From January to April 2002 salvage excavations were conducted in a small section of the lower foothills, immediately east of moshav Sha‘ar Efrayim (Permit No. A-3577; NIG 20035/68775; OIG 15035/18775). The excavation, on behalf of the Antiquities Authority and financed by the Trans-Israel Highway Co., was directed by E.C.M. van den Brink, with the assistance of Y. Dangor (administration), A. Hajian (surveying and drafting), T. Sagiv (field photography), G. Birman (GPS), D. Sklar and Y. Nagar (physical anthropology), H. Khalaily and I. Milevski (prehistoric survey), R. Gat and Y. Bukengolts (pottery restoration), C. Amit (studio photography), and C. Hersch (pottery drawing).
During recent mechanical work in preparation for the Trans-Israel Highway, A. ‘Auda recorded several spots as potential archaeological sites, which were investigated during this excavation. Five caves (Nos. 1–5) along the west slope of a hill, at different heights (51–57 m above sea level), were identified. The caves were completely excavated down to bedrock floor, except for Cave 4, whose easternmost extreme could not be explored due to danger of collapse. A sixth cave that contained clay ossuaries and was lying close to Cave 4, was discerned after the close of the excavation and could not be excavated due to pressure exerted by local religious factions. Another cave at the top of the hill was briefly investigated in 1995 by Tel Aviv University (Tel Aviv 25 :77–93).
The initial use of the caves for burial was in the Late Chalcolithic period (Late fifth to early fourth millennium BCE). During an earlier and later phase of the Early Bronze I period Caves 1 and 4 served for burial and Cave 4 included yet another burial phase from the Late Bronze period (thirteenth century BCE).
Alongside the excavation, a brief survey of the area higher up the hill was conducted by H. Khalaily and I. Milevski. The area, which is pitted with karstic caves, yielded an abudance of flint tools and flint knapping debitage dating to the Epipaleolithic and the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B periods. Furthermore, the presence of ancient beach sediments deposited at the foot of this hill was noted. These in-situ deposits consisted of alternating layers of kurkar, sand, hamra and layers with shell concretions, indicating that this area was once submerged under the sea.
The roof of this rather steep karstic cave (c. 2.0 × 6.0 × 8.5 m) had caved in antiquity. The upper part of the cave contained a number of ceramic ossuaries; at the bottom of one ossuary was a reed-mat impression (Fig. 1). The accompanying funerary gifts, in situ, were mainly small, V-shaped bowls, a few tall cups, a small barrel-shaped jar with alternating tubular and lug handles (Fig. 2) and a large four-handled, holemouth storage jar (Fig. 3). The finds were deposited on the cave’s bedrock floor, leaning against its inner wall. Several ceramic ossuaries and burial gifts were found, in situ, in the northern extremes of the cave’s lower section, also resting on the bedrock floor. Here the burials were sealed off by a layer of stone debris that obviously collapsed from the cave’s original ceiling. Above this layer were groups of two–three ceramic vessels, usually consisting of a small, red-painted, loop-handled jar and an equally red-painted hemispheric bowl with a single lug-handle, dating to a later phase of EB I. Each pottery group probably represented a single (secondary) burial. Several fragmentary knobbed Gray-Burnished Ware bowls were encountered in the southern part of the cave’s lower section (Fig. 4), indicating an earlier phase within the EB I for these burials. Additional interesting finds in this cave were 12 perforated Red Sea shells, used as pendants and associated with the EB I burials. A minimum total of 22 human interments for the Chalcolithic period and 35 for the EB I period were identified in this cave.
This karstic cave was a few meters down the slope of the hill and c. 10 m north of Cave 1. Little was preserved of this cave due to the blasting of rocks and removal of debris by bulldozers. The northeast back part of the cave that survived (length 4 m, width 1.5 m, height 1.2 m) contained finds, in situ, including a ceramic ossuary oriented north–south and opening to the south, which rested on three flat stones placed directly on the cave’s bedrock floor, as well as at least three small, V-shaped bowls placed along the south long side of the ossuary and a fragmentary ossuary jar right next to the ossuary’s north side. A minimum of two human interments from the Chalcolithic period were identified in this cave.
The poor remains of this cave were located less than 10 m southwest of Cave 2. The original ceiling and all surrounding walls of the cave were blasted and entirely removed by bulldozers. Part of the cave’s bedrock floor (0.50 × 2.50 × 3.25 m) survived, covered with a fill (c. 0.5 m). Remains of at least three ossuaries rested on the floor, in situ, associated with ceramic funerary gifts; one ossuary had a sculpted nose on its front façade. A minimum of six human interments from the Chalcolithic period were identified in this cave.
This karstic cave was higher up the hill above Cave 2 and less than 15 m north of Cave 1. It was relatively well preserved and not detrimentally affected by either blasting or bulldozing. Its ceiling had partially caved in antiquity and was removed mechanically prior to the excavation. The cave (2 × 6 × 11 m) was filled with soil deposits up to its roof, as was the case with the other caves excavated on this hillside.
Despite the relatively good preservation of this cave, hardly any finds, in situ, were encountered. The fragmentary ceramic assemblage and various bronze finds indicate that the cave was apparently used sporadically in the Late Chalcolithic period for both burial and dwelling; it was then reused in EB I, MB IIA and finally during LB IIB solely for burial. Finds indirectly associated with the LB IIB burials consisted of two bronze toggle pins, a bronze spearhead, a bronze ring, various types of Cypriot imported vessels, as well as local storage jars. A minimum total of 13 human interments from the Chalcolithic, EB IA and LB IIB periods were identified in this cave.
This is the southernmost cave, located c. 30 m south of Cave 1. Its ceiling and part of its westernmost extreme were blasted and bulldozed away. The remaining part of the cave (2.0 × 4.5 × 4.5 m) showed a steep incline of its original bedrock floor, rather like the situation in Cave 1. The badly damaged remains of at least seven ceramic ossuaries, partly in situ, some decorated with sculpted, human nose on their façade and others with clay nails, were recovered, as well as scores of small and large V-shaped bowls and some fragmentary fenestrated bowls. A minimum total of 12 human interments from the Chalcolithic period were identified in this cave.
A particularly interesting find in this cave was a female clay figurine, displaying finger-impressed eyes, a red-painted sexual organ, sculpted breasts and––now missing––a nose; arms and legs were not indicated (Fig. 5).
It should be noted that certain Chalcolithic diagnostic pottery types, such as cornets and churns, were near-absent from all excavated caves. With the exception of a single basalt grinding stone of unknown date from Cave 4 and a single non-diagnostic basalt fragment from Cave 1, basalt vessels were also lacking in the caves.