Tell es-Saf is located in the southern part of the Bet She’an Valley, c. 1 km south of Nahal Bezeq, at an elevation of c. 270 m below sea level. The tell is at the eastern end of the middle terrace in the Bet She’an Valley, next to the cliff that descends to the bottom terrace (the Zor flood plain). The Jordan River is c. 500 m east of the site.
The tell was mentioned in surveys that N. Zori performed in the Bet She’an Valley during the 1950s (PEQ 90, 1958:49). He identified the Chalcolithic culture and noted sherds that were decorated with bichrome painting, applied to a light-colored background. Zori noted that similar sherds were found at the nearby site of Tell el-Jamma‘in (map ref. NIG 2525/7017; OIG 2025/2017); it is likely that this tell and Tell es-Saf are one site. Tell es-Saf is prominent in the area, whereas Tell el-Jamma‘in, which was severely damaged by military and agricultural activity, is nowadays survived by a rather small dirt mound. A shallow valley separates between the two tells.
During 1979–1980 R. Gophna conducted three seasons of limited excavations on the tell, on two hills that covered an area of c. 10 dunams. The eastern hill is located today east of the fence that demarcates the border with Jordan. Rich assemblages of potsherds, flint tools, animal bones and floral remains were recovered from a deep accumulation (depth 2 m). The settlement was defined as Chalcolithic, similar to the Wadi Raba culture. The finds included an outstanding group of potsherds with bichrome decoration painted over a white background (Tell Saf ceramics) and it had been suggested that this ware reflected the influence of the Halafian culture in northern Mesopotamia on the southern Levant (Tel Aviv 15–16, 1988–9:3–36). The tell and the surrounding area were re-surveyed in 2003 by A. Cohen-Tavor, who found Tell Saf-style sherds spread extensively across the surface west and north of the tell.
The typological and strategraphic analysis of assemblages from several protohistoric sites indicates that another cultural phase, which was first exposed at Tel Bet She’an, Stratum XVIII, existed between the Wadi Raba culture and the Chalcolithic Ghassulian culture. The Chalcolithic period has thus been divided into three phases: an early phase (the Wadi Raba culture), a middle phase (Bet She’an XVIII in the north and the Qatifian culture in the south) and a late phase (Ghassul, Be’er Sheva‘, Golan). Tell es-Saf, according to the ceramic typology, is ascribed to the Middle Chalcolithic and the finds, which are close to the surface, enable the extensive exposure of this controversial phase. The assemblages at Tell es-Saf are homogenous and no settlement layers of the Early or Late Chalcolithic period were discerned.
The survey focused on the western parts of the site, which make up more than 90% of the settlement’s area. The tell is topped with a dense cover of vegetation that made it difficult to gather the surface finds. Accordingly, a sampling method of survey was employed, involving twenty six squares that were spread over seven areas.
1. On the tell and next to the area excavated by Gophna (Sqs 7–10).
2. In the vicinity of Tell el-Jamma‘in (Sqs 11–13).
3. The shallow valley north of the tel, between Tell es-Saf and Tell el-Jamma‘in (Sqs 20–26).
4. On a spur and in the agricultural plots to the northwest of Tell es-Saf (Sqs 2–4).
5. On a spur and in the agricultural plots to the southwest of Tell es-Saf (Sqs 14–19).
6. On a low slope between the northwestern and southwestern spurs (Sqs 5, 6).
7. A section in the hill next to the border fence (Sq 1), c. 50 m south of the tell.
The surface in each square was completely exposed and gently scraped (Fig. 1). The collected finds included potsherds, flint, stone vessels and bones. Analyzing the distribution of the finds and their concentration in the squares will clarify the size and nature of the settlement. An exceptional find was a large limestone mortar found on the fringes of the agricultural area; it was probably removed when the area was prepared for cultivation.
Beyond the tell, wherever sections were exposed by natural gullies or trenches dug for military purposes, no archaeological strata were discovered, except for a thin stratum in two places: on a slope near Sq 2 was a row of toppled limestone rocks that may be the remains of a stone wall, and an occupation level was exposed near Sq 1, including a horizontal stone surface (an intentional pavement?) and large quantities of potsherds, flint tools and animal bones. Close to the border and c. 50 m south of the tell, part of a hill was removed during the 1970s or 1980s for the paving of a road (depth of the section c. 4.5 m). The crumbling of the surface and parts of the cliff created a diagonal rock collapse that covered the bottom part of the section (2.5 m). The section comprised reddish clayey sediment from an alluvial source and completely lacked the Lisan marl layers that were deposited in the Jordan Valley during the Pleistocene era. Archaeological remains were discerned in the section:
1. Below the surface (c. 0.5 m) was an occupation level, which consisted of a thin layer that yielded an abundance of stones and finds: more than one thousand sherds, flint tools and bones (1171 items), characteristic of the Middle Chalcolithic period. These finds fell from the section into the rock collapse.
2. An exposed vertical shaft (diam. 1.2 m, depth c. 2 m) was discovered next to this level. The bottom part of the shaft was buried beneath the rock collapse (Fig. 2).
The survey revealed a tell that spread across an area of c. 10 dunam and was settled intensively for a prolonged period; short-term activity occurred on the surface around the tell, extending across an area of 200 dunams and over a radius of hundreds of meters.
The excavation was conducted in the area of Sq 1, which was found to be rich in finds during the survey; and in the eastern side of the exposed vertical shaft. The fill in the shaft (excavated to a depth of 3 m) was rich in finds that consisted of numerous potsherds, including the Tell Saf-style ceramics, flint items, carbon, seeds and olive pits, stone vessels and animal bones. It seems that the shaft was a well, excavated from the surface to the water table.
At the top of the hill a small square (2 × 2 m, depth c. 0.7 m) was opened inside Sq 1 and next to the shaft. A layer abounding in potsherds, flints, animal bones, stone vessels and beads was exposed below surface. Travertine deposits had formed on some of the sherds and other finds within the sediment. The bones and the botanical materials were well preserved and included a large quantity of olive pits, attesting to the extensive use of olives. The flint implements comprised bifacial tools, sickle blades, awls, drills and one lateral arrowhead. The pottery vessels consisted of many holemouth jars, including those with a ridge near the rim––a characteristic feature of the Middle Chalcolithic period. The pottery decorations included red painting, a few sherds were slipped and burnished red and black, plastic ornamentation of thumb-impressed clay bands (rope ornamentation) and a few sherds painted red and black on a white background (the Tell Saf style).