Archaeological excavations of the 3,000 BCE megalopolis En Esur lie on both sides of a major two-lane highway servicing Israel’s coastal north. The 160-acre (over 650 dunam) ancient city once housed up to 6,000 residents and is the largest Early Bronze Age settlement excavated in Israel, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Sunday.
Early Israel Antiquities Authority surveys in the 1950s indicated the existence of the archaeological site, excavation co-director Dr. Yitzhak Paz told The Times of Israel on Sunday. “We knew it was something big, but not the size or magnitude,” said Paz.
Standing on the lip of a 5,000-year-old temple, the largest structure at the site, Paz said the structure was “without a doubt the most important building in the region. There is nothing like this in the area.”
To illustrate the temple’s grandeur, he climbs down into the pit and gestures to 10-foot (three meter) long pavement blocks in the temple’s entryway, to a large ritual basin carved out of a single 10-foot-long block of stone, and a row of column bases that would have supported the ceiling of the temple’s great hall.
The monumental building, possibly two floors, said Paz, becomes all the more impressive upon learning that the closest quarry is half a mile away. That’s a long way to schlep several tons of rock.
During the height of the two and a half years of excavations, the three directors — Dr. Dina Shalem, Itai Elad, and Paz — managed 15 “square leaders” and a staff of 300 excavators. Another 5,000 high schoolers and young adults also volunteered at the site through various schools and programs in coordination with the IAA.
Seeing Paz dwarfed by the temple’s architectural remains at the heart of the large-scale excavation site gives a visceral impression of its immensity. Much of the massive Bronze-era city is built upon the remains of another, almost equally large, 7,000-year-old Chalcolithic settlement that lie beneath, said co-director Shalem.
The walled settlement, monumental public buildings, planned streets all lead IAA archaeologists to conclude En Esur had a complex governance and represents the emergence of urbanization in the region some 5,000 years ago.
So why will the largest Early Bronze Age city in the Levant soon be re-covered?
A hint is in the very inaccessibility of the archaeological site: After easily spotting the dig from the highway, this reporter continued driving another 15 minutes, circling a couple of miles back to the site on small local roads and dirt paths.
This area of the country suffers from a marked lack of modern transportation infrastructure. Especially hard hit is the new northern Israel coastal city of Harish, whose growth is stymied by its isolation.
As the visible remnants of one of the region’s most ancient cities are wiped out, Israel’s newest city and thousands of new homeowners will benefit from the construction of an interchange on the spot. The ancient site, uncovered during salvage excavations funded by Netivei Israel — the National Transport Infrastructure Company Ltd, will soon be re-interred.
However, thanks to new 3-D high-tech documentation techniques, said Shalem, the site will be immortalized for future generations.
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Standing next to a 7,000-year-old monumental-sized wall, Shalem frankly admitted she didn’t yet know its purpose. That is one of the areas the seasoned archaeologist hopes to research in the coming years with the help of 3-D modeling.
The youngest member of the team, Elad, explained how excavations are conducted in clearly identified squares, five meters by five meters. Whenever an artifact is discovered in a square, it is photographed from all angles and given a GIS (geographic information system) data point for computerized mapping of the site. For architectural structures as well, the team takes thousands of aerial drone images.
Elad said the photographs are then uploaded to specialized computer software that generates 3-D images of objects or architecture. Through this modeling, archaeologists are virtually able to “rewind” their excavations and revisit the contexts in which artifacts were discovered. Excavation destroys all stratified layers and the ability to further probe contexts. These models give researchers a second chance.
“When you take a vessel out, you can’t ever go back and review it in its original context,” Elad said. Through careful documentation and modeling, “even years later we can look at how things were when we found them,” said Elad.
Likewise, in partnership with companies that specialize in artistic renderings, the archaeologists will later be able to “recreate” structures and raise virtual walls and ceilings to get a better sense of the buildings’ architecture and function.
But does this virtual modeling really replace a personal visit to the site?
“That is a very complex question,” said Shalem, seemingly undisturbed by the blazing hot October afternoon sun.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime site,” she emphasized. The discovery and excavation of En Esur is one of the highlights of her career and she expects she and the other researchers will publish and lecture about it broadly for years to come. Public tours will be held there on October 15 and 16.
Pragmatically, however, she said that in consultation with IAA experts, the site is scheduled to be re-covered ahead of the roadworks. She emphasized that it would be done in a way that definitely did not impact the temple and that would do the least harm to the rest of the site.
“The country is small and crowded. We have many archaeological sites and also a growing population. We need to find balance,” said Shalem.
The earliest origins of En Esur
The En Esur settlement began near an abundantly flowing natural spring in circa 6,000 BCE and grew organically from there, said Shalem. In addition to her role as excavation co-director, she is responsible for research on the earliest iterations of the site.
Shalem said the IAA archaeologists had a lot of dumb luck in that the route chosen for the new interchange, the approved area of excavation, allowed them to get a true sense of the boundaries and massive size of the settlement.
“Had the interchange been moved, we wouldn’t have known about the 7,000-year-old wall, or the breadth of the settlement,” she said. Thanks to the sheer size of the excavation she is now able to discern its distinct cultural materials and eras.
Under most of the 5,000-year-old city there are remnants of an almost equally large settlement from two thousand years earlier, she said. There are also remains from two much smaller settlements between those periods.
Due to a long professional debate over terminology among archaeologists, one would not call the 7,000-year-old settlement a city, rather a large village. But for all intents and purposes, she said, the earliest settlement also exhibits monumental building, public and private spaces, and a complex society, as illustrated through areas for public ritual, including a multi-tiered mausoleum-like burial chamber. As was typical of the era, other burials were done under the foundations of houses, with infants surrounded by ceramic jars.
After viewing portions of the exposed 7,000-year-old site, Shalem led this reporter to a blessed tarp under which a table held tiny pottery figurines — the largest such collection from any one site, she said. They depict people or animals and were sprinkled throughout the excavated domiciles.
Opening small boxes holding individual figurines, Shalem said they indicate home-based worship and were locally made. She holds in her palm a cute sheep and displays several human torsos, which have unfortunately lost their heads over the millennia. She points out a smooth slingshot stone and an imported large black basalt bowl.
Due to the area’s humidity, no organic remains were preserved and we’ll never really know what these people wore or ate. Shalem said they probably looked a lot like us and were mostly farmers of the fertile black earth in the area, or, according to animal bone finds, herders of pigs, sheep, goats and cattle. There are also indications of specialized trades, such as pottery or flint knapping.
Located next to a central trade route, the ancient settlements will soon be re-covered to make way for that olden route’s asphalt highway descendant. But thanks to high-tech documentation, for the archaeologists the research into our very distant past has only just begun.