ArchaeologyThick layer of hi-tech plaster laid on corpses as seal

12,000-year-old Galilee artifacts reset plaster production clock by 2 millennia

Scientific study of plaster used in cemetery near Ein Gev indicates community must have worked together to bury their deceased, shedding new light on ritual and mass production

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

  • Illustrative: Close-up of a 12,000-year-old human burial embedded in the white material found in the Ein Gev cave. (courtesy)
    Illustrative: Close-up of a 12,000-year-old human burial embedded in the white material found in the Ein Gev cave. (courtesy)
  • Ein Gev archeological excavations, 2018 (Leore Grosman)
    Ein Gev archeological excavations, 2018 (Leore Grosman)
  • An excavator at Ein Gev works inside the site's Building 8, 2018. (Laure Dubreuil)
    An excavator at Ein Gev works inside the site's Building 8, 2018. (Laure Dubreuil)

Israel was a start-up nation even 12,000 years ago, according to a recently published study. Plaster remains discovered in a Galilee burial ground near Ein Gev show that locals were able to produce high-quality lime plaster some 2,000 years prior to previous estimates.

According to lead author, Dr. David E. Friesem, from the universities of Cambridge and Haifa, “the findings from the Nahal Ein Gev site indicate a significant breakthrough in technological capabilities and knowledge among the Natufian civilization.”

In the article, the researchers further hypothesize that the plaster may have been used in a communal ritualized funerary setting, which sheds light on the members of the Natufian civilization, known for its transition into an agricultural lifestyle, as well as other cultural evolution, that is buried in the cemetery.

The Natufian burial ground has been excavated near Nahal Ein Gev since 2010. An international team of archaeologists discovered eight skeletons inside the cemetery, which were found covered with an unusual white substance.

These skeletons were buried under a unique 40-cm thick layer of “a white dense material.” The material was initially presumed to be plaster, according to the article, “Lime plaster cover of the dead 12,000 years ago – new evidence for the origins of lime plaster technology” in the Cambridge University Press’s Evolutionary Human Sciences journal.

Ein Gev archaeological excavations, 2018. (Leore Grosman)

According to the article, the study’s first aim was to confirm whether this material was indeed lime plaster, then to break it down into its elements to be able to reconstruct its production using materials and technology available 12,000 years ago.

To understand the elements of the white material on a microscopic and chemical scale, the scientists used infrared spectroscopy and micromorphological analysis, according to the study.

“The results of our analysis not only confirm the identification of the white material covering the burials as a pyrogenic lime plaster, but also provide new evidence for large-scale production of high-quality lime plaster at the end of the Epipalaeolithic, a technology previously associated with the PPNB [Pre-Pottery Neolithic B] c. 2000 years later,” write authors Friesem, and Itay Abadi, Dana Shaham, and Leore Grosman from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

According to the authors, “the technology behind lime plaster production necessitates intricate knowledge and skills.” It is a multi-step process, they explained, in which quicklime powder is produced by burning rocks at extremely high temperatures. The powder is then mixed with water to form an easily shaped putty which is formed and left to dry.

“This type of primordial alchemy is an important pillar in the evolutionary development of human technology that led thousands of years later to pottery and metal processing,” said Friesem in a press release.

New use for older technology?

The study states that there are earlier examples of plaster that pre-date the Ein Gev cemetery, but they were largely used as adhesives. The earliest evidence for the use of burnt lime in the Levant was reported from Sinai, where circa 16,000-year-old remnants of the plaster were found on the backs of very small stone tools, apparently in an effort to glue them to a haft.

An excavator at Ein Gev works inside the site’s Building 8, 2018. (Laure Dubreuil)

At the Ein Gev site, the plaster appears to be used as a sort of seal that covered the deceased. One intact female skeleton, for example, was surrounded by hard white sediment. This, and the smoothed plaster discovered under her skull, “suggest that her body was covered with lime plaster at the time of burial,” write the authors.

Elsewhere, other lime plaster layers have been reached and are slowly being removed. Near the surface, two additional skulls and scattered bones have been discerned in the white material.

The cemetery is not yet fully excavated and the amount of the plaster is still unknown. However, the researchers believe that it must have been used to such an extent that the entire community would have been needed in its production.

Ein Gev archaeological excavations, 2018. (Leore Grosman)

“The cemetery is in a monumental structure that was undoubtedly an important place for the people of Late Natufian culture. Subsequent burials were added in pits dug into the plaster layer,” said Ein Gev site director, Grosman.

How was it produced?

After surveying the area, the researchers concluded that the early settlers used a type of easily obtained limestone or chalk rock that is known to produce high-quality lime plaster.

The next step was understanding how the rocks were fired. “The extensive area covered by lime plaster evinces the use of a large quantity of raw material exposed to very high temperatures for at least a few hours,” write the scientists. However, there is as yet no solid archaeological evidence to show the precise way in which this was done.

The scholars hypothesize that the firing was done either by crushing the rocks and then placing them on open fires, or in “pit kilns that have been shown to preserve poorly in the archaeological record.” They further suggest that the mixing of the quicklime with water was done at the time of burial when the powder was still hot. The solution was mixed with other sediment and laid over the corpses.

An excavator at Ein Gev prepares the data of some geological samples, 2018. (Laure Dubreuil)

There are still several holes in the historical technological procedure, write the authors. “In the absence of pottery, the question of how exactly people transferred quicklime – known as an extremely hazardous material causing irritation to the skin, eyes and respiratory system – from the kilns or hearths onto the burial ground, remains an open question.” They offer the possibility that biodegradable containers were used, which did not survive in the archaeological record.

According to Friesem, plaster production goes well beyond practical, everyday need. “We propose that this is an important stage in the relationship between man and his environment because it indicates a change in perception and ability to utilize natural resources and make them a new material for human use,” he said.

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