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Archaeology in Israel: Sha'ar Hagolan

When the members of Kibbutz Sha’ar Hagolan dug fishponds in their fields in 1943, they accidentally uncovered a prehistoric site. Partially excavated from 1948 to 1962, under the direction of M. Stekelis of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the unique culture found there became known as the Yarmukian or Sha’ar Hagolan Culture. New excavations, since 1989, uncovered impressive remains of a neolithic village, dating to 5,500 - 5,000 BCE.

The village spreads over hundreds of dunams (one dunam = 1/4 acre). It is located south of the Sea of Galilee, on the bank of the Yarmuk River which flows into the Jordan just south of the site. Several buildings with rectangular and circular rooms were uncovered: the foundations consist of courses of fieldstones topped with courses of loaf-shaped, sun-dried mudbricks; the walls are sturdily constructed; the floors are beaten earth; and the ceilings were of straw and mud over wooden frames. A variety of vessels was found, including flat basalt slabs and concave basalt mortars for domestic use.

At the center of the village stood a very large, extremely well-constructed building, obviously serving some public functions. It has a courtyard reached from the narrow, winding alley which runs between the houses of the village. Several rectangular rooms with particularly thick walls and one circular room, which served as a silo, were built around the courtyard.

The abundance of artifacts found in the village is indicative of a developed mixed-economy culture of fishing, hunting and grain-cultivating. Flint tools were widely used. They were made by advanced methods from flint cores – pebbles collected from the river banks – and include sickle blades with one denticulated side, which were inserted into handles of bone or wood; arrowheads, some large, elongated and curved, others very small and triangular, delicately retouched; also polished axes, scrapers, awls and burins.

During this period, when pottery vessels first appeared in the Middle East, the potters of Sha’ar Hagolan produced a variety of sophisticated, well-fired vessels – round open shapes for bowls and closed forms for jars, many with flat bases on which they stood firmly. The most typical decorations were incised herringbone patterns within parallel lines, sometimes also with red, painted bands.

The outstanding characteristic of the Yarmukian culture is its art. The artistic and cultic objects include engraved and incised pebbles and small stone and clay figurines. Anthropomorphic statuettes of clay were assembled from separately made body parts. The facial features, particularly the protruding eyes, are somewhat grotesque. The large number of fertility figurines, probably representing the "goddess mother," reflect a cult based on the life cycle.

The finds from the Neolithic village of Sha’ar Hagolan are illustrative of new, previously unknown aspects of the Neolithic culture in Israel. Until these discoveries, the view prevailed that the Neolithic populations of the region were nomadic pastoralists who lived in temporary settlements of primitive, semi-subterranean huts. Sha’ar Hagolan was undoubtedly a permanent village with well-constructed houses and a large communal building.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry