The site of Yiftah’el in the Lower Galilee extends across the eastern terrace of Nahal Yiftah’el, c. 0.5 km south of Ha-Movil Junction. A perennial spring and a small tell (Kh. Khaldiya) whose remains date to the biblical and classical periods are located near the site, which is located at the western edge of the Bet Netofa Valley, between two geological units, the hills of Shefar‘am-Alonim to the west and the Nazareth mountains to the east.
The site was first explored in 1982 when the road from Qibbuz Alonim to Ha-Movil Junction was constructed. To date, four expeditions had excavated at the site.Area D,in the northwest of the site (80 sq m; 1982–1983), was excavated by M. Lamdan and M. Davis of the University of Haifa (IEJ 33, 1983, p. 250). Six habitation levels that dated to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B and included sections of plaster floors, animal bones, seeds and a large assemblage of flint artifacts were exposed. Areas A and B, in the southeast and center of the site (2.4 dunams; 1983), were excavated by E. Braun of the Department of Antiquities (IAA Reports 2). Four layers that dated to the Neolithic period and the Early Bronze Age were exposed. The most significant discovery was a settlement with rounded and elliptical buildings that dated to the beginning of the Early Bronze Age. Area C (180 sq m; 1983), adjacent to Area B, was excavated by Y. Garfinkel on behalf of the Department of Antiquities (The Pre-Pottery Neolithic B Village at Yiftah‘el, 1987). Five habitation levels from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, which included rectangular buildings with plaster floors, knapping pits, tombs, and animal bones, were exposed. Area E (50 sq m; 1997), between Areas B and D, was excavated by O. Marder, H. Khalaily and I. Milevski of the Israel Antiquities Authority (HA-ESI 112:23*–24*). A rectangular structure that dated to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B was uncovered.
The new excavations concentrated in four areas (Fig. 1): Area I in the northwest of the site, near Area D, was opened to assist in understanding the nature of construction and settlement in this area; Areas F and H were opened in the center of the site for the purpose of clarifying the relationship between the Early Bronze Age strata and those of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period next to Area C and exploring the foundations of the Neolithic strata and their scope; and in Area G, in the southeast, a stratigraphic section was excavated across the breadth of the site between Areas A and B.
The area extends across more than half a dunam and two main layers that represented two periods were exposed: Stratum I3 of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period (hereafter PPNB) and Stratum I2 of the Late Pottery Neolithic period (hereafter PNB), the Wadi Rabah culture.
Stratum I3 was exposed throughout the entire excavation area and seven levels that represented settlement phases were discerned. The plaster floors of the buildings in these levels were remarkable. The walls of the buildings did not survive, but they can be inferred from the turned-up edges of the plaster floors that were preserved. Three adjacent buildings with plaster floors, aligned north–south were exposed in the main level (I3d; Fig. 2). The impressive northeastern building (501) is one of the largest structures from the Neolithic period that was exposed to date. The building had a rectangular plan (100 sq m) and was built of stone and mud-brick walls, as well as three layers of fine-quality plaster floors. Most of the floors were smoothed and the middle floor was even partly painted red. The structure was a broad house with two narrow entrances that were located in the western wall. Several deep and round depressions in the floor were probably postholes for wooden columns that supported the roof. The building was systematically excavated according to prehistoric methods and the exposure of its elements enabled to reconstruct a variety of activities that had taken place there. Numerous installations were incorporated in the plaster floor and some were even dug into it, including installations intended for preparing lime and for firing mud bricks that may have been used for building installations, as well as pits for burial under the floors, as was customary during the same period and others were disturbances ascribed to later phases.
Three knapping locations for the preparation of flint tools were revealed in Building 501. The first was a knapping pit that contained cores and typical flint tools—arrowheads and sickle blades. The second was a cache of flint blades, buried beneath the plaster floor in the corner of the building (Fig. 3). The third was a pit that penetrated the plaster floor and contained knapping debitage characteristic of naviform knapping technology. A hoard of axes was discovered on the floor of this building; some axes were miniature and made of green stone that was identified as serpentine—a rare raw material whose closest source occurs in northeastern Syria (Fig. 4). Their discovery could indicate cultural contacts with long-distant contemporary cultures. Noteworthy among the discovered animal bones was the intact horn of a red deer that was lying on the floor of the building, next to a circular installation. Most of the burials were found under plaster floors and some were found with their skulls intact, while others had no skulls, which is a traditional funerary practice in the PPNB. Three plastered skulls—a common phenomenon to PPNB sites—were discovered buried in Pit 402, located in an open area northeast of the building; the pit was dug into the levels of the stratum (Fig. 5). The middle skull was found in a good state of preservation. The face bears a complete plaster mask, to which the facial features of the deceased were applied. A limestone covered with a thin layer of plaster was put in place of the nose. The eyes were elongated and each was reconstructed with three inlaid shells, the middle shell placed vertically. The mouth was closed and the lips were delicately reconstructed. The plaster in the left skull was preserved in the orbits of the eyes. The skull on the right was poorly preserved; however, there are signs indicating it was also treated with plaster in the vicinity of the eyes. The funerary practice involved interring the dead inside the buildings, beneath the plaster floors. After a while, the inhabitants would reopen the burial pit, detached the skull from the skeleton and cover the skeleton with plaster. Then, the skull was plastered in the image of the deceased and kept inside the house. This practice is known in the literature as ancestor worship and the plastered skull is the actual image that is preserved in the consciousness of the descendants.
The middle building (502) was smaller and next to the western wall of Building 501. It was rectangular (c. 25 sq m), although irregular and had a plaster floor. A thick layer of mud bricks, ash and burnt clay, in which the negatives of reeds were discerned, was found on top of the floor. It was evidence of walls built of mud bricks and a ceiling constructed from reeds. The ceiling was also attested to by the round pits in the plaster floor that served as bases for columns that supported it. The most remarkable installation in the building was a circular silo that was partly built of plaster and incorporated in the floor and partly built of clay. The silo contained charred lentil seeds (vicia faba) and a few cleavers’ seeds (gallium triconutum), which is a noxious weed common to sown fields. It is believed that this combination points to the growing of lentils at the site. Collecting tens of thousands of seeds demonstrates planned storage inside a large silo.
An unusual distribution of lentil seeds was discerned in the northern part of the building. Large concentrations of charred broad bean seeds (vicia faba), together with a few seeds of grain that are probably wild wheat (Fig. 6), were discovered inside a layer of mud-brick material in the open area opposite the southern wall of the building.
Perpendicular to Building 502 was another building (550; width 6 m, length in access of 7 m), entered from the north and similar in shape to Building 501. The western part of the building was disturbed by a channel and its original plan could not be reconstructed. This building also had a plaster floor whose ends ascended up from the floor level and ascended to the lower part of the walls. Several postholes that were incorporated in the floor indicated the building’s roof; charred wood was preserved in one of them.
Architectural changes in the building complex were made in later phases (I3c, I3b). A stone wall was built in the northeastern Building 501 (becoming Building 500 in these phases), which delimited it on the east and an interior wall that partitioned the building’s interior into two spaces was added. The small space in the south had a thin plaster floor and the large space in the north had a few preserved sections of a plaster floor. Several installations and pits were incorporated in the plaster floors. Some of the pits were lined with stones and in others were concentrations of ash rich in phosphates, indicating that bones were burnt in them. Some of the installations that were integrated in the floors of Buildings 500 and 501 were intended for storing flint items, which were in various stages of knapping. Naviform cores in various stages of knapping were stored in one installation and another installation contained pounders, cores and typical flint tools, such as arrowheads and sickle blades, indicating flint knappers who specialized in the naviform technology.
Ascribed to these phases were several primary and secondary burials, the most remarkable of which was the interment of three individuals discovered above Building 502. The three articulated skeletons were found in a flexed position and their skulls had not been removed. The skeletons were those of a man, a woman and a boy; the right arm of the woman was below the head of the man and her left arm was hugging the boy; the left arm of the man was placed on the boy (Figs. 7, 8).
The shape and orientation of Building 550 was changed in Phase I3b and it was designated Building 551. In this phase it was aligned east–west and paralleled Building 500. Building 551 was wider than the building in the previous phase (c. 50 sq m); its walls were built of mud bricks and two openings were set in them, in the east and west. The disturbed plaster floors of this phase had installations and pits, including a notable square installation, incorporated in them.
Pits were scattered throughout the entire area of the building and three pits in a row at the northern end of the structure standout in particular. The middle pit contained the remains of an articulated skeleton of a wild bovine (Bos primigenius; Fig. 9). Postholes were incorporated in the plaster floors of all the phases; a charred wooden beam (diam. 15 cm) was preserved in Building 551.
The lithic assemblage from this area is characteristic of the middle phase of the PPNB. An extremely large amount of naviform industrial debitage was found, especially blades, along with sickle blades, arrowheads and axes. Jericho points were prominent among the arrowheads in each of the phases of the stratum and ‘Amuq points stood out in two of the discovered caches.
Stratum I2 of the Pottery Neolithic period (Wadi Rabah) was discerned below the current surface level. It included the meager remains of walls and stone-built installations, which contained fill that yielded flint tools and potsherds that were characteristic of the Wadi Rabah culture (Fig. 10). This stratum, which seems to have been preserved in the northern part of the area, was founded on top of Stratum I3. It appears that Stratum I2 was below the remains of the Early Bronze I layer, but was not preserved, due to modern cultivation activities and especially the infrastructure work of the 1980s.
Most of the remains in this area were from the PPNB in Stratum F4 and from Early Bronze I in Stratum F3 (Fig. 11). Parts of plaster floors, installations and stone and mud-brick walls, whose spatial plan connected with the excavations from the 1980s, were exposed, as well as levels across an extensive area that contained large quantities of burnt stones, flint artifacts and partially burnt bones, which belonged to various animals, namely gazelles, goats, pigs and cows. Some of the levels contained mud-brick material that appeared like light brown tamped sediment. Most of the flint artifacts from Layer F4 dated to the PPNB and were knapped using naviform technology. The amount of flint items and their variety, ranging from cores and core debitage to tools, such as sickle blades and arrowheads, indicates that the inhabitants of Yiftah’el were somewhat intensively engaged in the production of flint artifacts during the PPNB. Axes, knives and other tools were found in the area, as well as a Neolithic artistic find in the image of a wadi pebble decorated with a fishnet motif.
Stratum F4 was over 1.5 m thick and four habitation phases were discerned in it. The lowest phase (F4d), which was located beneath levels of plaster floors, consisted of several circular installations that were built into a layer of clay sediment with a few finds. The installations were lined with plaster and contained ash that indicates they were used for burning. The flint tools in this area were similar to those from Area I; the predominant point in the tool assemblage was the Jericho point.
The main phase (F4c) revealed sections of plaster floors that were scattered in no apparent order across an extensive area. A rectangular building (102; 10 sq m) whose wall foundations were built of one row of stones (preserved height 0.25 m) was partly exposed. The floor in the building was tamped earth, in parts of which plaster was integrated. The building was founded on top of a large plaster floor (70 sq m) that had installations incorporated in it, some of which contained ash and signs of burning. About 1 m of accumulation (F4b), which included gravel layers that were replete with flint artifacts, installations and hearths, separated between Phase F4c and the upper phase (F4a), which was disturbed by pits and installations that dated to the Early Bronze Age; some even penetrated deep into the earliest phases. Sections of plaster floors in this phase were preserved in the western part of the area and were founded on top of dense stones bedding.
Scant remains of the PNB were discovered between the PPNB and Early Bronze I strata. A single wall, which was probably also used in the Early Bronze Age, and a thin habitation level attributed to it, were preserved from this period. Based on the potsherds, the remains should be ascribed to the Lodian culture (Jericho IX).
Stratum F3 consisted of two levels that dated to Early Bronze I. Sections of walls and several agricultural installations, which were probably fieldstone-built silos that were used to store grain, were preserved from Phase F3b. Several refuse pits were also found, among them a large pit that contained numerous potsherds, including medium and large jars and delicate gray-burnished bowls. Remains and sections of walls of elliptical buildings were revealed in the upper phase (F3a). Many of them had previously been excavated; their plans were completed this season and the level below them was excavated.
The large number of recovered pottery vessels was dated to EB IA; in addition, Canaanean sickle blades, carnelian beads and shells from the Mediterranean Sea and Egypt were found, indicating ties with this country.
A deep depression was created in the area by bulldozers in the 1980s, when the roadbed was being prepared. Several probe trenches had been conducted here in the past by the University of Haifa, although their locations were not marked and hence, unknown.
A small probe trench in the center of the area had revealed a thick archaeological level, rich in Neolithic flint artifacts. A light colored surface that appears to have been a section of a plaster floor was exposed at the bottom of the trench. Eight squares, excavated to a depth of 0.7 m were opened. It became apparent at the beginning of the excavation that all the archaeological remains in the area dated to the PPNB period. The remains that postdated this period were probably removed during the infrastructure work of the 1980s. Three habitation phases, ascribed to a single stratum, were identified and excavated
Phase H2c was only preserved in the southern row of squares. Sterile soil appeared in the rest of the squares. The phase consisted of light gray sediment level, mixed with angular stones that were mostly burned. The level contained numerous small hearths, pits that contained angular stones and small circular, plaster-built installations (diam. 0.5 m), which contained coarse plaster remains. Based on the character of the level and its installations, it can be reasonably assumed that this was an industrial area where plaster was prepared.
Phase H2b (thickness 0.4 m) was characterized by a level of friable gray sediment, rich in mud-brick material, animal bones and a high concentration of flint artifacts. The level sloped to the northeast and it was thicker in the east than in the west. Despite the abundant artifacts, it seems that the level was artificial—a result of intentional debris that covered the depression, which was formed by later activity. The debris was founded in the northern part on top of sterile brown terra rossa soil. Sections of walls were preserved in the southern part. These formed square rooms with plaster floors that were founded on top of tamped stone levels, installations and a single grave that was discovered below a floor. The deceased in the grave was placed in a flexed position and the skull had remained in place.
Phase H2a was severely damaged during previous work and none of its remains were left in situ, although the level could be discerned in a section of the probe trench.
The accumulations at the site were studied in a wide trench (length 50 m, width 15 m) that was excavated in the area. Thirty-one squares (Fig. 12) were opened and five strata were exposed; the excavation was completed in most of the squares and virgin soil was reached.
Stratum G5 (PPNB). The identification of the fill ascribed to this layer was usually done on the basis of absent ceramic finds. It should be noted that not a single artifact, which can be ascribed to the PPNC (the Ghazalian culture), was recovered and therefore, earlier proposals that suggested a settlement from this period at the site should be rejected. Three habitation phases were identified.
Phase G5c was only exposed in three squares, in limited probes beneath the floor of Building 200 (below). It became clear that a depression (diam. c. 4 m) was in the area, at whose bottom was a pavement of small stones. An accumulation of light colored soil (thickness c. 0.4 m) was on the floor. The prominent remains in Phase G5b belonged to large buildings whose wall foundations were built of large stones and founded on virgin soil. The floors were a thin layer of crushed chalk, of which only small sections were generally preserved and exposed. The remains were insufficient to learn about the planning and buildings of the settlement. A rectangular structure (Building 200; 8 × 9 m; Fig. 13) in an excellent state of preservation was discovered in the center of the area and the scope of the area was expanded. The walls of the building, probably built of mud bricks, were not preserved. Along part of the perimeter was a stone foundation of the wall and in another part it seems that the mud bricks were set directly on the ground. The sub-base of the building’s floor consisted of small stones (thickness c. 20 cm) that were overlain with small flat stones; the spaces between the latter were filled with lime-based cement that was also used to plaster the floor’s surface.
At the time when the building was still in use, several pits were dug in the floor. Foundations for installing posts that supported the ceiling were discovered at the bottom of four pits (Fig. 14).
A courtyard to the north of the building was mostly not exposed.The main entrance to the building was in the middle of the lateral northern wall, along the longitudinal axis of the building, between four columns. After the building was no longer used, it was covered with a thin layer of dark brown clay soil and a large stone was placed in the center. Over the stone and covering the soil, a large heap of small stones of uniform size was placed and it seems that the stones were carefully selected for this purpose.
To date, such a building is unknown in the architecture of the PPNB. Its large dimensions and the considerable investment in its construction render it unique and indicate that it had a public function. The careful preservation of the building after it was deserted demonstrates that the residents of the site ascribed it symbolic importance and possibly, cultic ceremonies have taken place inside it.
A coarsely hewn, rectangular standing stone (0.3 × 0.6 × 1.4 m; Fig. 15) that was found outside of Building 200 and next to its southwestern corner could be a stela.
The top of the layer in Phase G5a was exposed in most of the area. Numerous clusters and two large pits that contained the debitage of knapping flint tool were found. Only a few architectural remains could be attributed to this phase, among them a thick plaster floor of a small building, as well as three large kilns that were built within circular pits (diam. c. 2.5 m). An examination of the ash recovered from inside the kilns, which was conducted by a team of researchers from the Weizmann Institute, showed that the firing temperature in the kilns reached c. 1,000° Celsius (Fig. 16).
The flint industry in Phases G5b-c was similar to that in the other areas and is characteristic of the middle PPNB. Apart from a considerable amount of debitage, naviform industry, sickle blades, arrowheads and axes were prominent in the assemblage. Byblos points stood out among the characteristic arrowheads in the three phases, evidence that the PPNB accumulations in Area G were probably later than those in Area F, where the Jericho point prevailed. The finds in Phase G5a were different. Particularly in the knapping pits, bipolar cores that are not naviform and the debitage of a bifacial tool industry, which probably belonged to the late phase of the PPNB, were found. Conspicuous among these finds were special ad-hoc tools, including knives that were carefully shaped using bi-facial pressure retouching. These are known elsewhere but this assemblage seems especially large and impressive (Fig. 17).
Stratum G4 (PN) consisted of numerous building remains, among them sections of walls that were preserved throughout the excavation area. The buildings had straight or curved walls, but at this stage it was impossible to identify complete structures (Fig. 18). A complete holemouth jar with two large lug handles and numerous knobs along the rim was found in situ in the corner of one of the buildings.
It was possible to identify in several places three phases, in which buildings replaced the earlier ones. However, this picture does not represent three successive sub-phases, but rather a local sequence of changes.
Building III/B/1, which was exposed in Braun’s excavations and ascribed to Stratum III of the PPNB, was attributed to Stratum G4 of the PN, based on the renewed excavations. The finds from Stratum G4, together with the finds of Stratum III from Braun’s excavation, show a small settlement (2.5 dunams) that was mostly excavated. The buildings were crowded and had small rooms. There is much innovation in the exposure of the settlement and its defining, as well as a significant contribution to the study of the period cultures in the north of the country.
A tomb was also ascribed to Stratum G4; it contained the interment of an adult female who was lying in a flexed position with her face to the northeast. Flat stones were placed on the upper part of her body and in the middle of them, above her head, a flat standing stone was set on its narrow side, parallel to the direction of the body.
The pottery vessels from this stratum point to a clear connection with the Lodian culture (contemporary with Stratum IX at Jericho) and include jars with in-curved rims and a few painted and burnished vessels, decorated with triangular patterns and groups of parallel lines (Fig. 19).
The flint assemblage included numerous residual artifacts from the time of Stratum G5, as well as artifacts that were characteristic of Stratum G4, such as flake cores with several striking surfaces, thin axes with a broad cutting edge, many of which were shaped on flakes, several sickle blades that were modified by bifacial pressure retouching and a few minute arrowheads. The pottery vessels and flint assemblage show a clear affinity to the Lodian culture. Typical components of the Yarmukian culture, such as potsherds decorated with incising, or a combination of incising and painting, as well as deeply denticulated sickle blades, are completely absent from the finds.
Stratum G3 (Early Bronze I) comprised architectural remains that were only uncovered in the western part of the site. Levels with medium-sized stones and meager remains of walls were exposed. Three burial jars that contained the skeletal remains of day-old infants were discovered east of the built-up areas. It is noteworthy that these burials were found outside the area of the Early Bronze Age buildings.
Prominent vessels within the ceramic assemblage were holemouths jars and kraters with a decorated ridge around the rim, as well as jars and other vessels of the gray-burnished ware. Noteworthy among the flint artifacts of the period were a few Canaanean sickle blades.
Most of the settlement area from this period was exposed in the excavations of the 1980s and in the current excavation. Combining the finds from both excavations indicate a settlement (c. 4.5 dunams) that comprised two groups of buildings (Areas A and B of Braun’s excavation) and an open space between them, which consisted mostly of stone pavements, without residential buildings (Area G).
Stratum G2 (Intermediate Bronze Age). A few potsherds were found close to surface and generally clear accumulations could not be ascribed to it. Only a small pit from this period that contained fragments of a cooking pot and a jar was found in one square.
Stratum G1 (surface). Potsherds dating to the Early Roman, Late Roman and Byzantine periods were found. Most of the pottery vessels were from the Late Roman period and prominent among them the Kefar Hananya-typevessels. It seems that these potsherds were brought by farmers who fertilized their fields with refuse from settlements.