Rare, 10,000-year-old Structure Emerges From Judean Hills

Archaeological dig at Eshtaol reveals a prehistoric community that shows the progression from nomadic living to fixed abodes.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

An archaeological excavation near Beit Shemesh has revealed a large prehistoric community that lasted for thousands of years. Conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the dig discovered the oldest structure ever found in the Shfela region of the Judean Hills, dating back to the first permanent human settlement in the area some 10,000 years ago.

The archaeologists also found remains from other prehistoric periods. Among them was evidence of a 6,000-year-old cultic temple, and a cluster of rare axes.

The dig was conducted in preparation for the widening of Road 38, near the town of Eshtaol. The work is intended to improve the safety and reduce the congestion on a road, which has been the scene of numerous serious accidents. The Israel Roads Company financed the excavation.

The most ancient finds at the site dated back to the pre-pottery Neolithic period, from about 8,500 BCE to 5,500 BCE.

“The finds revealed at the site range from the period when man first started to domesticate plants and animals, instead of searching for them in the wild, until the period when we see the beginnings of proper urban planning,“ said the IAA. “These amazing finds provide a broad picture covering thousands of years of development of human society.”

One of the structures had “industrial” plaster flooring, the oldest known use of plaster for this purpose. There was also an industry that burned limestone rocks and prepared the plaster, said archaeologist Dr. Ya’akov Vardi. The find is exceptional, coming from a period when humans were not yet making pottery.

A cluster of nine flint and limestone axes, lying side-by-side, was found near this prehistoric building. “It is apparent that the axes, some of which were used as tools and some as cultic objects, were highly valued by their owners," Vardi said. "Just as today we are unable to get along without a cellular telephone and a computer, they too attributed great importance to their tools. Based on how it was arranged at the time of its discovery it seems that the cluster of axes was abandoned by its owner for some unknown reason.”

One of the directors of the excavation on behalf of the IAA, Dr. Amir Golani said: “We uncovered a multitude of unique finds during the excavation. The large excavation affords us a broad picture of the progression and development of the society in the settlement throughout the ages. Thus, we can clearly see that in the Early Bronze Age, 5,000 years ago, the rural society made the transition to an urban society. We can distinctly see a the emergence of a planned settlement, with alleys and buildings that were extremely impressive from the standpoint of their size and the manner of their construction."

"We can clearly trace the urban planning and see the guiding hand of the settlement’s leadership, which chose to regulate the construction in the crowded regions in the center of the settlement while allowing less planning along its periphery. It is fascinating to see how in such an ancient period, a planned settlement was established in which there is orderly construction, and to trace the development of a society becaming increasingly hierarchical,” said Golani.

The dig at Eshtaol, where habitation went back at least 10,000 years.
Stone arrowhead found at Eshtaol, held by archaeologist Ya'akov Vardi.
Pottery in superb condition, found at Eshtaol.
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The dig at Eshtaol, where habitation went back at least 10,000 years.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
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Stone arrowhead found at Eshtaol, held by archaeologist Ya'akov Vardi.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
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Pottery in superb condition, found at Eshtaol.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“This is the first time that such an ancient structure has been discovered in the Judean Shfelah," Golanis said of one of the buildings, almost all of which was found. "It underwent a number of construction and repair phases, which allude to its importance. It should be emphasized that whoever built the house did something that was totally innovative, because up until this period man migrated from place to place in search of food. Here we have evidence of man’s transition to permanent dwellings and that, in fact, is the beginning of the domestication of animals and plants; instead of searching out wild sheep, ancient man started raising them near the house.”

In the Eshta’ol excavation, a stone column (called a mazzev) was found alongside a number of six thousand-year-old buildings from the end of the Chalcolithic period (second half of the fifth millennium BCE.) At 1.30 meters high and weighing several hundred kilos, the standing stone was "smoothed and worked on all six of its sides and erected with one of its sides facing east. This unique find alludes to the presence of a cultic temple at the site,” said the archaeologists.

“In the past, numerous manifestations have been found of the cultic practice that existed in the Chalcolithic period; however, from the research we know of only a few temples at ‘En Gedi and at Teleilat Ghassul in Transjordan,” said the archaeologists.

The excavation was directed for the IAAA by Dr. Amir Golani, Dr. Ya‘akov Vardi, Benyamin Storchan and Dr. Ron Be’eri.

Stone arrowheads made of flint, found at Eshtaol.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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