On the slope of a barren mountain overlooking today’s Red Sea resort city of Eilat, a prehistoric community erected a cemetery and a place of worship, starting at least 7,500 years ago and continued for over a thousand years. Amid the graves, among masseboth, archaeologists found the stump of a juniper tree.
This may be, they claim, nothing other than the earliest Asherah ever found, predecessor of a cult that would come to be embraced by the Canaanites and abhorred by the Yahwists. The excavators also found beads from afar, made of exotic materials including the earliest-ever examples of faience and of steatite found in the Levant.
To the unaided eye, the site perched above Eilat looks like rocks in some sort of arrangement. To the trained archaeological eye it brings insight into the belief system during the Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods, and its significance to the later traditions of the ancient Near East.
First discovered in 1978, the site was only excavated in the late 1980s as a salvage dig ahead of Eilat’s westward expansion. The excavation was carried out by Israel Hershkovitz and Uzi Avner, who found 11 simple graves, 20 tumulus tombs, two areas identified as open-air sanctuaries, and a cultic installation. It would take three decades for analysis to be pursued and papers published, in 2018.
Sadly, ten of the tumuli were badly damaged by heavy machinery during infrastructure works before the site was discovered, and the other ten had been robbed in antiquity.
Luckily for posterity, though, the raiders didn’t quite finish their job, and now Prof. Avner shares the insights reached from the remains.
Below the red sands
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The cemetery overlooking the modern city had been in use for over a thousand years, in the sixth and the fifth millennia B.C.E. (c. 5450 – 4250 B.C.E.), according to finds and radiocarbon dating of charcoal found at the site.
Of the 11 “simple graves” the archaeologists found, three were excavated. Beforehand they had been barely distinguishable on the surface. About 20 centimeters down, the archaeologists encountered a “stone bed” of rocks, seemingly arranged to correspond to a flexed position of the deceased, along with (very few) grave goods.
The tumulus-type tombs, on the other hand, were hard to miss. They were constructed using large rocks placed on the ground, supported from the outside by additional stone pavements. The tumulis’ burial chambers contained mainly the long bones, pelvis, and skulls of the dead, covered with soil and medium-size rocks.
Avner believes that the simple graves represent the initial burial, and once the bodies had decayed there, selected bones would be secondarily placed in the tumuli with grave goods. Examination of the remains indicate this was done for all members of the community above the age of about five.
The grave goods included stone tools - arrowheads, scrapers, grinding stones, and sandstone bowls. Two of the bowls were decorated with reliefs that may represent a geometric design, a snake, Avner says.
There were also fragments of early pottery, bones of sheep and goat, wild animals and fowls, and an abundance of small stuff, from shells and pieces of coral to minerals, semi-precious stones – and beads.
Most of the beads were skillfully crafted from seashells. But some clearly originated afar, including the oldest-known faience and glazed steatite beads. The faience and steatite beads apparently hailed from Mesopotamia.
The archaeologists also found a lump of red realgar (arsenic ore) from Anatolia and a copper bead that also may be one of the earliest-known smelted objects in the Levantine lands.
Some of the tumulis’ burial chambers, which ranged from one and a half to three meters in diameter, contained multiple individuals. These Avner believes were nuclear family graves. Others featured several chambers. In some cases multiple tumuli were connected, perhaps serving the extended family.
There was one exception to the tumuli serving for secondary burials: one contained a partially articulated female body next to a child, both buried in a flexed position.
Understanding rationale in prehistory is hard, but perhaps clues can be found in later, historic-period secondary burials – a practice persisting in some societies to this day.
Secondary burial was practiced in the First and Second Temple periods. The Bible describes that King David “rested with his ancestors” (1 Kings 11:21), and Judges 2:10 explains that after a whole generation had been “gathered to their ancestors”, the next ones were hapless and unknowing of Yahweh.
The bodies would be placed in burial caves and once the bones were clean, they were transferred to another room in the burial cave where the remains of other family members rested.
As for rationale, the Jerusalem Talmud, Moed Katan 1:5, presents the collection of bones and the placement of the ossuary in the cave as a happy event, as the deceased was relieved of pain.
Whatever the rationale behind the secondary burial in prehistoric Eilat, feasting was happening. Among the graves the archaeologists found numerous hearths. It is impossible of course to say whether banquets were held during secondary funerals, periodical, or other.
The people at “The Eilat burial ground” didn’t invent funeral feasting, if that is what it was. Archaeologists have reported indications interpreted as mortuary feasting from the Natufian period (about 15,000 to 11,500 years ago), such as the “Hilazon Shaman” site, where remains of a feast were detected above the grave; and at the later Pre-Pottery Neolithic B site Kfar Hahoresh, where eight aurochs were slaughtered.
In short, Avner explains, ritual feasting has been a thing from deep prehistory.
In the Near East, historical documents tell about the Akkadian rite of kispu. The family gathered at their ancestors’ graves and recited the names of their ancestors as far as eight generations back. They would share news about the family with their ancestors and would ask them to intervene for the health and fertility of the family and their fields. They would pour a libation of cold water, beer or wine over the ground and then, eat.
In 1999, Avner shares, he was invited to a ritual feast in Java, Indonesia, to which the family invited the spirits of their ancestors going back four generations.
However, the site in Eilat is the first where multiple hearths were uncovered in the immediate context of a cemetery. The main cluster contained no less than 66 hearths, surrounding two of the tombs.
The sunset of life
While the Eilat site attests to traditions going back to ancient history, there’s one widespread prehistoric phenomenon not found there. The reference is to plastered skulls – literally.
About 9,500 years ago and more, other societies in the Levant and as far away as Anatolia detached the skulls from bodies and covered them with plaster, crudely depicting facial features. Many such were found in Israel, Syria and Jordan, and in Turkey too, but not here.
For one thing the Eilat site is somewhat later. But its skulls seem to have received special treatment nonetheless. All were placed in the western part of the burial chambers, separated from the other remains and often near a stone “pillow”, Avner describes.
In one case, in a single tomb, six skulls were found "nested" at the foot of a masseba: an unhewn, vaguely anthropomorphic standing stone.
This orientation was intentional, he postulates. The entrance to the tombs was in the east, potentially serving as a doorway to the rising sun. It is also possible that like in later belief systems, the setting sun was perceived as escorting the dead to the next world. Theoretically, therefore, the skulls were laid on the western side of the tombs in order to appear first when being “born into the other world”.
Masseboth were common in the Levant and the Near East from 11,000 B.C.E. to the Iron Age. Examples include masseboth next to the temple and palace in the northern city of Hazor, at the Midianite temple in Timna, and even among early Judahites, at the first temple in the Judahite shrine in Arad.
In Eilat, the archaeologist observed two types of masseboth in connection with the tumuli burials: wide stones, usually as a set of two, located on the eastern perimeter of the tomb facing east, sometimes with stone offering benches or semi-circular cells in the front. The other type is one to three masseboth inside the tombs, facing north.
Based on multiple finds in Israel and beyond, historical documents, and anthropological observations, the broad masseboth in front of the graves may have represented fertility goddesses. The ones within the burial chambers may have represented the ancestors.
But the story of this peculiar site isn’t quite over yet. The archaeologists also identified two open-air sanctuaries, built by placing a perimeter consisting of one row of fieldstones.
The outline of the smaller sanctuary, which is 10 by 4 meters, looks vaguely anthropomorphic. On its eastern side was an installation with no less than 99 masseboth inside, two of which were relatively taller: 55 and 65 centimeters. These may have represented a pair od deities while smaller ones, 10 to 30 cm in height, may have represented the ancestors, Avner said.
The roots of Ashera
East of two of the graves, two installations were founds. One was built 70 cm into the ground and, was paved with small flagstones. It was on this pavement that the archaeologists identified the remains of a juniper tree trunk.
The wooden relic is 30 cm tall and was found still standing upright. The trunk had probably been brought to the site from the Edomite mountains, in today’s Jordan.
The presence of the juniper, brought from afar to be placed on a pavement inside a burial and cultic site, leaves little doubt that it was a sacred wood, Avner says.
Later, such “sacred trees” were common in the Levant and the Near East. In the Bible and Ugaritic texts, “Ashera”, often symbolized by a tree, was the goddess representing fertility, endowing life and prosperity to her followers. Sometimes, she is also referred as the wife of “El” and her cult was mentioned several times in the Old Testament. The Bible also disapprovingly references asherim, cult objects relating to Cannanite worship.
In the Mishna, redacted in the early 3rd century C.E, she is represented as a living tree, tree stump, or a wooden sculpture.
Before the discovery of the juniper tree trunk in Eilat, only three sacred trees potentially identified as Asheras were found in the Near East, although from much later and two of them are still hotly debated: in the early Bronze Age sanctuary in Beycesultan, Turkey; in the Bronze Age sanctuary in Qatna, Syria and in the Iron Age sanctuary in Lachish.
The Ashera in Eilat was dated by radiocarbon analysis to 4540 B.C.E. It is the oldest “Ashera” found anywhere.
There is one other extreme oddity about this cemetery which as said was created on a rocky, barren slope with a view of the Red Sea.
Unlike other prehistoric cemeteries in general, it seems to be an independent institution, separated from settlement. It is also among the earliest to integrate masseboth within the burials. If the interpretations of the types of masseboth are correct, then the dead were laid to rest with symbols of female fertility and rebirth, as indicated by the broad standing stones, the orientation of the graves and elements within, and the Ashera.
And perhaps, this strange mortuary ground above the sparkling blue sea among the red mountains might represent a new, cyclical perception of life and death, death and rebirth, as opposed to the common, linear perception of a one-way passage from the short life on earth to the eternal afterlife that apparently prevailed among the desert people as early as the 6th millennium B.C.E.