Neolithic cremains in Israel are Mideast’s oldest funerary pyre, claims scholar
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ArchaeologyYoung corpse was seated and bound before postmortem firing

Neolithic cremains in Israel are Mideast’s oldest funerary pyre, claims scholar

Levant’s first deliberate cremation occurred between 7013-6700 BCE, according to new analysis of remains of young adult discovered in northern Israel’s Beisamoun site in 2013

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Detail of the north-east quarter of the cremation pit during excavation. A fragment of collapsed wall inside the pit is visible (star). (Bocquentin et al, 2020/PLOS ONE, CC BY)
    Detail of the north-east quarter of the cremation pit during excavation. A fragment of collapsed wall inside the pit is visible (star). (Bocquentin et al, 2020/PLOS ONE, CC BY)
  • A section of the Beisamoun site where the pyre pit is visible (© mission Beisamoun)
    A section of the Beisamoun site where the pyre pit is visible (© mission Beisamoun)
  • The individual buried in the pyre-pit was injured by a flint projectile several months before dying. (© mission Beisamoun)
    The individual buried in the pyre-pit was injured by a flint projectile several months before dying. (© mission Beisamoun)

New analysis of 9,000-year-old cremains from a Neolithic site in northern Israel indicate the first intentional cremation in the Middle East. The bone and ash come from the corpse of a young adult who was bound and burned in a small pit shortly after death.

In an article published in the PLOS One online science journal this week, an international team of scholars suggests that the gruesome discovery of the corpse’s remains within small kiln-like funerary pit at northern Israel’s Beisamoun site represents a transition in funerary practices in the Levant and indicates a cultural shift for the ancient people in the region.

“This is a redefinition of the place of the dead in the village and in society,” said lead author Fanny Bocquentin of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in a PLOS press release.

The article, “Emergence of corpse cremation during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Southern Levant: A multidisciplinary study of a pyre-pit burial,” is based on a 2013 discovery of a bound, seated, mostly burnt corpse inside a small pit. Using radiocarbon dating of the relatively intact fibula, the remains were dated to between 7013-6700 BCE.

Picture of bones in situ: A. Segment of axial skeleton: ribs and vertebrae exposed in the middle of the structure. B. Right coxal in situ; preserved almost complete by a piece of collapsed mud wall (see Fig 2D). C. Four right pedal proximal phalanges found directly under the right coxal. (Bocquentin et al, 2020/PLOS ONE, CC BY)

According to the PLOS One article, “The findings from Beisamoun demonstrate that cremation treatment first appeared at the site with the transition from the 8th to the 7th millennia BC… a cultural transitional still poorly understood.”

Also unknown is how the corpse died. The authors write that “the young deceased had been the victim of interpersonal violence, but survived.”

The scientists discovered a 0.5-inch-long (1.2 centimeters) flint projectile point embedded into the left shoulder that possibly tore a muscle and definitely fractured bone. According to the article, the projective “most likely caused a large hematoma and severe pain but not necessarily impaired function. The individual survived the injury, based on the completely healed area of the wound, which may take 6 weeks to a few months to heal.”

The individual buried in the pyre-pit was injured by a flint projectile several months before dying. (© mission Beisamoun)

The scientists further discovered that the corpse would have been freshly dead when fired to circa 500°C (932°F). The crematoria was a small U-shaped, red mud “kiln,” which measured 32 inches in diameter and 24 inches deep (80 cm by 60 cm). For comparison purposes, according to the website Cremation Resource, today, “Cremation of a dead body is carried out at a temperature ranging between 1400 to 1800°F” (760-982°C).

The practice of cremation is anathema to the traditional Orthodox Judaism that guides the the modern State of Israel’s rabbinate, but it is permitted in the country.

A section of the Beisamoun site where the pyre pit is visible (© mission Beisamoun)

The ancient small burial pit held 355 fragments of bones, all largely burnt. According to the article, among the other evidence for “in situ pyrotechnic activities” include the ashy pit fill and burnt mud plaster on the pit wall. That and the associated finds of phytoliths (plant tissues) and fauna remains, write the scholars, “allows us to confirm that it represents a single cremation event of a fully articulated corpse.”

While other burnt human remains have been found from earlier periods in other Levant locations, these cremains represent the oldest intentionally cremated corpse in the region, state the authors. Australia’s “Mungo Lady” is the oldest in the world, dating to circa 40,000-42,000 years ago. According to the National Museum Australia, she was ritually buried in a multi-step process. “First she had been cremated, then her bones were crushed, burned again and buried in the [dry Lake Mungo] lunette.”

7th millennium BCE plastered skull found at Beisamoun in northern Israel. Pre-Pottery Neolithic B. Israel Antiquities Authority Collection.
((c) Israel Museum Jerusalem/ David Harris)

The renewed excavations at Beisamoun, located in Israel’s Hula Valley, began in 2007 as a salvage effort, prior to the widening of the Rosh Pina-Qiryat Shmona highway. Earlier excavations at the site uncovered hundreds of late stone age artifacts, including two eerie plastered skulls discovered side by side under a residence’s entrance in the 1970s. An additional two, badly damaged skulls were discovered in 2016, according to the PLOS One article, in addition to 33 other burials.

According to the Upper Galilee Museum of Prehistory, “The custom of removing the skull and shaping a face made of plaster was a common praxis during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period in the Levant. The plastered and ornate skulls were then buried under the floors of the house as part of a ritual ceremony.”

Renewed excavations found hundreds of stone tools, including denticulated sickle blades, large ‘Amuq-type arrowheads and many axes, according to a preliminary excavation report. Some of the tools “have a polished cutting edge and others were shaped by a technique known as ‘Hula knapping.'”

The report states that the residents survived by hunting wild animals, such as deer, cattle and wild boar, and through agriculture. That corresponds to the cremains’ dating to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic C culture.

According to the PLOS One article, the shift from burial to burning the dead is significant. “Cremation activities demonstrate the custom of an alternative funerary program which might have had a strong impact on funeral procedure, mourning time and even ritual meaning.”

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