The remains of a huge city dating back 5,000 years, built over an unexpectedly large village that already existed at least 2,000 earlier, have been found in northern Israel during road works.
The archaeologists conducting the salvage exploration before the whole thing is built over suspect that at its peak in the Early Bronze Age, the site at En Esur had as many as 6,000 people, a huge population for the time. It would have dwarfed sites like Jericho and Megiddo, two famous examples of early urbanization in the Southern Levant, archaeologists say.
En Esur was smaller than the cities that arose contemporaneously in Mesopotamia and Egypt in the Early Bronze Age, but was apparently unique in size for its time in the Southern Levant, the region that includes modern Israel, Jordan and southern Syria, the archaeologists explain.
En Esur had apparently grown to be a significantly large settlement already in the Early Chalcolithic period, roughly 7,000 years ago, leading some of its discoverers to suspect that prehistoric people in the Southern Levant began building cities much earlier than previously thought.
Despite its importance, it is unlikely the newly uncovered site will ever welcome any visitors, as it is destined to quickly disappear under a planned road junction.
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Ten times the size of Jericho
Located half-way between today’s Tel Aviv and Haifa, En Esur was already the subject of small-scale digs in the 1960s and 1990s. But in 2017 the Israel Antiquities Authority launched a massive salvage expedition ahead of the planned road construction. Early results of the project were announced on Thursday.
The dig is the largest ever conducted in Israel, covering an area of 40 dunams (four hectares). Still, the researchers estimate they have excavated less than 10 percent of the ancient city, says Yitzhak Paz, one of the IAA archaeologists leading the project.
Starting in 3300 B.C.E., the site became an outsized village and then quickly developed into an urban space, Paz says. “By the end of the fourth millennium B.C.E., the site became a city. It is one of the earliest cities known in the southern Levant, and it is the largest by far,” the archaeologist tells Haaretz.
Sprawling over an estimated 650 dunams, the city of En Esur was more than ten times the size of Jericho, Paz says.
The city was densely populated and well planned, with silos to store food and a network of streets and alleys covered in stones and plaster to minimize flooding during the rainy season.
The archaeologists also uncovered public buildings; a two-meter-thick fortification wall studded with towers, and a cemetery composed of burial caves located outside the town. “You really have the complete package of early urbanized settlements, with all the components: streets, burial caves, domestic structures, walls, public buildings,” says IAA archaeologist Itai Elad.
Because so many ancient settlements were built atop even older ones, often archaeologists can’t reach much of the Early Bronze layers unless they remove or damage the younger strata. This is not the case at En Esur, which was abandoned for unknown reasons at the turn of the fourth millennium B.C.E., around 3050 B.C.E. Renewed settlements in later periods cover only a fraction of the site.
This has given the archaeologists a rare opportunity to uncover entire swaths of a city that dates back to the dawn of urbanization in the region, Elad says.
Monumental architecture and figurines
The archaeologists may have also discovered evidence of organized religion, as one of the most impressive public structures so far uncovered in the city so far is thought to have functioned as a temple.
The building, 25 meters long, was supported by wood columns placed on large stone bases, and inside archeologists have found evidence of religious activity, including human-shaped figurines, and a cylindrical seal impression depicting a cultic scene.
Outside the building they uncovered two massive stone basins, one of which contained animal bones, which reinforces the idea that the spot served a religious purpose. There was no rock to be found in the immediate vicinity, meaning that all these stones, some weighing 10 to 15 tons, had to be quarried and carried from a site a few kilometers away, further highlighting the effort and expense that was put into building the city.
While the people at En Esur had not yet developed a writing system, they had very strong trading contacts with other regions, as evidenced by the presence of pottery that came from as far as the Jordan Valley and Egypt, Paz says.
All this points to a complex and stratified society, which was probably ruled as a chiefdom by a local elite, the archaeologist notes.
He adds that the city was unusually large given that in the Southern Levant of the Early Bronze Age there were no known major political entities in the Southern Levant of the Early Bronze Age comparable to those forming in Egypt – where the pharaoh Narmer was unifying the entire country for the first time – and Mesopotamia, which was witnessing the heyday of the Sumerian city states.
A Chalcolithic proto-city?
The size of the city was not the only surprise from the dig. Digging beneath the putative city temple, the walls and the other Early Bronze remains, the archaeologists found that already in the Early Chalcolithic the site had experienced the first demographic explosion in its long history, says Dina Shalem, an archaeologist with the IAA and Kinneret College who co-directs the dig with Paz and Elad.
At the beginning of the fifth millennium B.C.E. – that is 7,000 years ago – En Esur developed into a large settlement that already showed some hallmarks of urbanization. The presence of public buildings points to elements of planning, while differences in the size and quality of burials (which at the time were placed inside the settlement) suggest there was already a social stratification.
This incarnation of En Esur was around 2,000 years older than the Early Bronze Age city that was built above it. And while this Early Chalcolithic settlement still had many features of prehistoric villages, it was also unusual in size and sophistication.
During this period, the site covered around 400 dunams. For the sake of comparison, that is about double the size of an Early Chalcolithic settlement found at Ein Zippori, in the Galilee, which until now was considered the largest in the region.
“The rise of urbanization is an issue that must constantly be re-discussed,” says Paz. “We used to think that urbanization starts somewhere in the late fourth millennium but maybe it started earlier.”
Shalem hesitates to label the Early Chalcolithic incarnation of En Esur a town, saying it still displays some characteristics of a very large village, and cautions that more research is needed to understand the way of life of the inhabitants.
Indeed there are many mysteries that are still puzzling the archaeologists investigating this Chalcolithic proto-city: conical installations made of a cement-like material and ritual deposits of animal parts have been found scattered around the site – their function unclear. Equally mysterious is a long wall, nearly two meters thick, found in the middle of the settlement, which may have served a defensive purpose, or may have been part of a large public building, Shalem says.
The ruins are so rich in finds from the Early Chalcolithic – animal figurines, ceramic vessels, basalt bowls and so on – that this may become a type-site for an entirely new culture, Shalem says.
“The size of the excavation allows us to define the characteristics of this phase in the Early Chalcolithic,” she says. “We could even talk about an En Esur culture.”
The site may also serve to shed light on a broader mystery that surrounds the transition from the Chalcolithic (or Copper Age) to the Bronze Age. Throughout the southern Levant, between 3800 B.C.E. and 3600 B.C.E. there is a gap of roughly 200 years for which archaeologists have very few finds, which leaves them wondering what happened to civilization in that period and what led to the massive changes that can be seen in societies from the Early Bronze Age.
Was there an invasion? A massive demographic change? Or is it simply that archaeologists have been unlucky and have found very few remains from this transitional period?
“The differences between the Late Chalcolithic and Early Bronze are obvious in the architecture, in the pottery, in everything, but there is this gap during which no one can really tell what happens,” says Shalem.
But things may be different at En Esur because it is possible the site was continuously inhabited throughout these periods. After its days of prosperity in the Early Chalcolithic, En Esur shrank – again, we don’t know why, there are no obvious signs of destruction or violence. From around 4500 B.C.E. it remained a small village until it started to balloon again more than a thousand years later into what would become the Early Bronze Age city.
If indeed the archaeologists can securely date remains that belong to the transition between the Copper and Bronze Age, it’s possible that the site might provide some answers about this little-known period.
For this, the researchers will have to rely on results coming from Carbon 14 dating of existing finds and their documentation of the site, since the remains of En Esur itself will be turned over to construction crews in the coming weeks. The sections of the ancient city that have been exposed will be either buried or destroyed, the archaeologists say – not without disappointment.
One small comfort is that, as mentioned, the excavated area (and the planned road construction) cover less than 10 percent of the site – meaning the surrounding fields may still hide major remains that could be uncovered by future generations.
Preservation versus development
The dig at En Esur is only the latest in a series of large-scale salvage excavations completed by the IAA ahead of major infrastructure projects across the country. Recent discoveries have ranged from a huge Neolithic settlement in Motza, near Jerusalem, to First-Temple-era remains in Beit Shemesh and a large town from the Early Islamic period.
Such salvage excavations are a legal requirement for construction projects that break new ground in Israel.
Some archaeologists and conservation activists have argued that the IAA is too quick to release important ancient sites to developers, and more efforts should be done to alter development plans to preserve at least part of what has been discovered.
Archaeological officials counter that they must strike a balance between preserving antiquities and the needs of Israel’s modern economy and society, which they say they do by ensuring that large parts of the involved sites remain unexcavated while documenting as much as possible those areas that will be covered by development.