June 26, 2020
The face carved in limestone is a vestige of a vanished world. With two dots for eyes and a slight hint of a smile, the 7,000-year-old figurine could be a ritual object, perhaps an amulet, or even a simple doll. The thumb-sized face is one of several dozen figures — mostly of goats and sheep — unearthed during an archaeological exploration lasting almost three years at En Esur in Israel1, about 52 kilometres north of Tel Aviv.
The excavation at En Esur, also known by its Arabic name of Ein Asawir, “is an extraordinary project”, says Dina Shalem, an archaeologist employed by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), who co-directed the dig with IAA archaeologists Yitzhak Paz and Itai Elad. By the Early Bronze Age, 5,000 years ago, Paz says that En Esur was a “mega-city, the largest so far known in the Southern Levant”, a region spanning modern Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan. Excavating En Esur was, he says, “a once-in-a-lifetime experience”.
Built over the remains of an earlier, smaller village (from which the stone face was unearthed), the metropolis spanned an estimated 65 hectares and was home to between 5,000 and 6,000 people; more than 20 times the typical size of villages in that area at the time. Thanks to a year-round flowing spring, the townspeople of En Esur thrived, growing wheat, barley, lentils, grapes and olives, and raising cows, pigs, sheep and goats.
A visit to the site in November 2019 during an excavation showed how enormous the place once was. Stretching into the distance were the remains of house foundations and alleyways. A grand, 600-square-metre temple enclosed two massive stone basins — the larger of which was 3.3 metres long and was filled with burnt animal bones, possibly from sacrifices. “We were really amazed at how densely built the city was,” Shalem says, “the planning, the streets”. A gigantic pile of approximately 5 million pottery shards, excavated from the site, attests to the domestic life of this bustling town. “Pottery, flint, figurines, burials — we can tell that it’s a complex society,” she says.
There’s a lot for the archaeologists and labourers to label and store for shipment. But they were not the only ones working at the site. Engineers were also taking measurements for Netivei Israel, the country’s transport infrastructure company, which funded the archaeological excavation in preparation for the building of a road intersection on part of the site. This vanished world, briefly uncovered, disappeared again from view when it was covered with earth and cement over the winter.
En Esur is a huge site, so most of it is still underground and untouched. But the massive temple and the other excavated parts will remain buried under the road intersection for decades — possibly longer. Critics charge that this important evidence will never be seen again.
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