Phallic Figurines Found in Israel Stone Age Burials

Mati Milstein in Tel Aviv, Israel
for National Geographic News
September 5, 2008
Prehistoric graves with an unusual abundance of phallic figurines and oddly arranged human remains have been found in Israel, archaeologists announced recently.

Near Nazerat (Nazareth), the Stone Age site, called Kfar HaHoresh, dates to between 8,500 and 6,750 B.C.

The site was uninhabited and probably served surrounding villages as a centralized burial and cult center, said excavation leader Nigel Goring-Morris of Hebrew University's Institute of Archaeology.

Archaeologists have primarily found female symbolic figurines in other nearby burials of this time period.

"At Kfar HaHoresh, all the gender-oriented symbolism seems to be male," Goring-Morris said. "Researchers in the past have put more emphasis on the 'mother goddess' of agriculture."

Among other oddities at the newly excavated site are human bones arranged into shapes and even buried with human remains.

(Read about a Stone Age cemetery found in the Sahara desert.)

Very Unusual Site

At least 65 individuals—mostly young males between the ages of 20 and 30—were found buried in plaster-surfaced structures. The largest measures 33 feet (10 meters) by at least 66 feet (20 meters).

"This is not a regular site," said Avi Gopher, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University. "There are many burials and many of them are very unusual."

"Generally, we did not have central cemeteries during this period. … But there may well be places where the emphasis on burial was greater," added Gopher, who is not involved in the excavation.

The period between 8,500 and 6,750 B.C. was characterized by a transition from hunting and gathering to large, village-based agricultural communities that domesticated crops and livestock.

(Related: "Ancient Fig Find May Push Back Birth of Agriculture" [June 1, 2006].)

Reduced Status

The people of Kfar HaHoresh were also dealing with fundamental societal change, archaeologists say.

One young male was found buried atop the remains of seven wild cattle.

It is likely among the first evidence of burial feasts, excavation leader Goring-Morris believes. Other people were buried with fox jaws.

"You have the first large-scale village communities with the beginnings of all the attendant problems we know today, such as land ownership and transfer of rights from one generation to the next," he said.

"An intensification of ceremonial practices would probably serve to alleviate some of the stresses and tensions within the society."

Also the shift in men's role from hunters to more settled herders and farmers may have reduced their status and self-image, Goring-Morris said. This may have led the prehistoric people to bury young male adults at Kfar HaHoresh with animals as a way of honoring their past lives as hunters.

"When societies are undergoing change, they sometimes prefer to look backwards instead of forwards," he said.

Some of the children buried at Kfar HaHoresh also received at least some of the same funerary treatments as adults, such as being buried with grave goods including pendants and fox jaws.

"As agriculture progressed and developed, symbolism developed in parallel," Tel Aviv University's Gopher added.

Skull on the Mantelpiece

The people at Kfar HaHoresh also manipulated bodies before burial.

Many of the bodies' skulls were removed postmortem, and their facial features were reconstructed with lime plaster.

(See related photos: "Headless Skeletons Reveal Ancient Ritual" [November 2007].)

"We are obviously dealing with preliterate societies," said Goring-Morris, who has received funding in the past from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (National Geographic owns National Geographic News.)

"If you have the skull of your grandfather or grandmother on the mantelpiece at home, this could be your legal document that you were the owner of the house or had certain legal rights, passed from one generation to the next."

The longer bones of a number of bodies were found arranged in shapes, one of which appears to depict an animal.

Researchers also found flint tools, axes, and incised tokens. Other discoveries included seashells and exotic minerals from across the eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea—finds that point to overland and maritime trade during the period.

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