Oldest Evidence of Food Storage Ritual: 7,200-year-old Model of Silo Found in Israel

Why else would the ancient occupants of Tel Tsaf have created an intricate, nonfunctional pottery miniature of their grain storage facility, archaeologists ask

Danny Rosenberg holding the 7,200-year-old model silo. He is wearing a dark blue T-shirt against which the reconsturcted pottery vessel stands out, as do the reddish-colored balls decorating its top.
Prof. Danny Rosenberg holding the 7,200-year-old model silo from Tel Tsaf. University of Haifa

A 7,200-year-old pottery model of what appears to be a silo is the oldest example of a ritual propitiating the gods to preserve the crops or harvest, surmise archaeologists.

They can think of no other reasonable explanation for why a prehistoric person at Tel Tsaf – a site in Israel near the Jordan River – would go to the trouble of making the elaborate but useless vessel. Also, it looks like a miniature silo.

The unique vessel purportedly attesting to the oldest-known food storage rituals was found by Israeli and German researchers. The Tel Tsaf site turned out to have silos for intensive food storage, which had been something of a surprise.

Large-scale food storage is known from the Chalcolithic period (aka the Copper Age, roughly 4500 B.C.E. to about 3500 B.C.E.), says Prof. Danny Rosenberg of the University of Haifa, who heads the research project at Tel Tsaf together with Dr. Florian Klimscha from DAI, the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin.

Tel Tsaf dates to thousands of years earlier. In fact, food storage facilities are known from even earlier, the Neolithic period, Rosenberg tells Haaretz. But earlier examples discovered were smaller.

The oldest-known evidence of large-scale food storage: Bases of silos, Tel Tsaf. The picture is an aerial shot showing two archaeologists for scale, which shows how large the things actually were. They date to about 7,200 years ago and seem to have served mainly to store barley.
University of Haifa

The archaeologists cannot say whether the silos of Tel Tsaf were the biggest in that prehistoric era. They can say they seem to have stored mainly barley. Also, although we cannot know how many people lived in the village over seven millennia ago, clearly it was a big one.

“The point is that we have a concentration of silos within a courtyard building, suggesting unprecedented storage in the area,” says Rosenberg, referring to the southern Levant – which the archaeologists believe has political significance.

The archaeologists realized the remains they found were silos by the bases of the structures, and one or a couple of courses of bricks representing the walls. Sometimes they also found preserved remains of grains, Rosenberg added.

“The wish and ability to store food certainly constitutes an important step in the transition of humans to societies characterized by more complex social organization. It also seems that Tel Tsaf’s location near a major water source such as the Jordan River is no coincidence, considering the site’s potential to accumulate such a large amount of crops,” the archaeologists wrote.

Why would anybody make that?

As for the mysterious vessel itself, the main reason to think it ritualistic is that it simply had no obvious function.

Actually, the excavators found its shattered remains at Tel Tsaf two years ago and have spent the time since piecing it together. Imagine their surprise when it turned out to be useless. About 20 centimeters (7.8 inches) in height, it has a small, window-like aperture on one side.

“All the pottery vessels we are familiar with from this period have an opening on the top, facing up, just like most pots and cups in any modern kitchen,” Rosenberg said. “But this vessel is dome-shaped, closed on the top and covered with red-painted clay balls.” Why the ancient potter stuck clay balls on top and painted them red is anybody’s guess.

The grounds for thinking it's a model silo, not art for art’s sake (though it could be, they acknowledge) is that:

a) It was found on the floor of a building evidently used for large-scale storage, and

b) the room was surrounded by numerous silos.

A figurine found at Tel Tsaf. It looks like a dog, but who knows, really.

So they hypothesize that the vessel was associated with the silos or with storage. They also know that people made pottery models of storage facilities in later times.

Also, centuries later, similar vessels were used for secondary burial, which means storing the bones after the flesh is long gone. Maybe this model one served to bury a doll. We just don’t know. We do know that 7,200 years ago, they had what to store.

We also have other evidence of ritualistic behavior at Tel Tsaf, says Rosenberg, including figurines and burials.

Elites may have risen earlier than thought

People seem to have begun cultivating grain in this region as early as 23,000 years ago, based on the discovery of flint sickles for harvesting by the Sea of Galilee, which isn’t far from the Tel Tsaf site. That may (or may not) have been the dawn of agriculture, but the transition from hunting-gathering would take millennia.

Certainly by the time this community lived on the banks of the Jordan some 7,200 years ago, they were settled and farming. However, most studies of complex societies – and the development of “elites” that possessed and stored more food than they needed – focuses on later periods, says Rosenberg.

Neolithic sickle made of jawbone with embedded flint stone teeth

Now they have evidence that such things were happening a lot earlier.

“In this context, the findings at Tel Tsaf provide firsthand evidence of the early connection between food storage on a large scale and the observance of a ritual associated with the successful storage and preservation of agricultural yields,” said Rosenberg.

The ability to store food was key to the evolution of complex societies, based on evidence found in our own region, but even more so from Mesopotamia and Egypt. There, where complex societies emerged, intensive food storage was crucial to the development of social hierarchy, said the archaeologists.

Excavating Tel Tsaf, 2015
University of Haifa

Tel Tsaf, however, remains the earliest-known evidence of mass food storage in the region around 7,500 or 6,500 years ago, they sum up.

Until now, researchers tended to associate the evolution of elites in society with a much later period – the Bronze Age, which followed the Chalcolithic and is associated also with the development of early writing.

As for Tel Tsaf, the place seems to have been quite affluent in prehistoric times, going by imports found of pottery, figurines, obsidian, the earliest metal item in the region – an awl – and shells, added Rosenberg. And the evidence of large-scale food storage at Tel Tsaf and the pottery model silo.

This prosperity would have been accompanied by changes in the way the community of Tel Tsaf organized itself, they believe, which would have included rituals to coax the gods into ensuring that their prosperity would last. That's a habit that hasn’t changed in 7,200 years.