From January to April 2005 a salvage excavation was conducted at a site slated for the construction of a desalinization plant, northeast of Qibbuz Palmahim (Permit No. 4350; map ref. NIG 17287–98/64927–33; OIG 12287–98/14927–33), following the discovery of ancient remains during an antiquities inspection conducted by D. Golan. The excavation, on behalf of the Antiquities Authority and financed by the Via Maris Company, was directed by A. Gorzalczany, with the assistance of R. Hayim and M. Molokondov (area supervision), S. Ya‘aqov-Jam and E. Bachar (administration), A. Hajian and T. Kornfeld (surveying), E. Kamaisky (pottery restoration), M. Shuiskaya-Arnov (drawing), T. Sagiv (photography), O. Marder and H. Khalaily (flint implements) and O. Raviv (treatment of stone finds). R. Gophna, E. van den Brink, Y. Goren, I. Gilad, I. Milevski, P. Fabian, Z. Gal, D. Shalem and E. Braun generously contributed of their considerable knowledge of the Chalcolithic period to the project. Additional assistance was provided by M. Ajami, D. Barkan, S. Golan, U. ‘Ad, P. Valinsky and members of Qibbuz Palmahim.
The excavation revealed c. 50 circular (diam. 1.2–2.5 m), elliptical and rectangular burial structures, built of indigenous stone. A paved surface of small kurkar stones, exposed in most parts of the site, connected the structures, which were arranged in straight lines that indicate planning and were enclosed by a wall, built of two rows of flat, unworked kurkar that could be as wide as 0.6 m in the large structures. The tombs were frequently arranged in pairs and were paved with kurkar slabs that partly survived, in situ. A stone-hewn cell lined with thin kurkar slabs (0.55 × 0.70 m) was positioned between two circular structures. This cell was probably used for interment or for placing funerary offerings between two structures. Built burial cells lined with kurkar and often covered with a fitted kurkar slab were discovered in some of the structures and burials within clay jars of different sizes were exposed in others. The tomb structures were covered with a corbelled vault or dome that survived, in situ, in several of them. The entrances to the tombs faced north, probably in accordance with the original topography of the site. One to four kurkar mazzevot, incorporated in the eastern wall of each tomb, usually inside a niche or cranny, were discovered. Some of the mazzevot were found in situ, and others, not in situ, had fallen on the graves. There was no correlation between the number of interments and the size or number of mazzevot. Initial observations showed that the mazzevot in the circular structures faced the exact east, whereas those in the rectangular structures tended to face the northeast. Several types of mazzevot, known from other sites, such as Shoham and Kissufim, were discerned.
Evidence of cult practice was exposed in several places. Traces of burning next to a mazzevā, on one of the pavements abutting a tomb, were discerned. A vessel discovered, in situ, within a niche in the wall of a tomb had burnt traces, perhaps evidence of its being an offering container that was brought to the tomb.
Kurkar and clay ossuaries were found in some of the structures, some not in situ. One was found broken, lying on its side and another was found empty. Two ossuaries were sometimes in the large structures, while the smaller ones contained a single ossuary.
Some of the ossuaries were covered with a fitted kurkar lid (thickness 6–7 cm) and contained a meager amount of poorly preserved bones, probably owing to environmental conditions.
Most of the ossuaries were oviform, having an elongated chest with rounded corners, slightly arched sides (average dimensions 0.4 × 0.6 m, height 0.3 m) and usually a very thick floor (up to 0.1 m).
Two ossuaries were of a different type, drop shaped and narrower at one of the ends. Two small ossuaries were also found.
Another unique method of burial at Palmahim is referred to as a ‘ladder burial’. It involved a series of rectangular burial cells arranged consecutively, whereby the long side was a wall shared by two to four cells. This arrangement rendered the structure the shape of a flat-lying ladder. These cells were covered with stone slabs and contained a scant amount of osteological finds. Tombs were also dug into the pavement between the structures, a method of interment exposed inside the rectangular burial structures as well.
Tombs of this type are known from other regions, but were never dated with certainty. Those discovered in the Negev were never excavated and the tombs revealed during the excavations in the Barne‘a neighborhood of Ashqelon were devoid of any datable finds (A. Golani, pers. comm.). The present excavation at Palmahim exposed these burials in a clear Chalcolithic context for the first time and it seems that this type of interment was used during the cemetery’s initial phase.
Several of the structures displayed a combination of various forms of burial, e.g., ossuaries, burial cells and burial in jars.
An internal stratigraphy and relative chronology was observed in the group of structures: a building that severed and negated an older building, a burial structure that was built on top of burial cells and cancelled them, another structure built on top of them, but only after a certain hiatus that was apparent by the accumulated alluvial fill. Consequently, the cemetery was used over several generations.
In addition to the twenty ossuaries and the mazzevot, a small assemblage of pottery vessels made of coarse, friable clay was exposed, including jars, jugs and several cornets, which constitute a fossil directeur that dates the cemetery to the Ghassul phase of the Chalcolithic period. The pottery was extremely brittle and in a poor state of preservation, owing to weather conditions and the proximity to the sea. Moreover, a niche hewn in the kurkar, outside the structures, which contained an intact clay jug, was reminiscent of the niche discovered in the mud-brick building in the cemetery at Kissufim. Among the other finds recovered were several flint implements, including blades, bladelets with a fine retouch and blade cores, dating to the Chalcolithic period, as well as a bead and a rectangular kurkar pendant perforated in two places. Similar pendants made of other materials are known from Kissufim and from Gophna’s excavations at Palmahim.
The excavation uncovered a cemetery that can be dated with certainty to the Chalcolithic period (fourth millennium BCE), based on the pottery vessels.
The burial customs of the period were characterized by interments in clay ossuaries. However, limestone ossuaries are known from Qula and Ben Shemen and kurkar ossuaries, although relatively rare, are known from Benē Berak, Giv‘atayim and Kissufim. It seems that the indigenous raw material dictated the construction material of the ossuaries.
The most dominant feature of the Palmahim site is the circular and rectangular burial structures with corbelled stone domes. This burial method was ascribed to the southern and outlying regions of the country. It is known in the southern region (the stone circles at Shiqmim, in Nahal Sekher and at the Mash’abim Junction), as well as in the center and south of the Sinai Peninsula. The central region of the country was, until now, known by burials in hewn caves, accompanied by a great abundance of finds. The excavation in the cave at Peqi‘in have extended the phenomenon to the Upper Galilee. The discovery of Chalcolithic burials in structures with squat domes on the central coastal plain at Palmahim presents an innovation in our understanding of the burial practices of the period. A cemetery of this kind, very close to another cemetery of the period in kurkar-hewn caves raises interesting questions with regard to the identity of the local residents and their preferences in choosing burial sites. Were these different communities? Or perhaps the difference lies in their social class? Is the difference chronological? The boundaries of the cemetery were not defined with certainty and the settlement of the deceased was not found. Based on the model of the Shiqmim site in the Negev, the settlement should be sought in the low region, near Nahal Soreq, perhaps near the Al-Maliha Spring.