7.1  Introduction

The Chalcolithic is defined by a rather fragmented set of sites and distinctive artefact assemblages which have yet to be nailed down with any great confidence, due to the very few sites that have been found with long sequences.  It was first recognized at Teleilat Ghassul in southern Jordan in the 1920s, and the associated cultural assemblage became known as the Ghassulian.  Now the period is usually referred to as the Chalcolithic, and the Ghassulian is recognized as one distinct form of the Chalcolithic.

Defining characteristics of the Chalcolithic include the introduction of copper, and some changes to the material culture visible in the archaeological data, including a much richer artistic and cultic tradition.

The following section is based largely on Rivka Gonen’s summary of the Chalcolithic of Israel (1992) and Jaimie Lovell’s recent analyisis of the site Teleilat Ghassul in southern Jordan (2004), including the conclusions that Lovell draws about the Chalcolithic on the basis of this excavation.  Other works have also been used to a lesser extent, and all are referenced as usual. This summary is confined, at the moment, to the southern Levant.

In Lovell’s view, “It is clear that the Negev formed a focus of Chalcolithic settlement in the region, and may have been further advanced in terms of socio-economic organization” (2004, p.51).  This is certainly confirmed by Gonen’s 1992 discussion of the site distribution in Israel as it was understood at that time.  Although the Chalcolithic was widely distributed throughout the southern Levant, the Beersheba and Besor valleys, an area of 30sq km, produced 63 sites (Gonen 1992, p.42).  This is 31% of all the sites then known in Israel from this period.  In the Negev south of Beersheba there were almost no Chalcolithic sites, although there are a few small and ephemeral sites in the coastal region of the Sinai.  

It was believed for some time that the Chalcolithic was intrusive, originating from outside Palestine.  Albright (1935) saw parallels with Egyptian materials, but this was not generally accepted.  Gonen (1992) describes suggestions from a number of authors that point to northern (Anatolian or south Russian) or eastern (Mesopotamian) origins for the Levantine Chalcolithic.  However, the long sequences of sites like Teilat Ghassul, Beersheva, Shiqmim and Abu Hamid, some of them dating back into the Neolithic, seem to indicate that in fact, the Chalcolithic was an indigenous development.

The demise of the Chalcolithic has also been a matter for some discussion.

7.2 Chronology

The principal sites that pull together the sequence within which the Chalcolithic is thought to unfold are those with good stratigraphic sequences:

  • Teilat Ghassul in southern Jordan
  • Beersheva in the Negev,
  • Shiqmim in the Negev
  • Abu Hamid

There are four phases of Chalcolithic identified, partially secured by carbon 14 dates:

  • Early
  • Middle
  • Late
  • Terminal

However, Lovell warns that “So long as there is so little understanding of typologies and relative chronologies in this region there is very little evidence with which to establish the contemporaneity of all the Chalcolithic settlements” (2004, p.10).  He also warns that many of the sites that have been tentatively identified as Chalcolithic may not be, due to the sparse and indeterminate nature of the evidence at some of the sites. 

Rosen (1997) dates the Chalcolithic from 4500 - 2500 bce.  All dates below are taken from Lovell 2004.

7.2.1 Early Chalcolithic c. 4600 bc

The Early Chalcolithic is considered by Lovell (2004) to be represented at Teleilat Ghassul by Phase G.  He describes here the first signs fo te Chalcolithic but with Wadi Raba influences in the decorated slipware.

The Early Chalcolithic is also represented at Abu Hamid, following on from a Basal layer which corresponds to the later Neolithic.

Analysis of animal ages at death at Teleilat Ghassul indicates that some animals - predominantly cattle - were kept for long periods, probably for the secondary benefits they offered (traction, milk etc) whereas others, which had no secondary value were killed early, for consumption (Lovell 2004, p.16).

7.2.2  Middle Chalcolithic (with Beershevan) c.4300BC

The Beershevan of the Negev is the main phase during the Middle Chalcolithic, but also runs into the Late Chalcolithic, when it is contemporary with the Ghassulian as typified by Teleilat Ghassul IV.   At Teleilat Ghassul, the Middle Chalcolithic is represented by Phases D-F.  Characteristic features include the introduction of  painted ceramics, new ceramic types and churns, together with an increasing number of cornets.

7.2.3  Late Chalcolithic (with Beershevan and Ghassulian) c.4000BC

The Ghassulian beings somewhat later than the Beershevan, but does not emerge from it, and is apparently contemporary with it.

Teleilat Ghassul is the type site for the Ghassulian, but it is important to note that it is only represented at the site by Level IV.  From the evidence at the site, the development into this phase was gradual.  Ceramics with new forms with new (and more regularly used) decoration were produced, some with a so-called streaky-wash, and many were made of new fabric types.  Lovell (2004, p.50) says that a number of features point to a limited amount of contact with sites in the Negev.

The Upper Layer at Abu Hamid also appears to date to the Late Chalcolithic.

7.2.4  Terminal Chalcolithic

The Terminal Chalcolithic is confined to the Negev, and is found at both Shiqmim and Beersheva.


7.3  Settlements

7.3.1  Distribution

The main cultural zones of the Chalcolithic were, according to Lovell (2004, p.50):

  • Beershevan (the Negev)
  • Neve Ur (north Jordan Valley)
  • Ghassulian (south Jordan Valley)
  • Golani (northern Israel/Lebanon and possibly northern Jordan)

Gonen (1992) also points to additional concentrations (1992, p.42):

  • Cave sites along a stretch of coastline between Hadera and Palmahim
  • Cave sites in the Judean Desert
  • A Negev-related occupation in northern Sinai. 

Each of these areas is characterized by different geomorphological and environmental conditions (Rosen 1992). 

The Golan Heights sites are located on a basaltic plateau with heavy, clayey water-retaining soils.  The largest of the sites is Rasm Harbush which has around 50 settlement structures. 

The northern Jordan Valley is a fertile zone, rainier in the north.  The southern Jordan Valley is quite barren, with a few natural springs. The main concentration of sites is in the north of the valley, but a significant number are also to be found in the south.

In the coastal area, burial sites are concentrated in caves along the coastal margin, while settlement sites are found on the coastal plain, towards the foothills. 

In the northern Negev, where the greatest concentration of Chalcolithic sites in Israel are found, highly unpredictable rainfall would have meant that a semi-nomadic lifestyle was most practical.  According to Gonen (1992, p.45) there are three main groupings of site:  the Nahal Besor group, the Nahal Beersheba group and the Beersheba town group.   Gonen suggests that the Chalcolithic was “a golden age of settlement in this region” (1992, p.45).

The Sinai coast sites are alternately hidden and revealed by active dunes, but there three concentrations have been identified, and all are apparently small and ephemeral with short seasonal occupation cycles - they could well be a southern extension of the Nahal Besor group of sites.

The Judean desert contains numerous natural sites, many of which have been surveyed and have produced Chalcolithic remains. 

Plants found at various sites indicate increased humidity in the Chalcolithic period in Israel.  However, although this was probably not a vast change in conditions, it would have been well suited for a pastoral existence.  In terms of geomorphology, most of the sites are restricted to plains and valleys - hilly regions were largely rejected.

7.3.2  Types of Site

Gonen identifies three types of site:  cave sites, temporary sites and permanent sites.

The settlements in cave sites differ between hill and desert caves.  Those in the hills indicate very temporary occupations, and those in the Judean desert seem to have been occupied for a temporary basis, but the number and wealth of the artefactual remains suggest that these sites were used for long periods. 

Temporary settlements are the most common, especially in southern areas, all based on a pastoralist way of life. Most were abandoned and not reoccupied.  An example is En Yahav.  Many sites used small pits for storage and/or hearths.  These were a key feature, appearing both on sits built on soil, and those in rocky terrain where natural depressions were used, but pits could occasionally be carved into the rock.

Permanent sites are characterized by architectural features and long-term occupation, indicated by rich and numerous artefact assemblages.   Examples are found all over Israel, including Teleilat Ghassul in the Jordan Valley, a number of Golan sites like Rasm Harbush, and the Negev sites of Bir Safadi, Bir Matar and Harvat Beter. 

7.3.3  Sites

In the fertile Jordan Valley the main site was Teleilat Ghassul.  Jericho, the biggest site in the area in the PPNB was apparently abandoned during the Chalcolithic, in spite of its very favourable location, and the concentration of settlement sites appear to have been focused on Teleilat Ghassul instead.  It consists of 12 small mounds over several hectares, and consists of at least 9 occupation phases, which may indicate an degree of transhumance, although other indications imply a considerable degree of sedentism.  Houses at the site are all very similar to each other, made of mudbrick on un-worked stone foundations and many were conjoined.  Each consists of one rectangular room accessed from a door in the long wall (a broadhouse), with painted walls, and a walled courtyard containing a number of features including hearths and pits.  Some larger buildings, with highly decorated plaster-coated walls, may have had a communal function. The town itself was never fortified, unlike Jericho which predates it.  Plant remains include olive and date.  Local stones were used in all cases for foundations (in the Middle Jordan structures were made of local rounded stones), but whatever the building material, house plans were always very similar (Gonen 1992).

In the Golan Heights, a basaltic plateau, the biggest site is Rasm Harbush, with around 50 settlement structures represented.  The site was located near a source of natural drainage, and dams were used to make the most of the available water supply.  The site was semi-permanent.  It appears to have been occupied for most of the year, with an economy based on grain and legume cultivation, but was probably not occupied during the wetter months when the clayey soils were saturated and flooding was probably common.  Although sites vary in size from large examples with 30-50 settlements, medium sites nearer fields and small isolated sites, the form of structure within these sites were quite homogenous, and very much the same in terms of layout as those at Teleilat Ghassul, were built of local basalt, and artefacts include cutting tools, storage jars and grinders.  The courtyards sometimes had a bench, and small carved basalt pillars were found.  (Gonen 1992)

The site of En Yahav, next to a river, consists of pits along the river bank which were probably used as hearths and were associated with flint tools and pottery fragments, very similar to those of the Ghassulian.

The coastal plain sites extend from Hadera in the north and Palmahim in the south.  Settlement sites are few and far between on the coastal margin - most of those sites are burials in caves.  They all appear to be highly ephemeral - only at Mezer were there any signs of permanent structures, and this site continued to be occupied into the Early Bronze Age I.

In the Judean Desert all of the numerous natural caves surveyed have produced Chalcolithic remains.  This is somewhat surprising.  Many of them are very difficult to access, and Gonen says that “even if we were to assume that the climate of the period was more humid and the desert less barren than it is today, the topographic difficulties are in themselves sufficient to make habitation in these caves difficult and dangerous (1992, p.45).  This, combined with the fact that the caves were not modified in any way to make them more habitable, suggests that occupation was probably of a short duration, but this conclusion is at variance with the rich cultural remains which are more consistent with a long term settlement.  Gonen suggests that this suggests that “the inhabitants reached the caves in extraordinary circumstances” (1992, p.48). In other words it is possible that people were driven from their settlements, taking as much with them as they could, and found temporary shelter in the cave systems.  The remarkable hoard from the site of Nahal Mishmar may represent an act of concealment during troubled times - it is exceedingly rich and may have come from the shrine at En Gedi, which appears to have been cleared of all artefacts of value at the end of its use.

The Western Negev sites in the Beersheva and Besor valleys are the most densely distributed of the Chalcolithic sites.  They are  concentrated in three main groupings - the Nahal Besor, Nahal Beersheba and Beersheba town sites.  The Beersheva town sites are the best known and are usually referred to as the Beershevan.  Beershevan sites include Bir Matar, Bir Safadi and Horvat Betar.  The sizes of sites varies enormously - some are very small and are clearly seasonal and semi-nomadic in character.  Others are quite considerable in size - for example Gilat at 10 hectares and Shiqmim at 9.5 hectares.  In all cases there is evidence for repeated abandonment, but at least at the larger sites long periods of sedentism is suggested.  The house plans are the familiar broadhouses, but a unique innovation is the inclusion of subterranean tunnels in the northern Negev sites which seem to have served as silos or store rooms.  Similar features are found at the Beershevan sites of  Bir Safadi, Bir Matar and Horvat Beter where subterranean oval chambers are accessed from stepped corridors and, at a later stage, were connected by low corridors.

Further south, the northern Sinai has produced three concentrations of sites which are all small and ephemeral with short, seasonal occupations.  Implements include sickle blades and stone grinding tools, which are more indicative of cultivation than pastoralism.  It is possible that these are part of the Nahal Besor group of the northern Negev, with some parts of the community moving south to cultivate crops and, following harvest, returning north for the rest of the year.  This is entirely in keeping with the recent practices of the Bedouin in this area. 

7.3.4  Conclusion

Permanent open and temporary open and cave sites have been found in the southern Levant at different locations in Israel and Jordan.  Sizes of sites vary, and some of them appear to have been much more permanent than other.  These variations in settlement forms indicate variation in Chalcolithic society, however, cultural uniformity is marked even where economic/subsistence differences account for varying degrees of sedentary and nomadic lifestyles.

7.4  Economy

7.4.1  Components of the Economy

There is not a great deal of information about the economy in the Chalcolithic, due to the lack of widely available botanical and faunal data from this period, so the Chalcolithic as a whole is very difficult to assess as a functioning economy.

Plants cultivated are summarized by Gonen (1992)  The most important cereals were emmer wheat and barley, and to a lesser extent 2-kernel domesticated emmer, einkorn and 2-row barley were found in some locations.  Tools like sickles and grinding stones indicate cultivation or at least plant exploitation.  Some sites, like Bir Safadi, had only few sickles, “raising the possibility that the inhabitants did not grow their own basic foods but obtained them elsewhere” (Gonen 1992, p.61).  Legumes, most importantly lentils and vetch, were also cultivated.  Gonen (1992) suggests that the domestication of a number of fruit tress, including olive, pomegranate and date palm, date to this time. Wild fruits include desert broom acorns and pistachio.  Flax was grown, and was probably used for making items of linen.

Faunal remains indicate that sheep and goat were dominant, representing around 90% of bones in the northern Negev and around 50% of animal remains at all other sites (Gonen 1992, p.61).  Pig and cattle make up the rest of the domesticated species.  Gonen points out that “various cult remains, particularly horned figurines and objects and figures that carry churns and cornets, indicate the special importance attached to the raising of flocks” (Gonen 1992, p.61).  Pig may well indicate a sedentary lifestyle because they do not migrate and do not graze on pasture land - they require different maintenance conditions to any other breed of domesticated animal.  Less common animals were camel, horse and donkey, apparently used for transportation. 

Lovell suggests that at Teleilat Ghassul “there is a marked change between the Late Neolithic and the Early Chalcolithic in terms of the faunal remains” (p.16).  Cattle dominate, with sheep and goat never representing more than 40% of the faunal assemblage and sometimes falling to 20%, with only some pig.

Gilead (1988) has concluded that the Chalcolithic economy was based mainly upon sedentary mixed farming (Gilead 1988, p.429-31), an opinion supported by Lovell (2004, p.14) who considers that the artefactual assemblages of the Chalcolithic sites indicate increasing sedentism. Lovell (2004) concludes that “there is certainly evidence for herd management, although it is stronger at some sites than at others” (p.16). 

7.4.2  Temporary or Permanent Settlements

Gonen (1992) suggests that the dispersal of sites, the differentiation between site sizes and the fact that most appear to have been seasonally abandoned even when occupied for most of the year “all point to a preoccupation with pastoralism or seasonal agriculture.  It seems that a large proportion of people of this period were not interested in or capable of sedentism” (1992, p.47).  Betts (1997) has pointed to a sequence of nomadic occupation in the Black Desert region of Jordan.  Lovell (2004) says that Har Harif in the central Negev highlands may be part of the same phenomenon:  “Although these groups are difficult to locate in the archaeological record, there is little doubt that they existed.  Their role, and their level of interaction with settled groups is debated, but in a constantly changing soci-cultural landscape it is difficult to envisage a complete lack of contact between different groups” (2004, p.9).  In the Golan Heights, the  site of Rasm Harbush was located near to natural drainage and artificial techniques like damming were used to control water resources.  Gonen (1992) suggests that it  was probably not occupied during the wettest months when flooding would have been common and the soils would have been saturated due to the high clay content.  Occupants of Rasm Harbush were apparently cultivating grains and legumes, and used cutting tools, numerous storage jars and grinders.

Levy (1981, quoted in Lovell 2004) considers that the number of Chalcolithic sites he identified (75 - but it is worth remembering that these are not all accepted as Chalcolithic by all researchers), and the population size and catchment area that they imply, are too considerable for the resources available locally.  He therefore proposes a specialized transhumant adaptation in the area of Nahal Beersheva area.  He believed that the complex organization needed to balance pastoral activities with the occupation of different resource areas would have led to social stratification.  In 1995, Levy built on some of his views of social stratification, bringing in cult and metallurgy as part of this process (Levy 1995).

Gonen (1992) suggests that the northern Sinai sites, all of which are small and ephemeral and have produced sickle blades and stone grinding tools, which are more indicative of cultivation than pastoralism may represent a part of the Nahal Besor group of the northern Negev.  It is possible that some members of the community traveled south to cultivate crops and, following harvest, to Nahal Besor for the rest of the year.  This is entirely in keeping with the recent practices of the Bedouin in this area. 

Regional variations in the economy and settlement cycles are evident, apparently determined partly by local geomorphology and climatic conditions.  Changes are also apparent over time.  In short, Israel and Jordan appear to have used the same basic geographic, floral and faunal resources in different ways depending on the different circumstances pertaining at any given time.

7.4.3  Economic Developments

There are changes apparent in some aspects of the economy over time, summarized by Lovell (2004) as follows, but the evidence is restricted to so few sites that this summary is absolutely not conclusive - it might, however, form the basis of future research questions. 

    During the Early Chalcolithic, at Teleilat Ghassul the faunal remains suggest that some animals were killed young for meat, whereas others were maintained over a much longer period due to the value of their secondary products (Lovell 2004, p.16).

    During the Middle Chalcolithic at Teleilat Ghassul there was an increased production of cereals, with 6-row barley replacing 2-row, the introduction of small seeded legumes, the possible cultivation of olives, and larger quantities of figs (Lovell 2004, p.16).

    During the Late Chalcolithic at Shiqmim 2-row barley was still cultivated, along with emmer, what (T. parvicoccum), lentils and others - but almost no 6-row barley.

7.5  Industry

There is a strong continuing lithic tradition in the Chalcolithic, and the Chalcolithic industry was still largely based on stone.  However, for the first time, copper appears.  The Chalcolithic is characterized by the processing of diverse raw materials, sometimes from distant locations into items which often displayed expert craftsmanship, indicating the presence of specialists like copper smiths and ivory craftsmen.

7.5.1  Lithics

Flint tools consist of a number of different types.  Axes, adzes and chisels were used for wood working.  Rare picks were found.  Hammers are rounded implements made on modified cores.  Blades include knives and very common sickles which were hafted in wood and bone, some of which with sickle sheen which indicate the reaping of plants.  Scrapers are also common in four forms - round scrapers, end scrapers and side scrapers are known but the most well represented form is the fan scraper based on tabular flint.  Star-shaped tools are round flaked tools worked into a set of points with perforated centres, unique to the Chalcolithic. 

There is one outsized flint tool which was found at Nahal Besor, 76cm long. It was made with an excellent technique and was clearly of value, but its function is not yet known.

There are no arrowheads found, perhaps indicating that hunting was of minor importance.

7.5.2  Stone Items

Stone artefacts which were not flint tools were made mainly of basalt and limestone.  They include axes, hammers, numerous grinding stones (querns, pestles and mortars), and basalt bowls which demonstrated high production skills (some pedestalled), often with incised decoration.  Maceheads are also found, in several shapes 5-6cm tall, all perforated and usually made of limestone.

7.5.3  Ceramics

A vide variety of vessels used in domestic contexts have been found, as well as some that were made for more esoteric purposes.  Most were hand-made but some evidence of tournettes has also been found for more specialized pottery production.

There were a large number of different forms.  Large storage vessels (called pithoi) were flat-based, high-walled and wide-mouthed, made of coiled clay.  More portable sized storage jars are of three types - rounded with upright neck, rounded and neckless, often with spouts (called holemouths), and cream were - a high quality vessel mainly found at Beershevan sites.  Kitchen ware included small flat-based and open-mouthed bowls, shallow and thick-walled pans, short-handled spoons (exclusive to the Ghassulian),  cups and goblets, and saucers saucers. 

More unusual items are churns, which consist of a horizontal barrel, flat at one end and pointed at the other, with a neck in the middle and loop handles at each end.  It is thought that were pastoral artefacts, used for making milk into a less perishable product:  they “resemble the goatskins used by Beduin to churn milk into butter and cheese” (Gonen 1992, p.54).

Another unusual item, which appears in Egypt at Omari and Maadi, is the pedestal bowl - a bowl melded onto a high pedestal.  These were also made of basalt.

Vessels were often decorated with additional clay applied to the surface, incised designs on the surface of the vessel and some rare painted decoration - wavy lines, circles, parallel bands and other shapes.  Some had lug handles which apparently had no practical function.

Although all vessel types are found throughout Israel and Jordan, there are regional variations in the relative proportions of different vessel types (Gonen 1992, p.55).

7.5.4  Bone and ivory

Bone was used to make needles, pins, awls and the handles of other tools.  Elephant ivory and hippopotamus ivory were used to make more specialized and apparently non-secular items.  At Bir Safadi there was an ivory workshop at the settlement.

7.5.5  Copper

Copper was employed for the first time in the southern Levant during the Chalcolithic.  As Gonen says: “the coppersmiths of this period attained, within a relatively short span, extremely impressive results, creating sophisticated artefacts with complex techniques (1992, p.60). 

There were very few domestic items made of copper - awls, picks, axe blades and chisel blades are represented - but most copper tools are reserved for items that appear to be more ritual in character.

Two types of copper were employed - pure copper, which was available at Timna and Wadi Fenan, and arsenical copper which was not available locally and was probably obtained from Anatolia. 

Raw materials were not worked into tools at the mining sites.  Instead, they were taken to settlement sites where they were worked in specialized industrial and manufacturing workshops.  At Bir Matar, near Beersheva copper was smelted in small ceramic crucibles in round ovens.  Casting apparently took place in sand because no stone or clay molds were found. 

Earliest experiments were confined to smelting and molding - probably in sand molds, as stone or other materials do not survive.  Later, annealing was introduced, and in the hoard from Nahal Mishmar, the use of the lost-wax techniques was employed.  This technique could only be used if non-pure copper was employed because it required a viscocity not available with pure copper.  The non-secular items of the Nahal Mishmar hoard were all made using the lost wax technique - the copper was between 4% and 12% arsenic (Gonen 1992, p.60).  The method was lost after the Chalcolithic..

There is very little copper at Teleilat Ghassul, but it is still notable for its presence there.

7.5.6  Mat and Straw

Materials using straw, reed and palm are mainly preserved in the Judean desert caves and were used to make a number of important items including trays, baskets, mats, a single sieve (perhaps the earliest ever found) and cords and ropes.

7.6  Communication, Trade and Exchange

There are some very strong indications, if not of actual trade mechanisms, then at least of communication and some form of exchange.  As Gonen puts it:  “the foreign relations of the Chalcolithic period range far and wide.  Raw materials were acquired from all over the Near East, and objects, techniques and artistic styles of various origins all flowed into the Chalcolithic settlements” (Gonen 1992, p.41).

The site of Abu Hamid appears to have a ceramic tradition that fits in quite well to an overall ceramic sequence, and shows specific signs of links with the Negev, including the presence of significant quantities of copper. 

At Beersheba raw materials were found from numerous locations.  Basalt from the Golan Heights, Red Sea shells and Nile shells, Turquoise from Sinai, copper from Timna and elephant tusks from either Africa or northern Syria were all found at Beersheva (Gonen 1992).

Two of the Chalcolithic sites of the Sinai which, as discussed above, may represent a crop cultivating aspect of the Nahal Besor group of the northern Negev have produced some Egyptian items, perhaps indicating direct or indirect contact between Egyptian and Negev groups at this time.

This type of contact is not shared by all sites.  For example, although Teilelat Ghassul shows “limited contact” with Negev sites (Lovell 2004, p.50), it does seem to have been somewhat cut off from other areas.

7.7 Society

The use of raw materials and finished items which had to be acquired often over very great distances, combined with the increasing size and sedentism of some settlements, implies that some groups were establishing more sophisticated ties with other neighbouring and more distant groups, and were gaining access not only to materials and artefacts but to new skills and ideas.  With new materials, skills and ideas, increasing specialization would have been required, not merely in the manufacture of new products, but in the acquisition of materials and the distribution of manufactured goods.  Increasing management skills and complexity of socio-economic infrastructure would have been required.

Some of this increasing complexity is visible in both domestic and non-secular architecture, in arts and crafts, including wall paintings and beautifully crafted prestige or cult items.

At the same time, it is quite clear that some groups were still lived lives that were somewhat similar to that of the PPNB - mixing cultivation and pastoralism on a seasonal and semi-nomadic basis, often occupying areas which would seem unfavourable to modern agriculturalists, but which were occupied successfully until very recently by the Bedouin.

7.8  Burial and Religion

7.8.1  Burial

The most common form of burial is a two-stage burial.  First the corpse is laid out to decompose (excarnation) and then the bones are gathered and deposited in a grave.  This is not inconsistent with PPNB burials where skulls were buried away from the body.

Another type of secondary burial is the ossuary burial, where bones were interred in ceramic containers in natural or artifiacial caves.  Most were located on the  coastal region that extends from Hadera in the north to Palmahim in the south (Gonen 1992).  A number of burials were made in caves down this strip of land, clustering around the Tel Aviv area but also appearing elsewhere.  Large numbers of burials were found in each cave, contrasting with the scarcity of Chalcolithic burials found elsewhere in Israel and Jordan.  Gonen points out that some writers have suggested that this may indicate that the sites were a central burial ground for inhabitants of the entire region (Gonen 1992, p.44).  The ceramic ossuaries were hand-sculpted, big enough to house the bones of an adult, and were made of fragile coarse clay.  Most were off a simple rectangular form, but others took the form of a house.  They were often decorated with moldings or incisions. (Gonen 1992)

Primary burials during the Chalcolithic are few and far between, and seem to be confined to babies and children, or adults who died in unusual circumstances.  19 children are known from Teleilat Ghassul, buried beneath house floors in contracted positions on their right sides.  At Nahal Miishmar, 21 adults appear to have died in very violent circumstances, and were buried in what appear to have been family groups. (Gonen 1992)

7.8.2  Religion

Because of their form and content a number of sites have been identified as shrines.  Gonen (1992) cites two somewhat different examples - En Gedi and Gilat.

En Gedi is located near a fertile oasis.  No settlement was found nearby.  It is contained within a large walled enclosure, made of mudbrick on stone foundations, which consists of a courtyard, a rectangular chamber in the eastern wall and a long narrow rectangular room in the northern wall.  The courtyard was around 350sq metres, and may have been plastered.  It had long narrow benches and, more interestingly, a round stone structure with a 3m diameter at its centre, a basin with seven smooth stones and a channel to a stone drain that meets the eastern wall of the enclosure.  A rectangular chamber was built into the eastern wall, about which little is known.  A long narrow rectangular room was built into the northern wall.  It contained a semicircular structure within which was a white round calcite  base full of ash with burnt wood, bone, beads, snail shells and a broken figurine.  At each end there were numerous pits containing cornet fragments, pedestal bowls, snail shells and ibex horns.  The En Gedi shrine was apparently emptied of its portable contents when it was abandoned.  It has been suggested that some of the contents are represented in the Nahal Mishmar cache.

Unlike En Gedi, Gilat was in the corner of a large settlement.  Four levels of occupation have been found.  Also unlike El Gedi, a wealth of artefactual remains, both standard and more unusual have been found, made of a variety of materials including flint, basalt, granite and ceramic - and this may suggest that the site was abandoned suddenly. Two anthropomorphic vessels were found - one of a woman with a churn on her head and another of a ram with three cornets on his back, both hollow vessels.  Both were painted with red lines to draw eyes and to decorate the figures.  Gonen interprets them as deities (1992, p.65).

7.9  Art and Craft

During the Chalcolithic items were produced that appear to have a ritual or cult-related purpose, and were either too esoteric or too find to be used as domestic items.  These items may also have marked the beginnings of a prestige-based society, where special items were accumulated for the prestige of a minority.

The most remarkable of the artistic Chalcolithic finds is the Nahal Mishmar hoard, which was discovered in a natural crevice in 1961, near the Dead Sea in the Judaean Desert.  The reed mat in which the objects were wrapped provided a date that suggests that it dates to c.3500 B.C.  442 objects were found, of which 429 were made of copper.  Gonen (1992) suggests that they seem to have been hidden in a hurry and ma represent some of the missing contents of the En Gedi shrine.  Two types of copper were used - arsenical, for the non-secular items, and pure copper for the ordinary items.  Some of the more extraordinary items are as follows.  Ten crowns were found, which had a diameter of between 15 and 19cm were decorated with incised lines and occasionally surmounted by figurines and other three dimensional forms.  Some of them were very beautiful.  118 Scepters were found, measuring between 7cm and 40cm in length.  They were hollow and were probably hafted to a wooden staff or pole.  The stems of these scepters were incised with linear decoration and sometimes knobs and protrusions.  Three have animal heads and are lovely.  One has human features.  Scepters are also known from other sites like Bir Matar.  Wands, long thin scepters were included in the cache, as were three decorated standards.  There were an amazing 261 maceheads, made of various shapes, all centrally perforated for a handle, one of which was decorated with a double ibex.  An ivory box and various other ivory items were included in the hoard. 

At Teilat Ghassul and En Gedi wall paintings were found.  Most were fragmentary, and many had been re-plastered and repainted but some have been  reconstructed.  Representations were of anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and apparently abstract forms.  Some appear to be quite remarkable.  Gonen states that “The wall paintings of Teleilat Ghassul are an exceptional phenomenon in the real of artistic expression  . . . . Neither in earlier periods nor in later ones - until the later Bronze Age - is there evidence for wall painting (1992, p.72).  This unique flowering of artistic expression suggested to some that the occupants of Teleilat Ghassul were not from the Levant but from somewhere were decorative artwork was practiced - lie Mesopotamia.

At Bir Safadi an ivory workshop was found.  Items produced included ivory figurines.  One example is a tall 33cm naked male figure, both hands held over his stomach with holes in his chin, perhaps for the attachment of a beard.  The eyes may have been inlaid with another substance.  Another example is a headless naked female figurine, 12cm tall, with her hands held over her stomach and her pubic area picked out by dotted incisions. The figurine was hollow, and the nipples and navel were represented by holes.  Two ivory sickle-shaped objects were also found at Bir Safadi.  One was complete, measuring 40cm, and the other was broken.  The broken sickle-form was decorated with a flower and hourglass as well as zigzag incisions.

In the Golan Heights some 40 so-called basalt house-idols were found, which had an average height of c.40cm.   Gonen says that “they resemble round pillars with a bowl-shaped top . . . . Schematic human features are carved on them” (1992, p.73).  They were located in or near houses and were perhaps portable altars, although their function is not known.

7.10  Summary

There was clearly some degree of continuity between the culture and economy of the PPNB and the Chalcolithic, particularly in terms of flint and the most basic ceramic forms, but other aspects indicate very new innovations. There have been suggestions that these innovations were introduced by incoming populations rather than indigenous groups:  “A common view is that this local population, which continues from one period to anther, was reinforced by one or more population waves bearing a new culture” (Gonen 1992, p.78).  The main theories were that these could have originated from either the north (Anatolia or southern Russia) or the east (Mesopotamia) - all theories based on the movement of raw materials, artefacts and material culture.  However, continuity from earlier periods demonstrated by sites with long sequences argues against this (Lovell 2004).  Gonen (1992) suggests that increased populations brought new sociocultural practices.  New trade contacts may also have introduced some new ideas and knowledge to contribute to existing social, economic and industrial activities.

Ecologically, many sites are located in areas that are very arid and prone to drought today, and although there are indications that these zones may have been more humid during the Chalcolithic, they still probably suffered unpredictable rainfall and marginal conditions.

A number of innovations were made during the Chalcolithic, in terms of life-style, religion and burial customs.  As Gonen states (1992, p.74) “Chalcolithic people differ from all those who became before or after”.

Most sites were abandoned at the end of the Chalcolithic without signs of struggle, but still with the sense that they had to be abandoned very suddenly:  “The impression is created of a sudden end ot he period as a result of a catastrophe of some sort, either natural or inflicted by man, which forced inhabitants to abandon their settlements and move on” (Gonen 1992, p.79).  There are numerous explanations including the arrival of new groups who forced existing groups out, increasing aridity, raids by Egyptians under King Narmer, and an epidemic.  There is no decisive evidence in favour of any one of them.

I will leave the last word on the Chalcolithic with Lovell, who concludes that “All of this, at time conflicting, evidence is interpreted in differing ways by different archaeologists” (2004, p.18).



Copyright (text and images) Andie Byrnes 2005, unless otherwise stated