ArchaeologyIt's the 'Early Bronze Age New York of our region'

‘Israel’s ancient NYC’: 5,000-year-old Canaanite megalopolis may rewrite history

Uncovered in northern Israel, Ein Esur, largest Early Bronze Age settlement ever excavated here, set to ‘change forever what we know about emergence of urbanization in entire area’

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.

Aerial photograph of the Early Bronze Age excavation site near modern Harish. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
Aerial photograph of the Early Bronze Age excavation site near modern Harish. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

HARISH, northern Israel — A massive 5,000-year-old metropolis that housed some 6,000 residents has been uncovered alongside Israel’s newest city, Harish, during new roadworks. The 160-acre (over 650 dunam) city is the largest Early Bronze Age settlement excavated in Israel, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Sunday.

“It is much larger than any known site in the land of Israel — and outside the land of Israel — in the region of Jordan, Lebanon, southern Syria,” said excavation co-director Dr. Yitzhak Paz in an IAA video.

In addition, just ahead of the construction of a new interchange over the En Esur (Ein Asawir) archaeological site, IAA archaeologists also discovered an earlier, 7,000-year-old Chalcolithic settlement under several of the 5,000-year-old structures.

“This is a huge city – a megalopolis in relation to the Early Bronze Age, where thousands of inhabitants, who made their living from agriculture, lived and traded with different regions and even with different cultures and kingdoms in the area… This is the Early Bronze Age New York of our region; a cosmopolitan and planned city,” said excavation directors Itai Elad, Paz and Dr. Dina Shalem in an IAA statement.

Excavation directors (right to left) Itai Elad, Dr. Dina Shalem, and Dr. Yitzhak Paz, walk in a 5,000-year-old alley at the Early Bronze Age excavation site near modern Harish. (Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Salvage excavations have been taking place at the site for the past two and a half years, financed by Netivei Israel – the National Transport Infrastructure Company Ltd. Over 5,000 high school students and volunteers from the area have participated in them.

Due to the importance of the site, Netivei Israel has significantly increased the height of the planned interchange and will preserve the excavations through high-tech documentation and physical conservation.

The digs have revealed an Early Bronze Age (end of the 4th millennium BCE) planned city located near Wadi Ara, near two water springs, in the Haifa district of northern Israel. According to Paz, the land is fertile for agriculture and is close to important, central trade routes.

The ancient settlement contained public and private buildings and areas, streets and alleys and was surrounded by a fortification wall.

“The excavation at this site revealed two main settlements,” explained Shalem in an IAA video. “The earliest one is about 7,000 years old. It’s a very large agricultural settlement. Two thousand years later, another settlement became one of the first cities known in this area of the world.”

The layout of the city, said Elad, the third co-director, indicates it was very thoughtfully planned. During the excavation, the team discovered a very large public building that was unlike any of the others. It was, said Elad, most probably a temple or a shrine, inside which was found an area containing burnt animal bones, presumably for sacrifices. In the temple courtyard is large stone basin for liquids, which the archaeologists assume was also used during religious rituals.

“These findings allow us to look beyond the material into the spiritual life of the large community that lived at the site,” said the archaeologists.

Figurines from the Early Bronze Age excavation site near modern Harish. (Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Among the interesting artifacts revealed at the site was a cylindrical stamp impression of a man holding his hands up in the air, as well as several figurines of people and animals and tools imported from Egypt. Flint tools, millions of pottery sherds and basalt stone vessels were also found.

Seal impression of a man hands lifted next to an animal from the Early Bronze Age excavation site near modern Harish. (Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

“These surprising findings allow us, for the first time, to define the cultural characteristics of the inhabitants of this area in ancient times,” according to the IAA statement.

It is during this era, said the statement, that Canaan’s populations moved from rural to mostly urban environments.

According to the archaeologists, alongside the more sophisticated construction and city planning, there had to have been complex governance in the site as well.

Thousands of youth and volunteers participated in the excavation at the Early Bronze Age excavation site near modern Harish. (Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority)

For the 5,000 Israeli pupils and young adults — Jews and Arabs — who participated in the excavations, their firsthand knowledge and experiences may also change their perspective and their connection to the land of Israel. As history books are rewritten, the students were on the frontlines of early research.

“The study of this site will change forever what we know about the emergence [and] rise of urbanization in the land of Israel and in the whole region,” said Paz. “And it means that what we know now will change what is written today in the traditional books when people read about the archaeology of Israel.”

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