Some 4,500 years ago, Canaanites residents of Gath ate figs, olives, wheat, barley, grapes, and many other species that have been considered symbols of the land of Israel from the time of the Bible to today.
Located in central Israel around 35 kilometers northwest of Hebron, between the Judean Foothills and the southern Coastal Plain, Gath – also known as Tell es-Safi – is prominently featured in the Bible in events taking place several centuries later, including as the city of origin of David’s giant foe, Goliath.
A new macrobotanical investigation has offered unprecedented insights into the daily lives of its residents.
During that period known as the Early Bronze Age, the land went through some major transformations, according to Suembikya Frumin of the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University,
Frumin was the lead author of a paper published in the latest issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, together with Bar-Ilan scholars Aren Maeir, director of excavations at the site, Ehud Weiss, Yoel Melamed, and Haskel J. Greenfield from the University of Manitoba.
“This is the first time that we look at huge settlements, real fortified cities surrounded by thick walls,” she said. “We tried to understand what this form of communal organization looked like.”
In order to do so, the researchers analyzed the plant assemblages found in the relevant levels at the site.
The botanical finds, mostly charred seeds and other plant remains, allowed the researchers to understand not only what kind of food the ancient Canaanites ate, but also how they warmed up their houses, where their fields were located, the seasons of the crops, how work was split between agriculture and herding, and how Gath related to the contemporary commercial routes.
Researchers analyzed more than 3,500 plant finds and identified emmer, lentils, pistachio, wheat, grass peas, figs, olives, flax, barley and grapes, among others.
“For example, we found a lot of weeds in the houses, near where people cooked and eat,” Frumin said. “If I go to the supermarket today, I expect to buy vegetables that are already sorted and clean and are ready to be cooked and eaten. If those residents in Gath had bought the produce, it would have already been clean. The fact that weeds were still mixed with it tells us that they were the farmers themselves. They probably went out in the fields during the day and came back to the city at night.”
Frumin noted that the farmers likely did not want to go too far from the city, in order not to lose contact and the protection it offered to the fields.
Indeed, the large hill where Gath stood appeared to have offered a diversity of habitats.
“The ecology of the crops suggests exploitation of gentle slopes for cereals, the open slopes in the vicinity of water sources as prime locations for fig cultivation, the well-drained soil pockets among rocks for olives and grapevine, while the lowermost alluvial river plain habitats could have been used for flax,” reads the journal article.
Frumin said there was no evidence of irrigation systems, suggesting that rain and a nearby stream provided enough water. “Everything was very simple and ecological.”
As often happened in dry climates, animal dung was used as fuel. “This way, the city was clean, the food was cooked, and the houses were warmed,” she said.
While most of the species found, including wild herbs, grew in the area of Gath, it was the samples of species that were likely brought from further away that offered a different piece of the puzzle.
The presence of these species suggested that Gath entertained contacts with neighboring regions such as the Sharon and Coastal Plains, the Judean Mountains, and the Northern Negev.
“The land was very densely populated back then, and as soon as someone left their areas they would immediately cross into another city-region, so it is interesting to see what kind of relations they had,” Frumin said.