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Archaeology in Israel: Nahal Refa'im

The site is situated on the southern slopes of a hill - Giv'at Massua - near the bank of Nahal Refa'im (Heb., Refa'im Valley), some 6 km. southwest of the Old City of Jerusalem, on the ancient road which led from the Coastal Plain to the Judean Hills and Jerusalem.

Excavations at the site in the Refa'im Valley have been conducted sporadically since 1980, but most of the remains were uncovered between 1987 and 1990, when the Biblical Zoo was established there. Two large villages, one on top of the other and from different periods of the Bronze Age, were excavated.

The name of the Bronze Age villages was probably Manahat. The name is mentioned in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible completed in Alexandria, Egypt in the 3rd century BCE), in the list of towns on the northern border of the Tribe of Judah. (Joshua 15: 59) An echo of the ancient name was preserved in the nearby Arab village of Malha and the modern Jerusalem neighborhood of Manhat.

A short distance from the site is a spring, the main source of water for the villages. Fertile land, forests and grazing areas in the region made continued settlement possible. Of the village houses, scattered over an area of about 12 acres, some 30 have been excavated. They were built on natural stone terraces on the gently sloping hillside, with open areas between them.

During the Israelite period, a new settlement was established on top of the hill above the older village. Its inhabitants built stone terraces on the slopes of the hill for planting and many of the cleared fieldstones - not used for building of terraces - were placed in high piles on the remains of the earlier buildings. The houses of the Bronze Age village were thus well preserved, together with utensils used by its inhabitants.

The Early Village

A village was founded in the Refa'im Valley at the end of the Early Bronze Age (2200-2000 BCE). The houses consisted of a single story with a varying number of different-sized rooms, built on exposed rock surfaces, sometimes next to low rock cliffs. Their walls were constructed of fired bricks on low stone foundations and the earthen floors were leveled with stone surfaces. The flat roofs were constructed of wooden beams and plaster, supported by wooden posts with stone bases recessed in the floors. In some of the buildings, cultic stelae, flat standing stones, were placed against the inner walls of rooms.

In the eastern part of the village, remains of several building complexes, each extending over an area of several hundred square meters, were exposed. Each complex consisted of a number of dwelling units with several rooms. Some houses had common walls and some were built around a courtyard, probably for livestock and for domestic activities. It is assumed that these complexes were the result of several building phases: first, a single unit was built by the father of the family; then units for the extended family were added. These clusters of buildings are indicative of settlement over a period of several generations.

The livelihood of the villagers was based on agriculture and herding. Agricultural crops included grains, lentils, olives and grapes, planted on small plots of land around the village and in the valley. Livestock consisted primarily of sheep and goats, herded for grazing on the surrounding hills, and hunting of wild animals supplemented the villagers' diet.

Pottery produced and used in the village was of hand-made coarse clay, well fired. Huwwar, the main material used by the village potters, was readily found in the limestone rock. This was mixed with sand mined from narrow, deep caves in the hard limestone within the village limits. The vessels produced were mainly large, barrel-shaped storage jars, cooking pots, cups and bowls.

The exposure of the Early Bronze Age village in the Refa'im Valley is of great importance for the study of settlement patterns at the end of the 3rd millennium BCE. Until now, researchers had believed that large cities, such as Arad and Megiddo, were destroyed by nomadic tribes at the end of the 3rd millennium BCE, and that for the next several hundred years, no permanent settlements existed in Canaan. With the exposure of the remains of other villages from the end of the 3rd millennium BCE, similar to that in the Refa'im Valley, it is now evident that a village culture replaced the destroyed urban one and that these rural settlements were established by the population that had abandoned the fortified cities.

The Later Village

During the Middle Bronze Age (1750-1550 BCE), a new Canaanite village was established in the Refa'im Valley with most of its houses built on those of the earlier village. The walls were built to their full height of fieldstones, laid lengthwise in layers, with a mortar of clay, straw and gravel between them. These sturdy walls have been preserved to a height of 2 m. Most floors were made of rock surfaces leveled with earth where needed; some floors were made of laid stone slabs. Dwellings were once more built individually, according to family size and topography. Stone stairs connected rooms of differing levels and provided access to the upper stories.

Daily life in the Canaanite village in the Refa'im Valley is illustrated by the finds in the abandoned houses. These include numerous grinding stones for processing food, ovens for cooking and even a stone silo for grain storage. The grain cultivated here was harvested with wooden sickles into which flint blades had been inserted. Axes, knives, awls and bronze needles were also widely used in the village.

The Temple. In the southwestern part of the village and separate from its houses, was a rectangular (10 x 6 m.) building with thick, carefully constructed walls, which appears to have been the village temple. The entrance faced east and two short pilaster-walls extended from its façade. The internal space of the temple, which was paved with stone slabs, was divided by a partition into a narrow entrance room and a square hall. The temple stood in the center of a courtyard (temenos) surrounded by a stone fence. A small square room abutting the temple served for the storage of small clay votive vessels and a variety of cultic objects, which were found in the excavations.

The Canaanite village was situated within the area of control of the city-state of Jerusalem, the main city in this hill country, called "Shalem" in the Bible (Genesis 33:18) and "Urusalim" in royal Egyptian sources of that period. During the 18th century BCE, Jerusalem was fortified with an impressive wall, remains of which are currently being uncovered. The excavated village in the Refa'im Valley was part of a network of such rural settlements in the valley; it was a time of peace and the villagers became prosperous, selling their agricultural surplus in the markets of Jerusalem.

The remains of the houses of this Canaanite village have been preserved within the Biblical Zoo of Jerusalem.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry