By Katy Evans

A huge ancient city from the Neolithic period has been discovered just outside Jerusalem, and officials say it is the largest city of this period ever found in Israel.

The settlement stretches nearly half a kilometer and at its peak would have housed between 2,000-3,000 New Stone Age residents. And yet, incredibly, archaeologists weren’t expecting to find anything there at all.

It had been believed that this part of Israel was empty and that settlements of this size only existed on the other side of the Jordan River or the Northern Levant, researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) explained in a statement. Instead, thanks to excavations conducted as part of a project to build a new highway into Jerusalem, they discovered the city just dozens of centimeters from the surface.

“This is the first time that such a large-scale settlement from the Neolithic period – 9,000 years ago – is discovered in Israel,” excavation directors for the IAA, Dr Hamoudi Khalaily and Dr Jacob Vardi, said. “At least 2,000-3,000 residents lived here – an order of magnitude that parallels a present-day city!”

Unearthed just 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Jerusalem, the settlement revealed large buildings, houses, and rooms that evidently were for living in, public facilities, and places of ritual. Between the buildings, alleyways revealed a complex site that suggests advanced city planning.

Dr Hamoudi Khalaily and Dr Jacob Vardi, directors of the excavations at Motza on behalf of the Antiquities Authority. Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Burial tombs also discovered revealed a fascinating insight into not only the ancient people’s relationship and views with the dead through offerings and gifts, but the city’s communication and trade status with other faraway places.

“In a place where people live, there are dead people as well: Burial places have been exposed in and amongst the houses, into which various burial offerings have been placed – either useful or precious objects, believed to serve the deceased in the next world,” the IAA said.

“These gifts testify to the fact that already during this ancient period, the residents of this site conducted exchange relationships with faraway places.”

Items found include stone-carved figurines, a clay figurine ox, obsidian (volcanic or “dragon” glass) items that originated from Anatolia, seashells that came from both the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, stone bracelets, alabaster beads, and bracelets and medallions made of mother of pearl.

Figurine of an ox. Clara Amit, Antiquities Authority
9,000-year-old figurine, depicting a human face. Clara Amit, Antiquities Authority

 

Many bracelets were found on the site. Their size suggests that they were probably given to children. Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

All over the settlement, the archaeologists found tools they think were manufactured on site, including flint arrowheads, axes for felling trees, and sickle blades and knives. Animal bones found on site also revealed that the settlement’s residents were increasingly relying on sheep-keeping, while hunting decreased.

A spear head which was buried as a burial offering in a warrior’s tomb. Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Incredibly, they also found grain store sheds that still contained large quantities of legumes, particularly lentils, that were astonishingly preserved. The Neolithic – or New Stone Age – period, which began around 12,000 years ago, was characterized by the development of agriculture. The researchers say that the Neolithic revolution would have reached its summit around the time this city was reaching its peak.

The discovery of this city and its material goods for this time period in this region is unprecedented, Dr Vardin told the Times of Israel.

“It’s a game-changer, a site that will drastically shift what we know about the Neolithic era,” he said.