Do some cisterns in the Negev date back to the time of Abraham?

"Why did those ancient populations invest a lot of resources in quarrying and digging water cisterns in a sparse area without natural vegetation?”

Ancient water cistern in the Negev. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ancient water cistern in the Negev.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For many years, researchers have been puzzled by the question of how the Negev desert was home to settlements and communities in ancient times, in spite of its inhospitality and aridity. Now a group of researchers from Ben-Gurion University has, for the first time, devoted attention to the ancient cisterns scattered around the highlands of the desert – its driest region – which might hold the key to understanding some of the secrets of human life in the area several thousand years ago.
As explained in a paper recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, among the findings of the study was that some of the simplest structures might not, as has been assumed, date back only to the Iron Age beginning around 1200 BCE, but to the previous Bronze Age, which covered over two millennia between 3500 and 1200 BCE. According to the prevalent biblical interpretation, the second millennia BCE also marked the time of the life of the Jewish patriarch Abraham, who according to the Bible journeyed through the desert on more than one occasion.
“In ancient times, the combination of a semi-desert or desert climate and the presence of natural water sources encouraged populations to settle in those areas, as we see in the cases of Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Jordan Valley. However, settlement sites in the heart of a region lacking water sources like the Negev, and especially its highlands, is very surprising,” Gabriel Ore, the leading author of the paper, explained to The Jerusalem Post.
“The question is, why develop methods of collecting runoff water in an environment with so few rain events in a year?” he asked. “Why did those ancient populations invest a lot of resources in quarrying and digging water cisterns in a sparse area without natural vegetation?”
The researchers analyzed different types of structures uncovered in the desert: open cisterns dug in soft clay marl and bell-shaped, small-bowl-shaped and roofed cisterns excavated in hard limestone or chalk.
Ore pointed out that no ceramic vessels were uncovered in the surroundings of the facilities, except sometimes, items from a multitude of periods because the cisterns were used by other local groups including the Bedouin much later on.
Although the lack of pottery represented an obstacle in dating the cisterns, the researchers were still able to find a correlation between the type of rock out of which the cisterns were excavated and the type of metals that had to be used to do it.
“The historical metallurgical development moved from soft metals to hard metals – copper, bronze, iron to steel. Soft metals allowed quarrying in softer rocks, like clay and marl; harder materials required harder metals,” the archaeologist said.
The group was able to identify a spatial connection between earlier sites and cisterns hewn in softer rocks, and later sites and cisterns hewn in harder rocks, with the former dating back to the Bronze Age and the latter to the Iron Age.
Ore pointed out that in the case of the open cisterns, the mystery on what motivated their creators goes even deeper.
“Evaporation from open cisterns in the desert climate is very fast. Why did they make the effort of quarrying cisterns if the water in them would last only for a very short period of time?” he wonders.
A hypothesis, Ore suggested, could be that the structures were not built in order to serve a settled population, but rather merchants and convoys traveling on an ancient trade route.
“The Negev Highlands are located exactly on a straight line connecting a very important copper mining area in the Bronze Age – Feinen in the Kingdom of Jordan southeast of the Dead Sea – and the centers of power of Pharaonic Egypt,” he explained to the Post.
“The trade routes for transporting goods in ancient times were critical to allow settlement and support their economy,” Ore said. “It is possible that those ancient inhabitants of the region invested in the design and construction of open cisterns for the needs of the convoys that carried copper and other commodities.”