7,000-year-old pits found in northern Israel suggest sophisticated ancient irrigation

University of Haifa archeologists say olive pit discovery requires reevaluation of ancient irrigation techniques.

The ancient olive pits found during the excavation in the Tel Beit She’an Valley (photo credit: UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA)
The ancient olive pits found during the excavation in the Tel Beit She’an Valley
(photo credit: UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA)
Seven thousand years ago, in Northern Israel’s Tel Beit She’an Valley, ancient residents ate wheat, barley, buckwheat, lentils and peas.
They also raised herds of goats, sheep, cattle and pigs, which were eaten mainly during festive events.
Now, following recent excavations west of the Jordanian border, archeologists from the University of Haifa announced they have found hundreds of olive pits, requiring a reevaluation of prehistoric irrigation techniques in the area.
On Tuesday, researchers from the university’s Zinman Institute of Archeology, working in conjunction with researchers from universities around the world, said the pits were likely the result of artificial irrigation.
“The existence of an ancient agricultural system that relies on artificial irrigation will require a significant change in how we perceive their agricultural sophistication,” said Haifa University’s Prof. Daniel Rosenberg, who runs the research project with Dr. Florian Klimsh, of the German Archaeological Institute.
According to Rosenberg and Klimsh, the prehistoric communities located on the Jordanian border, near Kibbutz Tirat Zvi, were the basis for the establishment of ancient cities and cultures of the Near East.
Although considered “the cradle of civilization,” the researchers say little remains known about the region.
In their study, the archeologists combined researchers from a variety of disciplines to focus on finding botanical evidence to determine the specific conditions prevailing in the Jordan Valley during that time to understand the economy, diet, agricultural practices and social organization.
While the exploitation of olives during this period is well documented, Rosenberg said the large amount of seeds found during the excavation raises a number of questions requiring a rethinking of ancient irrigation methods, and about ancient trade relations involving olives and olive oil.
Based on botanical and animal bone evidence collected in the area over the past four years, the researchers said they were partially able to reconstruct the diet and economy of the ancient inhabitants of the Jordan Valley.
Indeed, Rosenberg and Klimsh found that “back-up” plant species were grown to accommodate the long maturation cycles occurring during different seasons, based on the possibility of a weak harvest.
“For example, the maturation of wheat and barley is different from that of olives, lentils and peas, which were found in the site, and have different nutritional contributions,” said Rosenberg.
Meanwhile, thousands of animal bones found in the area testify to the care of herds of goats, sheep, pigs, and various cattle, he added.
Ultimately, the archeologists hope their research will contribute to the ongoing preservation of area plants by understanding irrigation techniques used thousands of years ago.
“This provides a rare glimpse into the lifestyles of the ancient inhabitants of the Jordan Valley and the heritage of the region in general, and allows us to not just visit their homes, but also their dishes and pots,” said Rosenberg.