In January 2018, an excavation was conducted in a small natural cave (F1-003) north of Nahal Mishmar (Permit No. A-8228; map ref. 231450/589157; Fig. 1) that was discovered in the Judean Desert Cave Survey Project. The excavation, undertaken on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, was directed by O. Amichay, H. Hamer (field photography) and E. Klein (drafting), with the assistance of M. Tzagay, A. Cohen, T. Kantor and R. Ram (excavation), A. Fadida (drafting), E. Boaretto (radiocarbon dating), Y. Nagar (physical anthropology), N. Sukenik (organic finds), C. Amit (studio photography) and I. Milevski (scientific consultation).
Nahal Mishmar is one of the main streams in the central Judean Desert. The river cuts through the plateau and the fault escarpment on the desert’s eastern margins, and several caves located along its course were exploited by humans in antiquity. Cave F1-003 is set back about 100 m from the river’s northern cliff on a rock terrace in the upper part of the western bank of one of the river’s upper tributaries. The cave evolved on a bedrock step of Netzer Formation, and it contained a burial that was dated to the Late Pottery Neolithic – Early Chalcolithic periods (late sixth millennium BCE), based on radiocarbon samples of the skeletal remains and the extant accompanying organic finds. The cave was damaged by cave looters who removed some finds.
Previous excavations at adjacent sites have yielded evidence of activity in the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze IB periods, and at the time of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (Bar-Adon 1971:1–14), including the Chalcolithic built compound exposed c. 600 m southwest of the cave, and the Cave of the Treasure located c. 1 km south of the cave.
The cave is a passage that evolved naturally within the light-colored, friable limestone bedrock (0.8–1.0 × 2.8 m, max. height 1 m; Fig. 2) and that was adapted for a burial, although quarrying marks are scarcely visible due to the disintegrated rock. The southeast-facing square entrance of the cave is visible from a distance. A row of three upstanding thick stone slabs outside the entrance and partially blocking it (W105; length 0.75 m; Fig. 3) were the remains of a wall that was damaged by the cave looters, and that was probably originally longer and higher, sealing the cave entrance. The cave floor was overlain by a layer of loose brown soil (L102; Fig. 4). A square-shaped shallow depression (L104; 0.40 × 0.45 m, depth 5–10 cm; Fig. 5) was hewn in the bedrock in the middle of the cave, and well-preserved skeletal bones were scattered above and around it and stone slabs were strewn beside it. Depression 104 probably once contained a secondary burial, not in articulation, that was disturbed by the cave looters who moved aside the stone slabs that either originally covered the burial or possibly came from the wall that sealed the cave. Most of the soil—apart from a relatively thin layer covering the bones and the accumulation in the depression—had been disturbed by the robbers, as was evident from the line on the cave walls marking the original soil level.
The soil in the cave yielded small fragments of two types of cord from a woven mat, textile remains, a carnelian bead, a partially finished bifacial stone tool (possibly an adze), a jujube fruit pit and some not yet identified seeds. A soil pile left by the robbers about one meter east of the entrance (L100; Fig. 6) contained a few stone slabs of various-sizes, similar to those found in the cave. The pile was carefully sifted yielding similar finds to those discovered inside the cave, including several small broken bones, pieces of cord, a woven mat fragment, a few seeds and another carnelian bead.
The Burial. When the cave was discovered, a human skull and four stone slabs were visible on the surface (see Fig. 4) and some vertebrae and a pelvic fragment were strewn beside it. These remains had been disturbed by the cave robbers and roughly covered over with soil. Additional bones lay in a row next to each other on a lower soil layer (L102; Fig. 7); a carnelian bead was also found here. Beneath them, two small bones were found in situ in the upper part of Depression 104, and a woven fragment and a short piece of cord from a mat were found in the middle of the depression. The examination of the bones in the cave revealed that whilst almost all the long limb bones were present, most of the small bones of the hands and feet were conspicuously absent; it was not possible to ascertain whether they were removed during the looting. The bones were identified as belonging to a c. 1.62 m tall adult male, aged over 50.
The matting scraps found in the cave and the soil pile were probably associated with the burial. The woven remains may originally have been used to cover the deceased, and the beads may have come from an accompanying ornament.
The Organic Finds. The textile remains were made of linen, produced from the stems of the linen plant (Linum usitatissimum L.), characterized by a strong, supple fiber that was used in the textile industry from the Neolithic period onward (Schick 1998; Zohary, Hopf and Weiss 2013:105–106). The fibers composing the textiles were produced by splicing, a technique by which two strips are plied together by hand to form a long thread. This was a common technique from the end of the Neolithic until the Middle Bronze Age (Shamir 2015:17; Gleba and Harris 2019). Similar textiles were found in excavations in the Cave of the Treasure in Nahal Mishmar (Bar-Adon 1980:153–172), in the Cave of the Warrior (Schick 1998a:8) and at many other sites in Israel and beyond (Gleba and Harris 2019). The function of the textiles could not be ascertained as only small textile scraps with no indicative features were found.
The small mat fragments were also poorly preserved (Fig. 8). The mat was made of two pieces of cord woven together in a plain (tabby) weave technique. The weft cord (average width 0.4 cm) was made of two strips of Z-plied plant fibers and was inserted into regularly spaced gaps between the warp cords. The warp cord was made of vegetal material, probably plant stems. The warp cords were arranged closely together and separated at the points where the weft cords passed between them; in this technique, only the warp remained visible, while the weft was invisible in the complete mat, apart from along its edge. Most of the mat remains consisted of pieces of divided warp cords and scraps of weft cords.
This weaving technique is not common in the archaeological record and only two other mats using this technique are known, both dating from the end of the Chalcolithic period: the mat from the Cave of the Treasure in Nahal Mishmar in which the copper hoard was wrapped (the Treasure Mat; Bar-Adon 1980:190, 192–193, 195), and the mat from the Cave of the Horror in Nahal Hever (Aharoni 1962:188–189). Notwithstanding the similar technique, our mat differs slightly from the Treasure Mat in that its cords were Z-plied, unlike the S-plied cords of the Treasure Mat. In addition, the Treasure Mat’s warp was made of papyrus (Bar-Adon 1980:192–193), whereas our mat was made of a different plant material. As opposed to other common weaving techniques that were used in both the prehistoric and the classical periods, no known parallels of this technique exist in later periods.
The laying of the deceased on mats is known from Late Chalcolithic-period desert burial contexts, for example in the Cave of the Horror in Nahal Hever (Aharoni 1962:188–189) and the Cave of the Warrior in Nahal Makkuh (Schick 1998b). The mat in this cave burial seems to have had a different function, as the bones were not found lying on the mat and the mat fragments were found in the soil next to and above the deceased. The mat may have been used here to cover the bones; alternatively, items accompanying the deceased may have been placed on the mat.
The radiocarbon analysis of the bones and the matting scraps indicate that the cave probably served as a burial site at the end of the Pottery Neolithic – beginning of the Early Chalcolithic periods, toward the end of the sixth millennium BCE (5280–5070 BCE [calibrated]; Gopher 2012:1531–1547, Table 41.1; Milevski, Lupu and Bischoff 2020:255–257, Table 1). The cave was mostly robbed and some of the bones were disturbed. The skeleton was not in articulation and the arrangement of the long bones in a row in the hewn depression indicates that it was a secondary burial. The remains of a mat, woven fragments and a carnelian bead of an ornamental object were found with the burial, whilst other artifacts, such as pottery or stone, were probably removed by the looters.
The Judean Desert was a peripheral region throughout history and was used as a place of refuge in several periods. There is, however, evidence of more stable settlement in some periods, mainly along the streams and near perennial springs and large pools. This was the first excavation uncovering evidence of human activity in the central Judean Desert in the Late Pottery Neolithic or Early Chalcolithic periods. It is not known whether the cave burial was of secluding individuals or refugees, or whether it was part of an as-yet unknown settlement in the region. The cave burial is contemporary with sites in the northern Judean Desert, for example, the settlement at Jericho, Cave 24 at Qumran (Gopher et al. 2013), ‘Enot Tanur Cave (Davidovich 2008:388–389; Tal et al. 2002) and the Murabba‘at Caves (Davidovich 2008:361–362), and it extends the area of human activity southward as far as Nahal Mishmar in the central Judean Desert. The cave burial may represent one of the first signs of human activity here prior to the Late Chalcolithic period, when dozens of caves and habitation complexes were settled throughout the Judean Desert.
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