Oldest Artifact Ever Found in Jerusalem, Revealed

Found on Mount Zion, a flint arrowhead is not only the oldest but the smallest complete object of this kind ever found in Jerusalem, dig co-director Prof. Shimon Gibson says

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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The Neolithic arrowhead, just over 1.5 centimeters long, from the Mount Zion dig.
The Neolithic arrowhead, just over 1.5 centimeters long, from the Mount Zion dig.Credit: Gretchen Cotter
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

For the first time ever, or at least for the first time since the 1920s, an artifact from the Neolithic period, at least 7,000 years old, has been found in the Old City area of Jerusalem – on Mount Zion, no less. The artifact is an arrowhead about the size of one’s pinkie nail, fashioned from white flint with delicate pink veins.

Slightly more than 1.5 centimeters (about 0.6 inches) long, it is also one of the most complete artifacts of its kind ever found in the Old City area, says Prof. Shimon Gibson of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is one of the directors of the Mount Zion excavation project, together with professors Rafael Lewis and James Tabor (the dig is supported by the Center for the History and Archaeology of the Near East). Gibson and the team are currently working on sorting through millions of artifacts uncovered from the excavations.

Its only imperfection is a slightly blunted tip, but its sides remain razor-sharp even today. But back in the Neolithic, this miniature weapon would have been deadly, the archaeologists excavating Mount Zion assure Haaretz.

The teeny arrowhead was spotted by eagle-eyed North Carolina graduate student William Stumpff while using the flotation technique to weed out miniature archaeological goodies from boxfuls of soil samples excavated from the site.

Stumpff is working in the team’s university laboratory, which is located not far from the Old City and holds hundreds of boxes of excavation finds derived from the site ranging from soil samples to pottery sherds, to the detritus of millennia of early urbanites. He has been tweezing out fragments of pottery and glass, seeds, bones, bits of charcoal, textile fibers, eggshells and much more from the soil. And it is he, armed with magnifying goggles, who saw the tiny arrowhead, immediately recognizing it as such, and brought it to Gibson for inspection. The professor in turn immediately identified it as a very small arrow tip of Neolithic date.

William Stumpff looking for small objects in material from Mt. ZionCredit: Gretchen Cotter

The real conundrum is less how Stumpff spotted it and more why such Neolithic tools have not been found before in and around the Old City of Jerusalem. Or maybe they were: In the 1920s, while excavating a cave near Jerusalem’s Gihon spring in the area of the later City of David, Robert Stewart Macalister and Rev. John Garrow Duncan found flint implements which they thought to be Neolithic – but they never published their discovery, Gibson explains.

The earliest tools found hitherto have been from the later Chalcolithic period. Some tools might seem to be similar in the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods, but this definitely does not apply to the arrow tip, Gibson says. It’s Neolithic.

How does he know? Typology: it looks like Neolithic arrow tips found elsewhere in Israel, and it exhibits masterful knapping, with very delicate workmanship, and the small size is impressive, he explains.

Tiny Neolithic arrowhead found on Mt. ZionCredit: Virginia Withers

Prehistoric Jerusalem

Israel has been the stamping ground for the Homo set probably going back around 2 million years. Other parts of Israel are littered with ancient remains, the earliest so far dating back some 1.5 million years. Modern humans were making forays out of Africa into what is today Israel for at least 200,000 years, the evidence indicates. But it was only about 50,000 years ago that modern humans finally bested the local Neanderthals once and for all and conquered the roost.

The point being, wouldn’t one expect hominin and prehistoric human signs in Jerusalem too, especially around the Gihon spring, which would have provided a source of drinking water for humans and animals alike?

This is very likely, says landscape archaeologist Lewis, who is a co-director of the expedition (note that the dig site on Mount Zion is only half a kilometer from the spring as the crow flies). Indeed, at the site of Motza, not far to the west of Jerusalem, archaeologists have been uncovering a major settlement from 9,000 years ago. And evidence has been found of a settlement in northern Jerusalem (Khirbet es-Sauma’a) going back at least 7,000 years.

Yet very few prehistoric finds have been made so far on Mount Zion and most of these are Chalcolithic or later, Gibson says: stone chisels and scrapers, a few human-struck blades, but nothing exceptional. Until now.

So where is the evidence for Neolithic Jerusalem? It’s because the city has been built up over 7,000 years, so when archaeologists look for traces of the earlier periods, they are hardly to be found, he says.

Prof. Shimon Gibson with his team looking at flotation materials from the Mount Zion site.Credit: Virginia Withers

“Anything from Neolithic times would be close to bedrock, but when we reach bedrock – the builders of the later periods have got there before us,” he says. In other words, people needed firm foundations for their buildings on bedrock, first by clearing away any pesky cultural evidence from previous peoples. In fact, the arrowhead was not found in situ in a Neolithic layer; it was found in soil that has been shifted around during many building operations and over thousands of years.

“I would love to excavate a layer we know to be Neolithic, but that hasn’t happened yet in any excavation in the area of the Old City of Jerusalem,” Gibson opines.

Anyway, there could be more Neolithic stuff in the hundreds of cardboard cartons containing excavation materials or in the dozens of soil samples awaiting attention. We shall just have to wait and see.

Loaded for bear

When this arrowhead was fashioned, the Jerusalem Hills were not like we know them today. The Neolithic in the highlands was still a period of hunting and gathering, even though this period is also the time that saw the beginnings of early farming. The land at that time wasn’t made up of artificial “forest,” as it appears today planted by modern Israel, but consisted of mixed woodland, Gibson says.

Admiring the perfectly shaped translucent white arrow tip as it lay glittering in a cardboard box, one has to wonder what this wee thing could achieve – what were they hunting, Neolithic rats? Sparrows, perchance?

Indeed, tiny arrow tips like these have been called “bird points” by explorers in the last century, Lewis says. But while the hunter-gatherers would probably have been reduced to preying on relatively small animals (such as gazelle), this dinky little tip was also deadly to these animals as well, he explains. “You could kill a bear with it,” he adds, if there was one around of course, or a deer, or even an annoying neighbor.

Or poke the bear, anyway. One wonders how one would vanquish an ursine: the arrow tip is, after all, really small. Gibson points out that it would have been easier for hunters to carry around arrows with smaller tips in their quivers, but that ethnographic evidence usually points to hunting in teams and that a barrage of small arrows of this kind would have been necessary to bring down an animal.

04307.jpgCredit: Gretchen Cotter

“Risk management,” was the name of the game, he says. He agrees that if one is hunting alone, one might hit the target very precisely but only under ideal circumstances. The velocity of the arrow is one of the factors hunters took into consideration, but the greater the size of the tip is potentially deadlier for the animal when being hunted by the individual rather than by a team, he adds.

But perhaps one didn’t really need to aim so precisely. Lewis points out that the Neolithic period was a time of developing communal activities, with the possibility that a hunter could either be a prehistoric misanthrope and hunt alone, sitting behind a rock and hoping for the best, or that he did so as part of a team. The Neolithic hunters likely hunted in groups and if a large animal had been weakened with a barrage of wee arrows – let’s skip the graphic imagery – somebody could always deliver the coup de grâce with a spear or a barrage of rocks. Maybe they combined bows and arrows with slingshots.

It bears adding that the giant prehistoric traps for large animals named “desert kites,” where fleeing herds of herbivores would be chased into an ever-narrowing funnel shape and then killed, were actually a phenomenon of the desert plains in southern Israel and have recently been investigated in the Black Desert in Jordan. However, none are known in the hills of ancient Jerusalem, though conceivably animals could have been chased down rocky scarps and into traps there as well.

Could the recently found arrowhead conceivably have been used on a human being? Sure, theoretically it could have been. Lewis, who has studied evidence of historic battlefields in the Land of Israel from thousands of years later, points out that no evidence has been found of large-scale conflicts in this region going back to prehistoric times. However, the earliest-known murder was 430,000 years ago, with evidence that one hominin apparently bashed another on the head with a rock (twice) and then dumped the body down a cave shaft. Another reported case is that of one of the Neanderthals buried in the Shanidar Cave in Iraq, who seems to have been speared tens of thousands of years ago, possibly by a modern human.

If the Neolithic hunters existed with their neighbors in a state of bonhomie, which is debatable, conflict would have been inevitable when it came to resource availability and the impingement on neighboring territories, as the famous paleontologist Richard Leakey pointed out in his work many decades ago.

By the time of the Chalcolithic, archaeologists have found evidence for stone maces that were mounted on wooden handles at sites near Jerusalem. But perhaps we are reading too much into these maces: they could have been used for religious ceremonial purposes, Gibson suggests. Certainly, the picture that has been obtained of the Chalcolithic period in the highland regions – in a published study by Yorke Rowan and Gibson – is that of small villages springing up in the close vicinity of water sources. Their inhabitants engaged in specializing rural processes, activities that were beyond the needs of subsistence and were toward obtaining surpluses for trade.

One such substance that could be traded over distances was olive oil. The Chalcolithic period undoubtedly saw the beginnings of horticulturalism, with the earliest formation of fields and terrace agriculture on slopes of hills, Lewis says. And though the people still used some stone tools, by that time, the sheer mastery needed to make miniature arrowheads such as the one spotted by a graduate student from North Carolina in soil samples derived from Mount Zion, now seems to have been an art that was lost for all time.

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