The cemetery of Khirbat el-‘Alya, to the north and northeast of Khirbat Deir el-‘Asfur, was hewn in a rock formation which is typical of Ramat Bet Shemesh—a hard layer of nari overlying a softer layer of chalk—and lends itself to the quarrying of different sized burial chambers. The tombs that were discovered in the excavation (Fig. 2) were all of the same type, with a vertical shaft leading to a circular burial chamber. Nonetheless, there were subtypes that were distinct from each another in the number of burial chambers, the shape of the shaft, its depth and the complexity of the funerary complex. Some of the tombs were damaged by mechanical equipment prior to the excavation, and some were destroyed (Fig. 3). The overwhelming majority of the tombs were devoid of finds, and were apparently robbed by the residents of Khirbat Deir el-‘Asfur during the Roman, Byzantine, Early Islamic and Mamluk periods. Roll-stones were discovered in situI, blocking the entrance to some of the burial cells, yet some of these tombs were emptied of their contents. Some 250 shaft tombs were excavated, and the sediment that was removed from the burial chambers was sifted meticulously. The cemetery can be divided into several clusters of tombs that differ from each other in their dimensions, their depth and the amount of effort invested in their construction during the Intermediate Bronze Age.
The Eastern Cluster (Area K)
The eastern cluster, close to the Intermediate Bronze Age settlement, contained c. 100 tombs including the largest and most impressive in the cemetery. Many are characterized by a square shaft, and by burial chambers whose depth and diameter exceed 2 m (Fig. 4). The vast majority of the tombs consisted of a vertical shaft that led to a round burial chamber, usually hewn in the southern, southeastern or southwestern side of the shaft. Several of the shafts did not end in chambers, possibly this was because the rock was too hard to hew, however the juxtaposition of shaft graves and shafts without burial chambers raises the possibility of another explanation, which highlights the socio-economic aspects related to the extravagant use of manpower at this site. Two unusual burial complexes were discovered (Complex 818 in the south and Complex 799 in the north).
Complex 818 comprised two square shafts (eastern shaft: 2.7 × 2.7 m, western shaft: 2.4 × 2.4 m, depth c. 2.5 m; Fig. 5) linked by a rock-cut channel (1.0 × 3.8 m, max. depth c. 2 m), which served as a corridor between the two burial wings. Each shaft led through a narrow opening to a burial chamber that was hewn in its southern wall (width c. 0.5–0.7 m). The roll-stones that had blocked the openings were not found. The shafts contained brown alluvium and numerous Iron Age II pottery sherds, which probably originated in robbed burial caves south of the Intermediate Bronze Age cemetery. The burial chambers, in contrast to the shafts, were very small and the workmanship was careless. The only finds in them were highly fragmented human bones.
Complex 799, at the northern edge of the excavation area comprised shaft tombs connected by a rock-cut channel that apparently began as a natural fissure in the rock, which was widened to form a passage between some of the tombs. The complex, which was oriented in an east–west direction, consisted of four tombs, each with a shaft (diam. 1.15–175 m, depth 0.77–1.00 m) and a burial chamber (diam. 1.75–2.25 m) hewn to its north. Evidently a great deal of effort was invested in the quarrying of both shafts and burial chambers. Intact pottery vessels—jars, amphoriskoi and bowls—were found in situ. A complete copper dagger was also discovered in situ (L530; Fig. 6).
West of the eastern cluster was a rock surface (c. 50 × 100 m) with no tombs, possibly an intentional partition between the two burial clusters.
The Western Cluster (Area L)
Area L, where about 50 shaft tombs similar to the ones in the eastern cluster were hewn in the bedrock, was excavated west of the rock surface mentioned above. The tombs were characterized by a relatively shallow entrance shaft (depth 0.5–1.0 m; Fig. 7), which led to a burial chamber , usually hewn in the southern wall of the shaft. The burial chambers were elliptical or circular (diam. up to 1.5 m). Roll-stones were found in the entrance to some of the burial chambers, but the overwhelming majority of the tombs were robbed and contained little apart from alluvium and pottery sherds from a range of periods, mostly the Intermediate Bronze Age and Iron Age. It was possible to discern a layer of gray sediment that contained human bones and pottery vessels—some intact and in situ—from the Intermediate Bronze Age (Figs. 8, 9). Parts of articulated skeletons were discovered, indicating that the deceased were interred in a fetal position. Analysis of the bones (Y. Nagar) shows most of them to be of adults (aged 15–50), and none of small children or infants. The assemblage of pottery in situ includes very few types—jars, amphoriskoi and bowls.
The Southwestern Cluster (Area N)
Another burial cluster, with c. 80 shaft tombs (Fig 10), was excavated southwest of Area L. Most of the tombs were damaged by heavy earthmoving equipment prior to the excavation, and some of the shafts did not survive. It seems that only moderate, or little effort was invested in hewing the burial complexes in this cluster. The entrance shafts that survived were extremely shallow (max. depth 0.5 m; Fig. 11). Features that are particular to this cluster include rock-hewn steps between the shaft and the burial chamber (Fig. 12), shafts with multiple burial chambers, and interconnected complexes, linked, probably intentionally, by rock-cut openings (Fig. 13). It seems that the majority of the tombs in Area N, like those in the previous areas, were robbed in antiquity. However, some special finds were discovered in this area: fragments of two large flint daggers were found in burial chambers, accompanied by no other finds; a miniature bowl was found inside a jar; and one tomb contained a large quantity of beads and dentilium shells.
Rock-hewn installations consisting of shallow cupmarks that led to deeper depressions were found adjacent to each of the burial complexes. There were no finds that could date the installations, but their proximity to the tombs and their spatial distribution seem to indicate that they were contemporary with the cemetery.
The cemetery at Khirbat el-‘Alya was quarried and used by a rural population that resided in the area of Ramat Bet Shemesh during the Intermediate Bronze Age. Settlement remains from this period were exposed by Y. Dagan in excavations at the foot of Khirbat el-‘Alya and in the vicinity of Tel Zanoah. The cemetery may have served all the settlement of Ramat Bet Shemesh. Although most of the tombs were devoid of artifacts, and the number of skeletons in articulation was minimal, the exposure of the cemetery, one of the largest ever excavated in Israel, is extremely important because the spatial distribution of the tombs and the level of effort invested in their preparation reflect economic and social differentiation.