Although Egyptian-Israeli relations have been frosty in recent years, ties between the two lands were vibrant around 3,000 BCE during the Early Bronze Age - at least according to Tel Aviv University and University College London archeologists who discovered a rare, four-centimeter-long stone fragment at the point where the Jordan River exits Lake Kinneret.
The piece, part of a carved stone plaque bearing archaic Egyptian signs, was the highlight of the second season of excavations at Tel Bet Yerah (Khirbet el-Kerak). The site lies along an ancient highway that connected Egypt to the wider world of the ancient Near East.
The dig, carried out within the Beit Yerah National Park, was completed there last week by a joint team headed by TAU's Raphael Greenberg and David Wengrow from England.
Earlier discoveries, both in Egypt and at Bet Yerah, have indicated that there was direct interaction between the site - then one of the largest in the Jordan Valley - and the Egyptian royal court. The new discovery suggests that these contacts were of far greater local significance than had been suspected.
The archeologists noted that the fragment - which depicts an arm and hand grasping a scepter and an early form of the ankh sign - was the first artifact of its type ever found in an archaeological site outside Egypt. It has been attributed to the period of Egypt's First Dynasty, at around 3000 BCE.
Finds of this nature are rare even within Egypt itself, they said, and the signs are executed to a high quality, as good as those on royal cosmetic palettes and other monuments dating to the origins of Egyptian kingship.
This year's excavations also provided new insights into contacts between the early town and the distant north, when large quantities of "Khirbet Kerak Ware" (a distinctive kind of red/black burnished pottery first found at Tel Bet Yerah) were found in association with portable ceramic hearths, some of them bearing decorations in the form of human features.
"The hearths are very similar to objects found in Anatolia and the southern Caucasus," noted Greenberg, "and most were found in open spaces where there was other evidence for fire-related activities.
"The people using this pottery appear to have been migrants or descendants of migrants, and its distribution on the site, as well as the study of other cultural aspects, such as what they ate and the way they organized their households, could tell us about their interaction with local people and their adaptation to new surroundings."
A special focus of this year's excavations was the large fortified structure that has been identified by experts in early Islamic history as the Umayyad palace of al-Sinnabra. Its colorful mosaic floors, discovered decades ago but long concealed from view, were revealed and properly recorded for the first time.
Deep and massive foundations showed that the structure had been in use for at least two major periods and that it must have been an impressive monument before it was razed and its stones carted away for reuse elsewhere.
Some of these foundation walls showed severe cracking, perhaps related to the massive earthquake of 749 CE that destroyed many sites along the Jordan Valley.
The tel was once described by influential American biblical archeologist William F. Albright as "perhaps the most remarkable Bronze Age site in all Palestine." It presents the most complete sequence of the transition from village to city life in ancient Canaan.
Built on a raised peninsula near an important crossroads and a fertile valley, Tel Bet Yerah became a major regional center, and its fortification systems, city gate, streets and houses reveal elements of advanced urban planning.
Modern archeological research on the mound began in the early 1920s, when E.L. Sukenik (father of the late archeologist and politician Prof. Yigael Yadin) examined finds from the section of the old Samak (Tzemah)-Tiberias road that traversed the mound along its entire length.
At about the same time, Albright conducted his own investigation of the site; he was the first to identify and define the pottery known as Khirbet Kerak Ware.
The first archeological excavation was conducted in 1933, when the modern Tzemah -Tiberias highway was constructed. Over the next 70 years, about 20 excavation licenses were issued for Tel Bet Yerah and some 15,000 square meters were excavated, most of them in Early Bronze Age strata.
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