Digging up old digs

A recently discovered cemetery gives archeologists a picture of an ancient Bayit Vagan community.

archeology site 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
archeology site 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Near one of modern Jerusalem's most exclusive residential projects and largest shopping mall, an archeological dig is shedding light on the living, shopping and eating habits of the residents of a Bronze Age city. A newly discovered ancient burial site in Bayit Vagan has proved to be an invaluable find. Atop the hill where the Holyland Park Project is being expanded, the cemetery is believed to have belonged to the Canaanite settlement situated where the Malha mall now stands. Research archeologist Dr. Ianir Milevski, who has overseen the excavations since the outset, believes the cemetery dates back to the Middle Bronze Age IIB period, around 1750-1550 BCE. "The site appears to have been a burial ground in the Early Bronze Age IV (2200-2000 BCE) but was then reused by the locals 300 years later," he says. The graves consist of a shaft bored two meters down into the rock leading to an oval chamber dug underground which housed the bodies. Since the site was last used as a cemetery, there is evidence that the area was then quarried, probably by workers during the Roman period. "The methods of quarrying are consistent with those used in Roman times," comments Milevski, who says that the Nari (hard limestone) level of the bedrock could have been transported further down the Refaim valley to build a villa that stood around Ein Yael or to other nearby settlements from this period. The discovery of around 40 graves on the site during a dig that began in June and ended last week "came as a surprise," according to Milevski. "When work first began on the Holyland towers some graves were uncovered, but until work began on the latest building we had no idea how large the site was." He predicts that they could discover as many as 100 graves by the time the whole area has been excavated. The now-defunct Ministry of Religious Affairs established early on that there were no Jewish bodies buried on the site, which meant that building work did not have to be halted. All of the human remains found were handed over to the ministry to be reinterred. Those buried there are believed to be Canaanites - a generic term given to those living in the Holy Land at the time, whose religious background is known from several historic sources. "What we do know is that the burial ground belonged to the village down the hill [where Malha mall is located], and that there are the ruins of several similar settlements throughout this area," says Milevski. He adds that there was evidence of the same kind of villages at the Biblical Zoo, in Emek Refaim, the neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev and near Lifta, on the other side of Jerusalem. In the Middle Bronze Age period, unlike countries such as Egypt where the whole country was ruled by one central government, the Holy Land was divided into city-states. Jerusalem was the political fulcrum of one such state, with its own water system and fortified city walls. The settlements dotted around the city relied on agriculture and animal husbandry to survive, though evidence suggests that those buried at the Bayit Vagan site were not living on the breadline. "We found intricate bone inlays as well as beads and other jewelry, which suggests that the residents owned more than just rude implements," explains Milevski. He also pointed out that much of the pottery and weapons found contained materials that must have been acquired by trade, rather than locally made. "The carnelian and amethyst used to make many of the beads are not from the region," says Milevski. "Neither is the copper which is present in many of the weapons and tools - the nearest source of copper was in South Jordan. We also found evidence of asphalt, which most likely came from the Dead Sea area." There is also evidence to suggest that, while most of the pottery was made locally, the inhabitants also had special sets of Tel Yehudieh ware, which could have been made in Afula. These finer utensils would have been used for special occasions or religious ceremonies. According to Milevski, the tin component of some of the tools must have come from abroad - from Turkey or another Mediterranean country. A process called petrography was used to analyze the shards of pottery to establish the exact materials present. This was then compared with the region's geology to help get an idea of whom the villagers were trading with. Due to the reburial of the remains found on the site, the archeologists were not able to take DNA samples which could have helped them map the genealogy of the previous inhabitants. DNA testing could also have been used to study which diseases were prevalent at the time. However, the additional discovery of animal remains gives the archeologists a better picture of the kind of farming the residents did. "We found the bones of what appear to be sheep, goats and pigs," says Milevski. "We also found evidence that the locals cultivated cereal crops as well." The settlement was definitely a permanent one - the excavations in Malha showed that the people lived in multi-roomed houses and farmed in the area around the buildings. One of the disinterred bodies appeared to have been dressed in full warrior uniform - axe, dagger and metal belt - which suggests that some of the residents may have been fighters while the others spent their time doing more sedate work in the fields. Each settlement would likely have had its own security team, to repel any hostile invaders from outside the village. Milevski is ambivalent about the role of private building contractors in the discovery of the cemetery. "On the one hand it is a good thing that they were working here, so that the burial ground was discovered," he says. "On the other hand, once we have mapped the site and excavated the remains, the builders will destroy what remains." He agrees that without the construction work many unearthed sites would lie undiscovered, because the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) does not conduct archaeological excavations on sites that will not be destroyed by development projects. Licenses are often granted to local or foreign universities, who pay their own costs to excavate new sites, but in the case of builders discovering remains, the cost is split between the contractors and the state. Milevski directed the project, which began in 2000, along with partner Zvi Greenhut and assistant archeologist Nouha Agha who was singled out for praise for her work on the excavations over the past months. "While this discovery hasn't turned up anything startlingly new or unusual," says Milevski, "it is extremely vital in helping us realize how large the settlement was in this area, since we now know there could be around 100 graves here. With the quantity of finds comes the quality of the research we can do, which is why this site is of such importance."