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Archaeology in Israel: Nahal Be’er Sheva

Remains of several Chalcolithic settlements dating to the 4th millennium BCE were uncovered a short distance from one another along both sides of Nahal Be’er Sheva, in an area which is today within the city limits of Be’er Sheva. Excavation of these sites was conducted in 1951-1960 at Be’er Matar, Be’er Safad and Horvat Batar. Near the latter, an additional site, Neve Noy, was excavated in 1982.

The uniqueness of these sites is that each consisted of up to 10 units of subterranean dwellings, dug into the soft loess deposits on the banks of Nahal Be’er Sheva. The sites became well known for the many special finds associated with them and this local culture came to be known as the Be’er Sheva Chalcolithic Culture.

The standard dwelling unit consisted of round or ovoid chambers dug below ground level, measuring ca. 7 x 3 m. They were accessible via inclined tunnels dug from shallow pits on the surface, which measured ca. 3 m. in diameter. These pits, in the view of the excavators, also served as courtyards in which daily activities took place, since they contained a variety of bell-shaped silos, basins and hearths. In the subterranean chambers, with niches of various sizes cut into the walls, storage facilities were found. There were also several small, subterranean rooms, elliptical in shape and connected by galleries. The main entrance to these was via a shaft dug to a depth of several meters below the surface. Small niches cut into its sides served as hand and footholds for those going down and climbing up. Because of the constant danger of collapse, stone supports were constructed in some of the rooms to strengthen the sides, and wooden shafts to support the roof.

A large number of varied objects, in many materials, was found at the Nahal Be’er Sheva sites, indicating an advanced material culture. The pottery in this period is still rather primitive. It is handmade of local, light colored clay containing much sand, and the vessels are of simple form, sometimes with red line decorations. Many stone tools were found, including large chisels and axes made from pebbles; also finer flint tools, such as scrapers, borers, knives, sickle blades and a few arrow and lance heads.

The basalt stoneware is of interest, as the material was brought from a considerable distance. Notable are conical bowls with flat bases of exceptionally high quality. Their sides were smoothed and herringbone designs incised on them. Copper artifacts, for every day use such as axes, chisels and awls, were made by the inhabitants themselves. The copper ores were probably imported from Edom in Transjordan; rock anvils for crushing the ores, and fireplaces with slag indicate that metallurgical activities were conducted at the sites.

The most famous finds from the Chalcolithic Be’er Sheva Culture are ivory figurines. Evidence from a local workshop suggests that they were made locally, of imported raw material. Among the figurines are some of over 30 cm. in height; the craftsmanship is impressive with attention paid to anatomical details. Some of the figurines are peculiarly elongated and thin, with arms extended downward along the body; numerous holes drilled in the cheeks and chin of the faces indicate that hair was inserted to resemble facial hair.

Archeologists believe that the subterranean dwellings were a partial answer to the high temperatures prevailing in the Be’er Sheva Valley. The population consisted of several extended families, semi-nomadic, engaged in fledgling agriculture and domestication of animals, a lifestyle which made permanent settlement possible.

The finds show that cereals (wheat and barley) and pulses were important ingredients of their diet. Surpluses of food were stored in the silos of the subterranean dwellings. Goats and sheep were raised, as evidenced by the bones found, but hunted game played only a minor role in the diet.

It is assumed that the flocks were led in the summer months in search of grazing lands and returned to the dwelling sites at the onset of winter. During these migrations, the inhabitants sealed the entrances to their dwellings with earth and stones, leaving the implements not used during the wanderings. Clearly, some never returned and thus, some of the rooms remained blocked; others filled with silt or were buried by collapse.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry