New discovery links ancient Egypt and Jordan valley site

Although Egyptian-Israeli relations have beenfrosty in recent years, ties between the two lands were vibrant around3,000 BCE during the Early Bronze Age - at least according to Tel AvivUniversity and University College London archeologists who discovered arare, four-centimeter-long stone fragment at the point where the JordanRiver exits Lake Kinneret.

Thepiece, 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 thatconnected Egypt to the wider world of the ancient Near East.

The dig, carried out within the Beit Yerah National Park, wascompleted there last week by a joint team headed by TAU's RaphaelGreenberg and David Wengrow from England.

Earlier discoveries, both in Egypt and at Bet Yerah, haveindicated that there was direct interaction between the site - then oneof the largest in the Jordan Valley - and the Egyptian royal court. Thenew discovery suggests that these contacts were of far greater localsignificance than had been suspected.

The archeologists noted that the fragment - whichdepicts an arm and hand grasping a scepter and an early form of theankh sign - was the first artifact of its type ever found in anarchaeological site outside Egypt. It has been attributed to the periodof Egypt's First Dynasty, at around 3000 BCE.

Finds of this nature are rare even within Egypt itself, theysaid, and the signs are executed to a high quality, as good as those onroyal cosmetic palettes and other monuments dating to the origins ofEgyptian kingship.

This year's excavations also provided newinsights into contacts between the early town and the distant north,when large quantities of "Khirbet Kerak Ware" (a distinctive kind ofred/black burnished pottery first found at Tel Bet Yerah) were found inassociation with portable ceramic hearths, some of them bearingdecorations in the form of human features.

"The hearths are very similar to objects found in Anatolia andthe southern Caucasus," noted Greenberg, "and most were found in openspaces where there was other evidence for fire-related activities.

"The people using this pottery appear to have been migrants ordescendants of migrants, and its distribution on the site, as well asthe study of other cultural aspects, such as what they ate and the waythey organized their households, could tell us about their interactionwith local people and their adaptation to new surroundings."

A special focus of this year's excavations was the largefortified structure that has been identified by experts in earlyIslamic history as the Umayyad palace of al-Sinnabra. Its colorfulmosaic 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 beenin use for at least two major periods and that it must have been animpressive monument before it was razed and its stones carted away forreuse elsewhere.

Some of these foundation walls showed severe cracking, perhapsrelated to the massive earthquake of 749 CE that destroyed many sitesalong the Jordan Valley.

The tel was once described by influential American biblicalarcheologist William F. Albright as "perhaps the most remarkable BronzeAge site in all Palestine." It presents the most complete sequence ofthe transition from village to city life in ancient Canaan.

Built on a raised peninsula near an important crossroads and afertile valley, Tel Bet Yerah became a major regional center, and itsfortification systems, city gate, streets and houses reveal elements ofadvanced urban planning.

Modern archeological research on the mound began in the early1920s, when E.L. Sukenik (father of the late archeologist andpolitician Prof. Yigael Yadin) examined finds from the section of theold Samak (Tzemah)-Tiberias road that traversed the mound along itsentire length.

At about the same time, Albright conducted his owninvestigation of the site; he was the first to identify and define thepottery known as Khirbet Kerak Ware.

The first archeological excavation was conducted in 1933, whenthe modern Tzemah -Tiberias highway was constructed. Over the next 70years, about 20 excavation licenses were issued for Tel Bet Yerah andsome 15,000 square meters were excavated, most of them in Early BronzeAge strata.