|27 November 2006
Bronze Age Jerusalem
Near one of modern Jerusalem's most exclusive residential projects and largest shopping mall, an archeological dig is shedding light on the living, shopping and eating habits of the residents of a Bronze Age city. A newly discovered ancient burial site in Bayit Vagan has proved to be an invaluable find. Atop the hill where the Holyland Park Project is being expanded, the cemetery is believed to have belonged to the Canaanite settlement situated where the Malha mall now stands. Research archeologist Dr. Ianir Milevski, who has overseen the excavations since the outset, believes the cemetery dates back to the Middle Bronze Age IIB period, around 1750-1550 BCE. "The site appears to have been a burial ground in the Early Bronze Age IV (2200-2000 BCE) but was then reused by the locals 300 years later," he says.
The graves consist of a shaft bored two meters down into the rock leading to an oval chamber dug underground which housed the bodies. Since the site was last used as a cemetery, there is evidence that the area was then quarried, probably by workers during the Roman period. The discovery of around 40 graves on the site during a dig that began in June and ended last week "came as a surprise," according to Milevski. He predicts that they could discover as many as 100 graves by the time the whole area has been excavated.
In the Middle Bronze Age period, unlike countries such as Egypt where the whole country was ruled by one central government, the Holy Land was divided into city-states. Jerusalem was the political fulcrum of one such state, with its own water system and fortified city walls. The settlements dotted around the city relied on agriculture and animal husbandry to survive, though evidence suggests that those buried at the Bayit Vagan site were not living on the breadline. "We found intricate bone inlays as well as beads and other jewelry, which suggests that the residents owned more than just rude implements," explains Milevski. He also pointed out that much of the pottery and weapons found contained materials that must have been acquired by trade, rather than locally made. "The carnelian and amethyst used to make many of the beads are not from the region," says Milevski. "Neither is the copper which is present in many of the weapons and tools - the nearest source of copper was in South Jordan. We also found evidence of asphalt, which most likely came from the Dead Sea area." There is also evidence to suggest that, while most of the pottery was made locally, the inhabitants also had special sets of Tel Yehudieh ware, which could have been made in Afula. These finer utensils would have been used for special occasions or religious ceremonies.
Due to the reburial of the remains found on the site, the archeologists were not able to take DNA samples which could have helped them map the genealogy of the previous inhabitants. DNA testing could also have been used to study which diseases were prevalent at the time. However, the additional discovery of animal remains gives the archeologists a better picture of the kind of farming the residents did. "We found the bones of what appear to be sheep, goats and pigs," says Milevski. "We also found evidence that the locals cultivated cereal crops as well."
The settlement was definitely a permanent one - the excavations in Malha showed that the people lived in multi-roomed houses and farmed in the area around the buildings. One of the disinterred bodies appeared to have been dressed in full warrior uniform - axe, dagger and metal belt - which suggests that some of the residents may have been fighters while the others spent their time doing more sedate work in the fields. Each settlement would likely have had its own security team, to repel any hostile invaders from outside the village.
Milevski is ambivalent about the role of private building contractors in the discovery of the cemetery. "On the one hand it is a good thing that they were working here, so that the burial ground was discovered," he says. "On the other hand, once we have mapped the site and excavated the remains, the builders will destroy what remains." He agrees that without the construction work many unearthed sites would lie undiscovered, because the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) does not conduct archaeological excavations on sites that will not be destroyed by development projects. Licenses are often granted to local or foreign universities, who pay their own costs to excavate new sites, but in the case of builders discovering remains, the cost is split between the contractors and the state.
Source: The Jerusalem Post (16 November 2006)
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