During January 2005, a salvage excavation was conducted at the Rantis Cave (Permit No. A-4331; map ref. NIG 200470–510/659240–282; OIG 150470–510/159240–282), in the wake of discovering the site during the construction of the separation fence. The excavation, undertaken on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and financed by the Ministry of Defense, was directed by O. Marder and R. Lupu, with the assistance of S. Ya‘aqov-Jam and E. Bachar (administration), A. Hajian (surveying), G. Bar-Oz, R. Yeshurun and M. Belmaker (archaeozoology), A. Frumkin, (geology), O. Ackermann (geomorphology), H. Ron and N. Porat (radiometric analyses) and L. Zeiger (flint drawing). Further assistance was extended by R. Rabinovich, N. Gubenko, E. Yannai, O. Shmueli and A. Re’em of the IAA central district, as well as students, volunteers and IAA laborers.
Rantis cave is located on the western slope of triangulation point 242, c. 1 km west of the Arab village of Rantis and about 6.5 km northeast of Shoham. The site is c. 200 m above sea level, on the western slopes of the Samaria Mountains. During a visit to the construction area of the separation fence, a large sinkhole, which comprised brown terra rossa soil with numerous animal bones and some flint artifacts, was noticed in the road’s section (Figs. 1, 2).
The ensuing excavation consisted of 12 squares (1×1 m) in a rectangular grid (Fig. 3); six squares on the upper part of the cave from north to south were designated as E and six squares on the section of the cave, parallel to the upper row, were designated as A. The squares were excavated in vertical units (depth 10 cm) and all the material was dry-sieved (2–5 mm mesh). One fifth of the excavated sediments were sifted through a 1mm mesh to recover small flint and bone artifacts.
The aim of the excavation was to clarify the stratigraphic and chronological relations between the flint artifacts and the numerous animal bones, as well as to attempt a reconstruction of the paleoenvironment of the cave.
It appears that more than half of the cave was preserved (length east–west 6 m, width north–south 12 m). Originally, it was a karstic chamber-shaped cave that collapsed in antiquity. It was apparently entered from the top, which had also collapsed in prehistoric times. Subsequently, the cave was filled with accumulated sediments, fragments of roof collapse and pellets of different birds of prey that occupied the cave throughout its long existence.
The upper part of the cave underwent surface erosion. The eroded upper part was originally much higher than the depth measured from the present surface to the bottom (c. 5 m). On the upper level, some traces of the cave’s outline are still visible.
The geological and archaeological reconstruction of the cave’s history is described below from bottom to top.
Phase 1. The cave was complete and its roof was c. 2–5 m higher than at present. Karstic activity led to the formation of speleothems (cave deposits). Layers of clays and concretions of manganese, accompanied by organic material, were deposited at the bottom of the cave (Row A; Fig. 4), pointing to wet and water-logged conditions.
Phase 2. Part of the roof collapsed, forming a heap of rocks in the center of the cave. Some broken speleothems were found within the sediments.
Phase 3. Following the collapse, natural deaths of ungulates together with activity of predators and birds of prey occurred, as well as short-term visits of humans to the cave area. Soil rich in animal bones and some flint artifacts was consequently deposited alongside the rock collapse. Some of the bones and artifacts underwent strong fossilization processes under wet conditions.
Phase 4. Processes from Phase 3 continued in this phase. The main difference between the phases was that the soil in Phase 4 was loose terra rossa with minimal fossilization activity. Faunal remains were therefore better preserved, relatively to Phase 3.
Phase 5. The upper part of the cave was sealed with dark gray rendzina that was washed from the hill slopes during the last millennia.
The Flint Assemblage
The assemblage consists of 39 artifacts, mostly unmodified flakes and chips (Figs. 5; 6:1, 3; 7; 9) made of gray-green, fine-grained high quality flint. Two cobble-sized and oval-shaped nodules were found in the excavation and it seems that a flint outcrop was located nearby, although its exact position is unknown.
The flakes vary in size (length 24–61 mm, width 17–52 mm). The dorsal scar pattern was mostly a simple along axis (Figs. 5:1, 2, 4; 6:1; 7:3), although centripetal ridged and bipolar patterns were observed (Figs. 5:3; 7:1, 2). Striking platform shape was simple (Figs. 5:3, 4; 7:3) or less frequently, faceted (Figs. 5:1, 2; 6:3, 5) cortical (Fig. 6:2) and relatively wide (width 10–30 mm, thickness 3–18 mm; e.g., Figs. 5:1; 7:3). Crushed striking platforms were also recorded (Fig. 6:1). Core trimming elements in the cave (Figs. 5:1; 6:4, 5) included a particularly interesting one, i.e., an oval/rounded, debordant flake that was a rejuvenation flake of Levallois production system (Fig. 5:1). Only one core with a single striking platform was found; the preparation on its back resembled a discoidal core (Fig. 8). A total of seven tools were retrieved, including two notches (Fig. 6:5), two retouched flakes, one combined (retouched/notched) and one transversal burin (Fig. 6:4), as well as flakes with isolated removals (Fig. 6:1). None of them were of a diagnostic type and therefore, it is difficult to attribute this assemblage to a particular industry or period. However, the fact that flakes display faceted platforms with a simple along axis scar pattern (e.g., Figs. 5:1, 2; 6:3) possibly implies that these flint artifacts were produced during the Middle Paleolithic period, occasionally by the Levallois technique. The occurrence of one debordant flake (Fig. 5:1) and a presumably discoidal core (Fig. 8), underlines this observation.
Dating of the Site
As part of the multidisciplinary research of the cave, both paleomagnetism and radiometric methods were used for dating. Two Uranium-Thorium dates of broken, redeposited speleothems below the main cave sediments are 141.2 and 143.2 Ka. Generally, the paleomagnetic samples taken from the cave indicated normal polarity that is younger than 780,000 years BP. The age of c. 140,000 years BP presents a maximum age of the finds (post quem) and it seems that most of the cave deposits, as well as human and animal activities, were later.
Two-hundred and forty large mammal bones and teeth were identified. These included predominantly Mesopotamian fallow deer (Dama mesopotamica, 68% of total identified bone fragments; Figs.10–12) and mountain gazelle (Gazella gazella, 13%). Aurochs (Bos primigenius), goat (Capra sp.) and wild boar (Sus scrofa) are represented in small numbers. No small game species were found, except for two hyrax (Procavia sp.) specimens. Remains of five species of carnivores were identified, each represented by one to three specimens: leopard (Panthera pardus), wolf (Canis lupus), brown bear (Ursus arctos), a single undetermined species of hyena (Hyena/Crocuta) and a small canid, either fox (Vulpes vulpes) or jackal (Canis aureus).
Bone surface modification data, skeletal-element representation data and age structure of fallow deer all indicate low anthropogenic and carnivore impact on the faunal remains. It is suggested that the large mammal remains of the cave were accumulated as a result of natural deaths, either at the site where the cave acted as a pitfall, or in its immediate vicinity. Humans and carnivores were occasionally attracted to the cave, perhaps for the exploitation of the dead ungulates.
Additional data came from the microfauna. Micromammal remains were numerous (Fig. 13). They mainly belonged to the social vole (Microtus gunetheri), followed by the field mouse (Mus macedonicus) and long tailed field mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus).Two other taxa included the Tristram’s Jird (Meriones tristrami) and the shrew (Crocidura spp.)
The Rantis cave represents a long geological, archaeological and paleoecological history. It was probably formed before the Pleistocene and in its last stages animal activity and occasional human visits took place. The same activity continued for tens of thousands of years. Different chamber-shaped caves that probably went through the same processes are present in the vicinity of Rantis cave and some were used as water holes in later periods.
The importance of the cave lies in the ability to reconstruct its paleoenvironment during the late Pleistocene–early Holocene eras. The apparently low interaction between the humans and animals in the cave provided a rare opportunity to reconstruct the natural habitats, using a faunal sample largely unbiased by human predacity. The results show some differences from what is reflected in Middle Paleolithic caves that were fully or partially occupied by humans, e.g., the nearby Shukbah and Emanuel caves. The differences concern mainly carcass processing, mortality patterns and species composition. The scarcity of preserved sites from ancient periods in the area further underlines the significance of the Rantis cave research.