Jezreel Valley graves cast light on waning Canaanite cities, waxing Israelite monarchy

Beeswax burial ritual at Horvat Tevet site reflects lingering influence during transition from Egyptian rule 3,000 years ago, which also shaped Israelite economics and agriculture

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Ariel view of the Horvat Tevet site, with the excavation areas outlined. (courtesy IAA, photo by Alexander Weigmann)
Ariel view of the Horvat Tevet site, with the excavation areas outlined. (courtesy IAA, photo by Alexander Weigmann)

The latest excavations at Horvat Tevet, an archaeological site just north of Afula in the Jezreel Valley, have revealed new insights into the final moments Canaanite city-states ruled the Jezreel Valley, just before a new territorial polity — the kingdom of Israel — was developed in the region.

Researchers discovered multiple graves dating from the early Iron Age, roughly the 11th to 10th centuries BCE. These graves, which hold the remains of at least 25 individuals, offer new insights into the burial practices of the Caananite agricultural community, including the various uses of beeswax during funeral rites, said Dr. Omer Sergi, a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s Archaeology department.

“The graves that we excavated in Horvat Tevet showed that we are dealing with a community that accumulated minimal wealth. They were farmers, probably cultivating the nearby fields. We also discovered that all the burial customs were very local,” Sergi told The Times of Israel by phone.

Organic residue analysis on more than a dozen different kinds of vessels found in the various graves, placed there as burial offerings or used during funeral rituals, showed “heated beeswax was part of their funeral rites,” Sergi said.

Sergi is one of the authors of “The Early Iron-Age Cemetery at Horvat Tevet: Life and Death in a Rural Community in the Jezreel Valley,” a paper explaining the new finds, which was published in the April edition of The American Journal of Archaeology. Other authors include Jordan Weitzel, a PhD candidate at Berkeley who led the research on the gravesites while an MA student at TAU under the supervision of Sergi, and Dr. Keren Covello-Paran, a senior researcher and archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority.

A jar found among the 3000-year-old graves at Horvat Tevet, in northern Israel. (courtesy Omer Sergi)

“The burning of beeswax would have allowed the release of pleasant aromas during the funeral ceremony, an act that would have created a positive memory of the event and also served as a light source,” the authors state in the paper, while noting that beeswax, also used for preservation, and was a part of Egyptian mummification rituals.

Even though they weren’t able to mummify the dead, the Horvat Tevet villagers could have symbolically used the beeswax “by pouring the beeswax from an open vessel onto the body,” given “the influence of Egyptian rule in the Late Bronze Age, and other Levantine evidence for attempted embalming procedures,” the authors explain.

The oldest evidence of beekeeping in the ancient Middle East was discovered at Tel Rehov, an important Bronze and Iron Age site in the nearby Beit Shean Valley, Sergi noted.

“We have more and more information that beekeeping, and bee products like honey and wax, was a strong component of the economy [in this region] during the Bronze and Iron Ages.”

Along with various bones and vessels with beeswax residue, the graves revealed remnants of linen, likely used to wrap the bodies, and in one case small metal artifacts, including four bronze ankle bangles. Horvat Tevet during this period, according to the scholars, appears to have been a fairly isolated rural community that traded only occasionally with nearby urban settlements.

Dr, Omer Sergi (Sasha Flit/Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology)

The Horvat Tevet graveyard predates a large public building erected at the site in the 9th century BCE, likely a multi-use administrative center or palace constructed when the settlement became a royal estate during the early Israelite monarchy. This building was the subject of a separate paper authored by Sergi and other scholars published earlier this year in the peer-reviewed journal Levant.

By this time, “Horvat Tevet was a place that was responsible for the production of grain, cereals, meat, secondary products like wool, milk and probably olive oil. All of this was produced in Horvat Tevet, collected there, and then shipped to other centers,” Sergi said.

He noted that the economics of the region remained essentially the same during the period of Egyptian rule over the valley (roughly the 14th through 12th centuries BCE) and after the area came under the sway of the early Israelite kingdom (starting in the 9th century BCE), despite the centuries-long gap between “the withdrawal of Egypt and the advent of the Israelite monarchy.”

The Horvat Tevet graves under discussion here date from this interregnum between rulers. From their research in Horvat Tevet and surrounding settlements of the period, and especially at Tel Rehov, which is mentioned in Egyptian records, “we argue that knowledge and ruling practices from Egypt were maintained and transferred to early monarchic Israel” after this centuries-long power vacuum, Sergei said.

Part of the 9th-century administrative building at Horvat Tevet, thought to be associated with monarchic Israel rulership of the area. (courtesy Omer Sergi, photo Rachel Lindeman)

“Early monarchic Israel had a lot in common with the former Egyptian system,” he said, much like the laws of modern Israel were initially based on laws from the British Mandate and Ottoman periods.

“It shows that early monarchic Israel was not only a process that began in the Samaria highlands, but also was involved in the Jezreel Valley.” The archaeologist said this is a “very important” idea that expands what had previously been thought about the development of early Israel.

Bronze angle bracelets discovered in a 3,000-year-old grave at Horvat Tevet, in the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel. (Omer Sergi)

The Horvat Tevet site, the subject of multiple archaeological digs, continued as an agricultural village in the centuries after the Israelite period and was inhabited at least until the advent of medieval Mamluk rule in the 13th century CE.

Despite the layers of history, the recent research on the Iron Age Caananite graves was only undertaken after they were discovered as a byproduct of construction work, and the site has been reburied, a casualty of a new route for Road 65 that loops around Afula.

“It’s already built over, and people already drive on the road above Horvat Tevet,” Sergi lamented.

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