8,500-year-old skeletons found in ancient well

Skeletal remains of young woman, older man discovered at bottom of a Neolithic well in Jezreel Valley.

8,500-year-old skulls found in well 390 (photo credit: Clara Amit / Israel Antiquities Authority)
8,500-year-old skulls found in well 390
(photo credit: Clara Amit / Israel Antiquities Authority)
In a mortal mystery that beckons age-old tragedies such as Antigone and Haimon or Romeo and Juliet, the 8,500- year-old skeletal remains of a young woman and an older man have been discovered at the bottom of a Neolithic well in the Jezreel Valley.
Excavators discovered the well during an Antiquities Authority dig at Enot Nisanit in the Western Jezreel Valley – ahead of the enlargement of the Yogev Junction at Road 66 by the National Roads Company.
Archeologists estimate that the well was built approximately 8,500 years ago, and the young woman found at its bottom was around 19 years old. The Antiques Authority has not yet determined the exact age of the man, but he is estimated to be about 30 or 40, Yotam Tepper, the excavation director, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Archeologists are left to ponder how the man and woman had ended up at the bottom of the well – musing about such possibilities as a tragic accident or even a vengeful murder.
“What is clear is that after these unknown individuals fell into the well it was no longer used for the simple reason that the well water was contaminated and was no longer potable,” Tepper said.
The well was connected to an ancient farming settlement, built of stones and bedrock, and at one point residents had used it for their subsistence, Tepper explained. Two capstones to narrow the opening had been set on top of the well, which measures about 8 meters deep and 1.3m. in diameter, he said.
Many artifacts found in the well, such as flint sickle blades for harvesting, arrow heads and stone implements, are sure indications that the people who quarried it were among the first farmers in the Jezreel Valley, Tepper said.
Other discoveries in the well shaft, such as animal bones, charcoal and other organic items, will allow future studies about the domestication of plants and animals, as well as help determine the exact age of the well, he explained.
“The well that was exposed in the Jezreel Valley reflects the impressive quarrying ability of the site’s ancient inhabitants and the extensive knowledge they possessed regarding the local hydrology and geology, which enabled them to quarry the limestone bedrock down to the level of the water table,” Tepper said. “No doubt the quarrying of the well was a community effort that lasted a long time.”
Dr. Omri Barzilai, head of the Prehistory Branch of the Antiquities Authority, stressed that wells from the Neolithic period are “unique finds in the archeology of Israel, and probably also in the prehistoric world in general.”
To date, the two oldest wells in the world, outside Israel, were exposed in Cyprus, indicating the onset of the “domestication phenomenon,” according to Barzilai.
“It seems that ancient man tried to devise ways of protecting his drinking water from potential contamination by the animals he raised, and therefore he enclosed the water in places that were not accessible to them,” he said.
Excavators at the Atlit Yam site in Israel previously exposed a well 1,000 years older than those in Cyprus, he explained, “The exposure of these wells makes an important contribution to the study of man’s culture and economy in a period when pottery vessels and metallic objects had still not yet been invented,” Barzilai said.
Whether the man and women at the well’s bottom were the victims of sparring families, a crime of love, or a simple accident, the well itself will be a valuable tool in examining an ancient civilization.
“We are still studying the bones,” Tepper told the Post.
“I’m not sure we’ll be able to give a good answer to that, because this is the question – if it’s an accident or a murder, I don’t know. It’s an open question at the moment,” he said.