During December 2002–March 2003 and May–August 2003, two seasons of salvage excavations were conducted at Horbat Gilan South (Permit No. A-3822; map ref. NIG 20350/710265; OIG 15350/21025; Fig. 1), prior to paving the Trans-Israel Highway.
The excavation, on behalf of the Antiquities Authority, was directed by Y. Dagan, with the assistance of J. Sharvit, A. el-Salam, A. Abu-Hamid (area supervision), S. Ya‘aqov-Jam and Y. Dangor (administration), A. Hajian and A. Iamim (surveying), T. Sagiv (field photography), Y. Nagar and D. Sklar (physical anthropology), M. Kaufman (DNA analyses), U. Salzman (geological consultation), L. Barda (mapping), S. Sadeh (pottery, stone and flint processing), as well as E. Yannai, E. Eisenberg, R. Gophna, Z. Horowitz and I. Adwwa.
A large area of quarries for nari stones (62 × 110 m) , in some of which the negatives of quarried blocks were visible and could be measured (Fig. 2), was revealed.
During the clearing of the quarries, openings to 28 burial caves, hewn into the soft chalk below the hard nari layers, were exposed. The caves were not excavated, although several were dated by potsherds found near their entrances, mostly to EB I–II and some to MB I.
In the second season, 4 more burial caves and 8 burial cysts, were excavated. Each the small burial cysts (0.4 × 0.5 m, depth 0.5 × 0.6 m) contained a single interred individual and 1–3 pottery vessels. The excavation concentrated on the four large caves.
Cave 561 (20.8 sq m). A rectangular courtyard to the east of the cave led, via a narrow opening (0.47 × 0.55 m) to Chamber A (2.3 × 3.0 m) and from there to Chamber B (2 × 3 m). A bench was located along the eastern wall of Room A, while against the western wall was a step or bench of fieldstones, upon which the remains of two–three deceased were found. A circle of stones (diam. c. 1 m) in Room B, which contained two burials (Fig. 3), had been built upon an earlier burial of two–four individuals. A few pottery vessels and a bronze dagger were attributed to this earlier burial.
Cave 562 (59.92 sq m). This cave comprised four burial chambers hewn at different stages and combined into a single room during its final stage. The entrance to the cave faced south and led, via three descending steps, to Chamber A. During the second stage, the cave was expanded to the east and Chamber B was added. This expansion may have damaged an adjoining chamber (C), whose entrance was in the northeastern wall. Another burial chamber (D) was uncovered to the east and was entered through an opening in the southern wall. It is possible that the rooms were combined into a single space as early as EB IB, or perhaps EB II. In the second period of the cave’s use, during MB IIA, an upper shaft accessed Chamber C and from there, Chamber D. Over 800 pottery vessels were retrieved from Cave 562; the majority (2/3) from EB IB and EB II and the rest dating to MB IIA (Figs. 4–6).
Cave 548. This heart-shaped cave (c. 40.46 sq m; Fig. 7) was entered from the south. Steps descended to Chamber B, while Chamber A to its east was apparently hewn at a later stage. Two burial periods were discerned, the first dated to EB IB. After a certain gap when alluvium accumulated in the cave, burial continued in EB II. This second layer of burials was also covered with a thick alluvium layer, indicating there was an opening into the cave. A single jar from the Intermediate Bronze Age was found in the top alluvium layer. This cave contained over 500 vessels from EB IB and EB II.
Cave 567. This circular cave (31.94 sq m) had its entrance in the south, with four steps descending inside. A stone slab that used to seal it was found nearby. The cave was apparently expanded northward and an unwanted opening was blocked by a fieldstone wall. Several burial layers were exposed and it was clearly visible that throughout its long usage, earlier burials were pushed aside and their contents discarded inside the cave to make room for new interments. The cave contained 1100 vessels from EB IB, along with a few vessels of EB II date.
This area of quarries and agricultural installations was located up the slope to the north of the burial caves, on bedrock that slanted southward. Most of this area contained quarries for nari stones, as well as two winepresses that evidently pre-dated the quarries (Fig. 8). Hewing techniques were observed in two stone blocks that were almost completely detached from bedrock (Fig. 9). Although potsherds were not found on bedrock, it seems that the quarries can be dated, like those in Area 500, to the Roman or Byzantine period.
The four caves excavated in Area 500 contained over 3500 pottery vessels from EB IB, EB II, MB IIA and two vessels from the Intermediate Bronze Age. Other finds included hundreds of beads, mostly quartz and carnelian (Fig. 10), silver and gold jewelry, ballista stones, metal weapons (Fig. 11), flint artifacts and imported shells.
The size of the caves and the wealth and variety of the finds should enable us to study the trade relations between the populations buried in the caves and the neighboring regions, as well as the cultures of Egypt and northern Syria–Mesopotamia. It appears that the ancient trade route that passed through Nahal ‘Iron contributed to the rich repertoire of pottery vessels and other finds in the caves, which were part of the extensive cemeteries associated with Tel Esur, c. 1 km to the west.