.C., Stager said.

It was discovered almost intact with a shattered pottery vessel in the remains of a temple adjoining the gate of the ancient Canaanite port city of Ashkelon. The area is about 35 miles south of Tel Aviv.

The calf's parts were cast separately and joined together with metal pins. Stager said the legs are made of silver and the body of bronze. The statue was most probably burnished to look golden, he said.

Stager said the calf was the first of its kind to be discovered.

"There have been discoveries of similar figurines, but they date 300 years later and were bulls, not calves," he said. He said the Bible specifically mentioned male calves.

Amihai Mazar, an archaeologist who was involved in the earlier discovery of a 12th century B.C. bull figure in Israel, said he believed Stager's discovery was the earliest such figure found in Israel.

The worship of calf-figures is bitterly condemned throughout the Bible and by various Hebrew prophets and judges.

The best known case of Israelite idolatrous transgression is related in Exodus 32:1-6.

After fleeing Egypt into the desert, the people of Israel fashion a golden calf in despair at the delay in Moses' return from Mount Sinai.

Moses, ordered by God to go back and right his people's sin, descended the mountain with the Ten Commandments "and as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf . . . {his} anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets . . . and broke them at the foot of the mountain."

Stager said it was unclear if the famed golden calf was actually bigger than the hand-sized figurine he found.

"We are not really sure what the calf signified, whether this size was usual, and how it was actually worshiped," he said.

The figure of a male calf was also used as a monarchic symbol by the northern Kingdom of Israel in the 10th century B.C.

The figurine was discovered by a 20-year-old volunteer on the dig, Rachael Stark, of Princeton, N.J.

"We were digging down the slope of the city's fortification. We didn't know there was anything of importance there," Stager said.

He said the four-room temple where the figurine rested was most probably a shrine for pagan worshipers making processions to and from Ashkelon.

During the 16th century B.C., Stager said, the port of Ashkelon was a regional power whose influence stretched as far as Egypt.

Ashkelon was destroyed by an Egyptian army soon after the calf was cast. But the popular tradition of worshiping calves remained in the area and was brought to the Israelites in the hills east of Ashkelon.