The Pre-Pottery Neolithic B Period
In the central part of southern Area H (Sub-Area H III, Sqs 42–44), a complete building was revealed (Fig. 6) with at least two major building phases. It was built on a thick layer of angular cobbles that were intentionally brought from the vicinity. Most of these stones show signs of anthropogenic activities, such as quarrying. The building has a rectangular plan (5.4 × 7.4 m). It comprises a large inner space (4.0 × 4.3 m) with a plaster floor, which was divided into three rooms. similar buildings were uncovered at Yiftah’el, Area 4 (Khalaily, Milevski and Getzov 2009). The northern room of the Eshta'ol structure, which is the largest of the three, was sub-divided by a partition wall that was later cancelled and covered by a plaster floor. This space was flanked by two rectangular rooms on the south and west. In the southern part of the building there is another rectangular room, with no plaster floor, which appears to have been part of the initial construction phase. Although the building plan was completely defined, it is unclear where the main entrance was located. A poorly preserved building unit that abuts the western face of the main structure was added at a later phase, and remains of more walls are found to its north. The remains of three or four superimposed plaster floors (each at least 5 cm thick) and separated by fills (thickness 7–15 cm), were revealed within the main structure, attesting to a long period of maintenance. Removal of the plaster floors revealed that a leveling foundation course of earth and stones preceded each repaving. At least two of the floors replaced sections of the original one, which may have sunk during the winter seasons. The plaster of the earliest floor extends to the lower inner face of the walls (Fig. 7), suggesting that the walls were covered with plaster as well. However, no plaster was preserved on the outer face of the walls.
The finds from within and around the building included diagnostic flint arrowheads and sickle blades, polished pebbles and grinding stones. Initial analysis of the faunal remains in the immediate vicinity of the structure suggests a predominance of cattle and gazelle. Only a few stone tools and animal bones were recovered from the foundation layers between the floors. In adjacent squares, however, numerous flint tools, including arrowheads, were found, as well as faunal remains. Presumably, these remains relate to the domestic activities that took place around the structure. The structure may be only part of a larger complex to be found outside the excavated area. North of the building, several additional wall remains were revealed, with fragments of associated plaster floors, which were badly disturned by modern activities.
In Area J, several PPNB habitation surfaces were founded upon the uneven sloping bedrock, into which several installations were hewn. Two terraces constructed of large fieldstones shaped the area into steps (Fig. 8). A large section of a plaster floor that bore traces of red pigment was revealed, yet it could not be associated with any wall and was severely cut by pits during the Chalcolithic period.
The Pottery Neolithic A Period (Jericho IX Phase)
In the southern part of Area H (Sub-Area H II, Sqs 39, 40), not far from the PPNB building described above in Sub-Area H III, a living surface was found, with ceramics and flint tools indicative of the Pottery Neolithic period (Jericho IX Phase). The surface was related to an adjacent, slightly curving stone wall, which appears to be a remnant of a structure whose plan is not clear.
Close to the southeastern balk of Area H and not far from the PPNB building were two caches of stone axes (Fig. 9). One cache included three flint axes that were abandoned at different stages of preparation, while the other, half a meter to the east, contained six axes, four made of limestone and two of flint. The limestone axes were fashioned by grinding and polishing of their circumference, whereas the flint axes were polished. The axes, bifacial types with a plano-convex cross-section, are attributable to the early Pottery Neolithic and to the Chalcolithic periods. Their stratigraphic context appears to support an association to either the nearby PPNB building or the adjacent Pottery Neolithic remains.
In the northern part of Area H (Sub-Area H VIII, Sq 68), immediately below the EB IB remains, was an oval structure built of large stones (Fig. 10). It had two construction stages. A large flat stone, which may have functioned as a cultic stele, was incorporated into the wall at the northeastern apex of the structure, set upright on its narrow side. Habitation levels within and around the building contained ceramics and numerous flint tools of types that are indicative of the Jericho IX phase. To the north of the structure, seemingly unrelated to any architectural elements, a concentration of carbonized cereals was found in a shallow, dug depression.
The Late Chalcolithic Period (the Ghassulian Culture)
No obvious in-situ remains of the Chalcolithic period were identified in Area H, but over the PPNB occupation in Area J all the excavated squares contained remains of an architectural complex with three successive stages of construction and use that could be attributed to the late Chalcolithic period (Figs. 5, 11). The rich assemblages of ceramics and flint tools can be associated with the Ghassulian culture, and are accompanied by a wealth of faunal remains. Due to the limited area of the excavation and the fragmentary preservation, only a partial reconstruction of this period is possible.
The earliest evidence for Chalcolithic-period activity (Phase 3) was found next to the entrance to a natural karstic cavity in the bedrock, in the southernmost part of the area. However, safety considerations precluded excavation of the cavity itself. Other remains of this phase include three installations—two built and one hewn in the bedrock—whose function could not be ascertained, and a poorly preserved primary burial of an adult of unidentified sex in a semi-flexed position on its side. During this phase, a terrace wall (W242; Fig. 5) divided a limited area on the east into two terraces. A large rectangular monolith (0.4 × 0.9 × 1.3 m; Figs. 10–12) stood perpendicular to the lower of the two terrace walls, directly beside it. The stone was carefully smoothed on all sides and set upright on its narrowest side. The abnormally large size of the stone, the care invested in its shaping and its upright position, all bear witness to its importance and may define its purpose as a massebah (cultic standing stone). Although the context was clearly Chalcolithic, this stone may have been in secondary use, and could date to an earlier period, from which such stones are better known, such as at Yiftah’el during the PPNB period (Khalaily, Milevski and Getzov 2009: Fig. 15).
In the second phase (Phase 2), a rectangular, well-built stone structure was constructed on the upper terrace to the north of W242, which was now rebuilt as a freestanding wall. The monolith remained standing near this new wall. North of the structure, two additional walls (W131, W154) appear to delineate the northern limit of this architectural complex.
In the last phase (Phase 1), the massive rectangular structure and the monolith continued to be in use, but the two walls north of the structure were transformed into a low stone fence, having been replaced by carelessly constructed walls of a similar orientation (W106, W108). Additional remains of this phase include a large oval pit (L138) containing several complete ceramic vessels that were deliberately interred (Fig. 13) also belongs to this phase.
The Early Bronze IB Period
Early Bronze age remains, poorly represented in Area J, were uncovered throughout Area H, where they may be directly linked to the large EB structures that were found in Area D (Golani 2008; Golani and Storchan 2008; 2014). The EB occupation in both areas comprises three main phases, all from the EB IB period and associated with the cultural horizon known as ‘Erani C. The combined plan of all three phases, especially in northern Area H, appears to show a very intensive occupation, wherein most of the structures share the same orientation (Fig. 3).
Phase 3. Remains of at least two large structures that were apparently founded during Phase 3 have been previously identified in Area D (Fig. 3: Areas D1, D2); at least one of them seems to have continued in use during Phase 2. Phase 3 remains in northern Area H directly overlay a thick layer of stone cobbles that covered much of the Neolithic remains. These remains were largely obscured by the intensive construction that took place in Phases 2 and 1 (Fig. 14), and hardly anything more than fragments of structures that show no coherent plan survived. Two subterranean silos lined with medium-sized stones (diam. 2.3–2.5 m; depth of one: 1.2 m; Fig. 15) were assigned to this phase. Both were found below architectural elements of Phase 2, and thus predate them (Fig. 16).
Phase 2. The exposure of Phase 2 in northern Area H was more substantial, but the disruption of Phase 3 is such that it was impossible to identify the continuity between Phases 3 and 2 that had been identified in Area D.
Several structures that date to Phase 2 were found in northern Area H, all oriented in roughly the same direction and apparently separated by alleyways (Fig. 3: Sub-Areas H V–VIII). In the center of this area (Sub-Area H VI, Sqs 60, 61) was a complete structure (5.5 × 7.5 m; Fig. 17), and to its north were partial remains of an adjacent room. Founded in Phase 2, this building apparently remained in use into Phase 1. In its southern wall was a large, flat-topped and worn stone threshold, and along the eastern, northern and southern walls were low stone benches. Northeast of this building was a nearly complete structure with rounded corners (Sub-Area H VII, Sqs 62, 63). Remains of other structures with rounded corners were found throughout northern Area H (Fig. 3: sub-Area H VI, Sqs 58, 59; Sub-Area H VIII, Sqs 72–74).
Circular, above-ground storage installations appear to be a characteristic feature of Phase 2. Two complete structures of this type, one with an entranceway facing north, had been excavated in Areas D1 and D4 (see Fig. 3). Nearly half of such a structure, attributed to Phase 2 by its stratigraphic position—pre-dating Phase 1 and post-dating Phase 3—was excavated in the center of northern Area H (Sub-Area H VI, Sq 56; Fig. 18). It had a small, built entranceway in the east, and the stone walls sloped inward slightly, in a corbelled fashion, suggesting that it had been domed. Partial remains of a circular stone structure, tentatively associated with Phase 2, were also revealed in southern Area H (Sub-Area H III, Sqs 44, 45; Figs. 3, 19).
Two architectural complexes of the EB IB in the southern part of Area H could not be correlated with certainty to any of the EB IB stratigraphic phases that were defined in the northern part of Area H. The one farthest south (Sub-Area H I, Sqs 33–35) is a rectangular structure (6.25 × 8.75 m), with low stone benches along the inner face of its walls, and an entranceway facing south (Fig. 20). A concentration of basalt grinding stones next to an inner stone-paved area, possibly indicates the type of activity that took place there. This building was badly damaged by modern intrusions and geomorphological processes that caused its walls to warp. Its stratigraphic position upon sterile alluvium posits it as associated with the earliest EB IB occupation in this specific area, while its plan and method of construction may be paralleled to either Phase 1 or 2 in northern Area H. Previous excavations in Area D4 uncovered a complete circular storage structure in proximity to this building (Fig. 3), suggesting that it probably dates to Phase 2.
The second EB IB architectural complex in southern Area H (Sub-Area H II; Fig. 21) lies 15 m northeast of the building described above. It has numerous walls that appear to represent at least three building phases of the EB IB. The last phase consists of several small structures that were apparently bounded by an enclosure wall. Associated with one of the structures was a complete subterranean storage silo lined with large stone slabs (Fig. 22). All the walls of this complex were founded on a layer of cobbles that included finds dating to the Pottery Neolithic period. This suggests that the remains are associated with either Phase 3 or Phase 2 of the EB IB occupation.
Phase 1. Remains associated with Phase 1 were prevalent throughout most of northern Area H, but could not be distinguished with certainty in its southern part. Some of the structures from Phase 2 remained in use in northern Area H, with some architectural modifications such as raised floors. Other, new structures completely cancelled earlier buildings. One of the structures in the center of northern Area H (Sub-Area H VI, Sqs 56–58) is a rectangular building (6 × 8 m) with low stone benches along its walls, two large stone pillar bases on its central axis and an entranceway facing south (Figs. 3, 23). Other Phase 1 architectural remains in its immediate vicinity appear to indicate that this structure was bounded on at least three sides by regular alleyways (Fig. 3).
The remains of Phase 1 in the southern part of northern Area H (Sub-Area H V, Sqs 52–55) appear to indicate the existence of a large compound with a large open area to its northeast. Most of the compound is outside the excavated area to the northwest, and only its boundary wall and part of a large building were exposed. The boundary wall reused parts of a Phase 2 structure, which was cancelled out by two massive stones whose function could not be ascertained.
In the northern part of northern Area H (Sub-Area H VIII, Sqs 69–71) was a large and well-built rectangular structure (5.8 × 8.0 m), with an entranceway facing north and carefully-built flat-topped stone benches around its walls (Fig. 24). The walls of this building were preserved to at least five courses, suggesting that they were made entirely of stone. A much larger structure attached to this building on the south is so far only partly excavated. A series of beaten-earth floors were uncovered within the building and outside it, indicating that it was in use over a substantial period.
The present excavations at Eshta’ol offered a rare opportunity for a large lateral exposure of occupation strata. The extended position of Area H generated an archaeological section through much of the prehistoric and proto-historic site (so far exposed in Areas A, D, F, G, H and J). It also allowed an exposure from the peripheral regions of the settlement in the south (Areas D5–D3 and southern Area H) to its central core farther north (Areas D2 and D1, northern Area H; see Golani and Storchan 2014).
The PPNB structure that was exposed in southern Area H is the first of its kind in the Judean Shefelah. Its preservation is fortuitous, owing to the sparse occupation in this area during the EB IB period.
No Chalcolithic settlement was found in Area H, but it appears to have been intense in Area J, as well as in the nearby Areas G and F. The concentration of successive building stages in conjunction with an in-situ monolith suggest specialized, possibly cultic, activities in this area.
During the EB IB period, a large and intensive settlement existed at Eshta’ol. Its core seems to have been in northern Area H, where there are numerous buildings, many of them quite large, often separated by regular alleyways. Remains are more sparse in the southern part of Area H, indicating a peripheral zone (see Golani and Storchan 2014).