Shark was on the menu in Israel more than 6,000 years ago, archaeologists believe, after they uncovered one of the oldest known copper fishhooks in Askhelon. The fishhook was found in an agricultural village from the Chalcolithic period and was likely used during community-wide deep-sea fishing expeditions.
“The shape and size of the hook is typical for [smaller] sharks, also for larger tuna, but on the Israeli coast and the eastern Mediterranean, the tuna is not as common as in the southern Mediterranean,” Dr. Yael Abadi-Reiss, a senior researcher and excavator in the southern district for the Israel Antiquities Authority, told The Times of Israel.
These smaller sharks — likely dusky sharks (Carcharhinus obscurus) and sandbar sharks (Carcharhinus plumbeus) — continue to visit Israel’s shores from November to May, though they are generally clustered near the warm water pouring out of the Hadera Power Station.
The ancient fishhook is 6.5 centimeters long and 4 centimeters wide (2.5 by 1.5 inches) and made from perfectly preserved copper. Copper was a new technology in the Chalcolithic period, and most fishhooks from the era were still made of bone, said Abadi-Reiss. (“Chalcolithic” is a combination of two Greek words: khalkós, which means copper, and “lithic” which means stone.)
Archaeologists made the discovery in 2018 while excavating an area in Ashkelon destined for a new neighborhood called Agamim — “lakes” in Hebrew, because there used to be a seasonal pond on the site during winter, which was also beneficial for ancient agriculture.
The site is located some four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the coast, and was largely an agricultural village where 6,000 years ago people kept livestock, tended orchards, or grew wheat, barley and beans. People lived there for at least 600 years in homes that were clustered around three large stone buildings, which were likely religious buildings, Abadi-Reiss explained. A few hundred meters outside of the village was an area for copper metallurgy, where the fishhook was likely created.
“This means it was a big enough village to support people who aren’t doing agriculture, but are specialists in things like metallurgy,” said Abadi-Reiss. “Copper was the new innovation of the era… it’s the first time ever that people are using metallurgy to create tools.”
Previously, archaeologists were aware of some Byzantine and Roman agricultural structures on the site. Ashkelon was an agricultural hub during the first to seventh century, where many people brought items such as wine and olive oil to export from the Ashkelon port throughout the Mediterranean basin.
But archaeologists were previously unaware of an even older village underneath the site until they investigated prior to the construction of the new neighborhood.
To investigate a site slated for construction, the IAA digs trenches around 3 meters (nine feet) deep, looking for items such as pottery shards or detritus like animal bones. Sometimes, the trenches hit walls of ancient buildings.
After finding enough ancient rubbish to determine that the Agamim site once hosted significant human habitation, archaeologists removed more than two meters of surface dirt and unveiled the village. They only excavated part of the village where the neighborhood will be built.
“Most of the evidence we found was that they had livestock there, they ate bread and olive oil and hummus and lentils,” said Abadi-Reiss. “But we also see that they knew how to fish, not only in shallow waters, but they also knew how to go into deep waters and had the equipment [for larger fish or sharks].”
“Everyday life was really agricultural, but from time to time, I imagine all the young men organized together, maybe talking about it for weeks before hand, to go to the sea,” she added.
Archaeologists do not believe that fishing was a large part of daily life because there are few fishbones in the refuse areas and analysis of ceramic vessels did not reveal any remnants of fish. Catching and eating the shark was probably an infrequent but special occasion.
Abadi-Reiss said the “unique and unusual” fishhook was so well-preserved she couldn’t believe it was authentic until excavators showed her where it was unearthed, and lab tests confirmed that it was made from copper from that era.
The fishhook will be presented at the 48th Archaeological Congress at Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus in Jerusalem on April 3. The annual conference, organized by the Israel Antiquity Authority, the Israel Exploration Society and the Israeli Archaeological Association, is an opportunity for Israeli archaeologists to present findings. The visitors’ center of the IAA, which is now housed on the Givat Ram campus, will be open to the public.
Today, the Chalcolithic village has been covered up and the Agamim neighborhood of Ashkelon is under construction, which Abadi-Reiss said was sad but understandable.
“We have more than 30,000 archaeological sites in Israel, and we can’t save all of them, but we can save the data,” said Abadi-Reiss. “I know people need to live somewhere.”
“In a few years, I hope they’ll have a place in a community center where we can give them artifacts to present, so they will also know what was there before them,” she said.