4,000-Year-Old Tombs Found Near Jerusalem Mall

Mati Milstein
for National Geographic News
November 21, 2006
Not far from Jerusalem, Israel's biggest shopping mall, builders accidentally uncovered a 4,000-year-old cemetery last summer. This month the ancient site began yielding jewelry, armaments, and ritual offerings.

The cemetery find suggests that the Canaanites—a Semitic people who inhabited ancient Palestine and Phoenicia beginning about 5,000 years ago—had a much more extensive settlement in the city than previously thought (Jerusalem map and facts).

"Usually you find such sites completely looted, but here many of the tombs were discovered with all the artifacts inside them," said Gideon Avni, the Israel Antiquities Authority's director of excavations and surveys. "This is one of the largest concentrations [of artifacts] from this period."

Fittingly, the site was until recently the home of a sprawling, 1960s model of ancient Jerusalem. The model was moved to the city's Israel Museum in preparation for new construction.

(Related photos gallery: "Ancient Church Found at Israeli Prison" [November 2005].)

Bronze Age Insights

Excavation team leader Yanir Milevsky says the new findings contribute greatly to the archaeological knowledge of the village areas surrounding Bronze Age Canaanite Jerusalem.

"Jerusalem's agricultural settlement area [during the Bronze Age—roughly 4000 B.C. to 1000 B.C.] was much wider than what we thought up until now," Milevsky said.

The 30 to 40 excavated tombs are on the edge of the Bayit Vagan neighborhood, overlooking Jerusalem's Emek Refaim ("valley of the ghosts").

"The cemetery sprawls over more than half an acre [0.2 hectare] and, according to evidence at the site, burials there were carried out primarily during the Bronze Age between 2200 and 2000 B.C. and 1700 and 1600 B.C.," Melinsky and colleague Zvi Greenhut said in a press statement.

The site's "shaft tombs"—tunnels dug into the bedrock leading to burial caves—were common during these periods.

Among the wide variety of artifacts found are copies of Egyptian scarabs used as talismans by the area's residents.

Avni says the scarabs might have arrived in Jerusalem via commercial exchanges or with Canaanite tourists returning from Egypt.

"It's not uncommon here to find all kinds of ornamentation brought from outside the region," he said.

Other objects found at the site include metal weapons, tools, and jewelry as well as fully preserved earthenware vessels.

Burial Rituals

Sheep and goat bones found in the cemetery are believed to have been used in burial rituals.

The animal remains and foodstuffs, likely stored in earthenware containers, are known as "food for the dead" and were meant to serve the deceased after their passing.

"This is another piece in the puzzle," Avni said. "The Emek Refaim area was extensively inhabited during this time.

"We have evidence from the Mount of Olives area of similar tombs, and the city proper—the City of David site—was inhabited. [Bayit Vagan] was part of the peripheral network around Jerusalem."

Archaeologists say the site could be even larger than what has been uncovered so far.

But no final decision has been made on how to handle the site once the excavations ar complete. Artifacts will likely be moved to the Israel Museum, Avni says, and the site itself would probably be reburied.

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