Mud-brick Village Survived 7,200 Years in the Jordan Valley

Homes and silos identified at Tel Tsaf are a rare find given mud-brick’s aversion to rain – and an unseasonably wet winter is already causing exposed bricks to fall apart

Ruth Schuster
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The archaeological site at Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley.
Ruth Schuster

There’s a reason why prehistoric homes are rare in the archaeological record. Building stones get repurposed, while others were flimsy to begin with, being made of wood and straw, or mud-bricks that succumbed to weather and decay. Yet archaeologists in Israel have identified homes and food-storage silos made of sun-dried mud-brick going back 7,200 years in Tel Tsaf, a site in the Jordan Valley, Prof. Danny Rosenberg of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa, who led the Tel Tsaf project together with Dr. Florian Klimscha from the Landsmuseum in Hanover, and colleagues report in PLOS One.

The mud-bricks were cemented and coated using plaster made of mud or lime (and other types too), the team wrote. Based on organic findings, they deduced that the ceilings may have been made of wood or reeds, and postulate based on modern simple architecture that the roofs were flat.

The structures at Tel Tsaf are far from being the oldest mud-brick known to science. Jericho has remnants of even older mud constructs dating to the period known as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A, around 12,000 to 10,800 years ago. The denizens of ancient Jericho used mud-brick to heighten their city wall, much good it did them.

Other examples are legion: many biblical sites were also known for  use of mud-brick, and Ebla in Syria had a massive mud-brick city wall up to 6 meters (20 feet) thick that probably dates to around the time of Tel Tsaf. Both have somewhat survived.

In short, mud-brick constructions were common in the Levant (and elsewhere). But archaeological study of the prehistoric development of building with mud – from the technique to what it might tell us about the people, their culture, their technology and their choices – has been hampered by the fact that mud-brick disintegrates in the rain.

Mud-brick wall with remnants of plaster at Tel Tsaf
Mud-brick wall with remnants of plaster at Tel TsafCredit: Courtesy of Yossi Garfinkel
The archaeological site at Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley.
The archaeological site at Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley.Credit: Yossi Garfinkel

That begs the question of how exactly the mud-bricks of a village, albeit a substantial one, survived anywhere in the Levant for more than a few years, let alone 7,200 years in Tel Tsaf’s case. Although the Middle East has some quite harsh deserts, it isn’t the Atacama, which gets literally zero rain. These days, precipitation in the Jordan Valley and Tel Tsaf averages about 200 to 250 millimeters (over 8 inches) a year, Rosenberg says. 

Indeed, the walls’ survival is especially astonishing given that the mud-bricks of Tel Tsaf were sunbaked, not hardened by firing, he notes. “But the fact is, they survived. We think it’s because they were plastered not with lime but with mud plaster with various additives we are currently studying, and the villagers kept replastering them – inside, outside, on the roof,” he suggests. In a word, maintenance.

In addition, the site of the village had to have become covered very rapidly, because even after all these years the excavators found some still-standing walls, he says. And now that Tel Tsaf is exposed to the elements – and the winter of 2019-2020 has been unusually rainy, by Israeli and Jordan Valley terms – the bricks are falling apart fast. “We are seeing it before our very eyes,” Rosenberg says, and adds: "This one reason why, in the new project, we are trying to excavate as little as possible, although the amounts of first-hand and innovative data we are retrieving is enormous.".

The archaeologists also believe that disintegrating bricks were recycled – no good resource went to waste.

Tel Jericho. Denizens of ancient Jericho used mud-brick to heighten their city wall.
Tel Jericho. Denizens of ancient Jericho used mud-brick to heighten their city wall.Credit: Abraham / A. Sobkowski

Once upon a time on the shore of a giant lake

Back in the Middle Chalcolithic, Tel Tsaf was a large village sprawling over a hill south of the Sea of Galilee, just a few kilometers from Tel Beit She'an, who also had a layer more or less contemporary with Tel Tsaf. Its location explains why the villagers chose to build their homes and facilities of friable sun-dried locally available mud, liberally tempered with local plants, rather than hardy stones.

They didn't have any, that's why, Rosenberg and his colleagues explains to Haaretz. "There is no rock for building in that area in the Jordan Valley, only the sediment from the bottom of the ancient Lisan lake. The whole site is practically mud brick debries and remains of walls and installations made od mud," Rosenberg says.

Tel Tsaf arose on what had been the bottom of a narrow, elongated prehistoric lake, Lisan, of which only two shrunken relics remain: the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea.

Lake Lisan existed between about 70,000 to 15,000 years ago, the time of the Ice Age. Much of Europe was covered in glacial ice, but in the Levant it was relatively wet. Come the Holocene, as ice retreated in the north, the Levant aridified.

The excavation site at Ebla in Syria
The excavation site at Ebla in Syria.Credit: Inge

Throughout Tel Tsaf’s not-very-long lifetime – possibly as little as 500 to 700 years, a mere eyeblink in these parts – the people used the same “recipe” for their bricks, Rosenberg and the team deduced. The villagers tempered the mud with a lot of organic material, although the archaeologists are still working on discovering what material exactly.

The ostrich conundrum

The locals didn’t import stone for building. That would have been enormously difficult given that latter-day beasts of burden such as the horse and donkey hadn’t been domesticated yet, and the camel was unknown in the prehistoric Middle East.

But items in graves found at Tel Tsaf indicate that they did import some much lighter and very fine things. In fact, no other known site of this period exhibits long-distance connections of such dimension, Yossi Garfinkel of Hebrew University and his team wrote six years ago in Plos One.

Rosenberg concurs. One of the grave discoveries was of a middle-aged woman with 1,668 ostrich eggshell beads arranged in six rows around her waist. What was the source of those beads? Were there ostriches in Israel in the Chalcolithic? Maybe there were, maybe there weren’t. As Rosenberg points out, they have not found a single bone of ostrich, but did find over 2,500 beads from the hardy off-white eggshell. Eggshell-bead-making waste was also found. The evidence indicates that, for whatever reason, ostrich eggs were imported to Tel Tsaf, where they were worked into beads. 

Ostrich eggshell beads, even if the ostrich hasn't been found
Ostrich eggshell beads, even if the ostrich hasn't been foundCredit: Yossi Garfinkel

It bears adding that ostriches and other local versions of typically “African” fauna did once live in Israel but went extinct – whether because of overexploitation, habitat encroachment or climate change.

Moreover, the Tel Tsaf woman with the ostrich egg waistband had been buried under the floor of a mud-brick silo and had a copper awl, the earliest-known cast metal artifact found in the southern Levant. As previously reported by Garfinkel, Rosenfeld himself and others, that awl suggests cast metal technology reached the region as early as the late sixth millennium B.C.E. According to analysis, the ore originated far, far away – possibly the Caucasus.

The dating of the crude tool may indicate that cast metal technology was introduced to the southern Levant centuries before the onset of the full-blown Middle Chalcolithic, or Copper Age, they wrote previously in Plos One.

Other evidence of the village’s long-distance trading ties, millennia before writing developed, include obsidian, also known as volcanic glass, that would have originated in Anatolia, Turkey, or Armenia; fragments of decorated ceramics from Mesopotamia; pretty green stones (not gemstones); and shells from everywhere conceivable – the Red Sea, the Mediterranean and even from the Nile River, Rosenberg says.

Barley economy

The Lisan Formation in the Dead Sea area. Tel Tsaf arose on what had been the bottom of the prehistoric Lake Lisan.
The Lisan Formation in the Dead Sea area. Tel Tsaf arose on what had been the bottom of the prehistoric Lake Lisan.Credit: Nicolas Waldmann / Department of Marine Geosciences, University of Haifa

The Middle Chalcolithic period, when Tel Tsaf flourished, was pre-money. They had to have been bartering for these exotic imports, begging the question of what they had to give.

A clue may lie in its silos, Rosenberg explains: The village seems to have waxed fat on agriculture. In fact, Tel Tsaf made headlines in 2017 after the discovery of a 7,200-year-old clay model of a food-storage silo, which the archaeologists interpreted as a remnant from a ritual propitiating the gods to preserve the crops or harvest.

The real silos were also naturally made of mud-brick and may have had capacities of 15 to 30 tons of grain – storage capacity far beyond the possible needs of any given nuclear family. Food storage facilities are known from even earlier, the Neolithic period. But earlier examples discovered were smaller.

Separate work by Dr. Rona Avissar-Lewis on childhood in the prehistoric and biblical-era Levant suggests that nuclear families were no bigger than today’s, with an average of probably about three children. This was not because of prescient contraception techniques, but because the child mortality rate was about 75 percent. Even if the whole clan lived together, how much could they eat? “The amount of storage is no less than amazing,” Rosenberg says.

Asked how they could have waxed so fat from farming in an area with pitiful average precipitation a year, he explains that they had water aplenty from the Jordan River, local streams and springs. Also, the weather was warm: Blistering hot in summer, really, but plants do love the combination of warmth and water. So do mosquitoes, but such is life.

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.Credit: University of Haifa

Apropos life, among the many discoveries at Tel Tsaf since its discovery in the 1950s are the bases of four large buildings built around courtyards – a popular Levantine style that persists to this day. While study of their diet continues, bones indicate avid consumption of the cow and the pig, distaste for which would only develop much later (apparently about 3,000 years ago).

When and why the peoples of the Levant ceased to dine on swine is not really known. Some postulate that the reasons may have less to do with divine thunderbolts and more to do with the dawning realization that chickens are scrumptious, easier to raise, need less water per kilogram, lay eggs – which pigs do not – and are easier to pick up and hustle away when the enemy comes marauding. Previous to these revelations, it seems the domestication of poultry was motivated mainly by the desire to bet on fighting roosters.

The archaeologists also found some evidence that the locals ate fish from the Jordan River. They also found a surprisingly large amount of olive pits, considering that the Jordan Valley climate is not supportive of olive trees. The small bitter fruits likely were also imported. Dr. Rosenberg is also looking into the diet of the Tel Tsaf villagers as possibly proto-Mediterranean diet.

The bottom line is that ancient Tel Tsaf seems to have been big, strong and filthy rich by the standards of the day. Yet while Jericho is touted as being one of the longest-surviving towns on Earth, Tel Tsaf was deserted after mere centuries. “Suddenly it was gone, we don’t know why,” says Rosenberg. “It’s part of the mystery. We don’t have a clue yet.” Stay tuned.

Ostrich eggshell beads found at Tel Tsaf
Ostrich eggshell beads found at Tel TsafCredit: Yossi Garfinkel
A copper awl, the earliest-known cast metal artifact found in the southern Levant.
A copper awl, the earliest-known cast metal artifact found in the southern Levant.Credit: Yossi Garfinkel
Stone tools discovered at Tel Tsaf.
Stone tools discovered at Tel Tsaf.Credit: Vladimir Neichin