The ancient site of Eshta’ol is located on a moderate slope near the northwestern bank of Nahal Eshta’ol, a northern tributary of Nahal Kesalon. The site has been excavated over the last two decades, mainly the southern part alongside Road No. 38, but also in small areas further north (Fig. 1: Areas A–J; see Appendix; Freikman 2009; Golani et al. 2016, and references therein; Shai and Uziel 2019). These excavations uncovered settlement strata from Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (Stratum VI), Pottery Neolithic A—Lodite culture, parallel to Jericho IX (Stratum V), Late Chalcolithic—Ghassulian culture (Stratum IV), Early Bronze IB—‘Erani C (Stratum III) and the Intermediate Bronze Age (Stratum II), as well as a surface layer (Stratum I) that contained mixed finds from different periods. In each previously excavated area, local stratigraphic phases were defined, while the main settlement periods were defined according to strata.
The current excavation was conducted in Area K (Figs. 2, 3), in an area where archaeological remains were still extant, although the roadworks had removed the surface layer (Stratum I) and a considerable part of the underlying Intermediate Bronze Age layer (Stratum II). Unlike other excavations at Eshta’ol, such as in Area J, no remains of the Late Chalcolithic period (Stratum IV) were discovered in Area K. The excavation yielded remains from six settlement phases, attributed to the Neolithic periods (Phase 6; Strata VI–V), the Early Bronze IB (Phases 5–2; Stratum III) and the Intermediate Bronze Age (Phase 1; Stratum II).
Phase 6 (Strata VI–V; Pre-Pottery Neolithic B and Pottery Neolithic A)
At the northwestern end of the excavation area (Square A/B1), a probe was dug manually down to bedrock (depth 3 m; Fig. 2: Section 1–1; Fig. 4). A few chunks of limestone that had been exposed to intense heat and that may have been used to make plaster, were uncovered on the bedrock. The bedrock was overlain by stratified brown soil fills and surfaces of small densely packed small stones; the lower fill layers yielded exclusively flint items from Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (Stratum VI), whereas the upper fills contained a few potsherds and flint items from Pottery Neolithic A (Stratum V). These fills clearly predated the Early Bronze Age, but since most of them were only partially excavated it was not possible to differentiate distinct stratigraphic stages. Consequently, they were originally defined as a stage predating the Early Bronze Age; subsequently, based on the examination of the finds, this phase was attributed to the Neolithic period.
Next to the southeastern side of the probe (Sq B2), a surface of densely packed small and medium-sized stones was exposed underlying the Stratum III remains. The partial dismantling of this surface revealed part of a wall (W244), preserved for two courses. Based on the meager associated finds, the wall should probably be attributed to Pottery Neolithic A.
Phases 5–2 (Stratum III; Early Bronze Age IB)
Stratum III consisted of brown, compacted, thin-grained soil that is clearly distinct from the soil characterizing Stratum II from the Intermediate Bronze Age (see below). Four building phases are attributed to this stratum.
Phase 5 was not excavated, but was identified based on several flat stones whose tops were incorporated in the Phase 4 floor (see below). These stones may have been part of a Phase 5 wall, whose top was incorporated into the later floor when the wall fell out of use.
Phase 4. Remains of this phase were only found in the southern part of the excavation area. They include a long wall (W165), to the south of which lay several earthen floors at the elevation of wall’s base, overlain by broken pottery vessels; one floor incorporated the flat stones that may have been the remains of the wall from Phase 5 (Fig. 5).
Phase 3. Three walls (W127, W137, W149) delimited at least two open spaces. Wall 137, built on top of W165 of Phase 4, continued in use in Phases 3 and 2. Habitation levels near the southern side of W137 yielded fragments of large pottery storage vessels, and clay and stone slabs that were used as paving material over a packed earthen bedding (Fig. 6).
Phase 2. In this phase, there was a substantial settlement change that is exhibited by greater building density and the definition of small dwelling spaces; the open spaces of Phase 3 ceased to exist. Some of the walls built in earlier phases were canceled, some continued to be used and some were built during this phase. Parts of walls enclosing three residential units (Units 24, 25, 26; Fig. 7), interspersed with small open spaces are attributed to Phase 2. These units had rounded corners, at least on the interior, and they were sometimes attached in a way that cancelled out the original corners (Golani 1999). Two walls (W104, W132) of Unit 24 were preserved, forming a rounded corner on the outside but meeting at right angles on the inside. The unit was abutted to the south by Unit 25, of which two rooms were preserved, separated by a Phase 3 wall (W149) that continued in use and that had a wide entrance. The southern room of Unit 25 had an opening facing south onto a courtyard. There were low stone benches along the interior of the room’s northern (W149) and eastern (W198) walls. A large, flat stone in the center of the room was probably a pillar base that supported the roof. The southern room also contained a stone mortar that was probably used to process food, and a round plastered installation (Fig. 8). Smashed, characteristic Early Bronze IB pottery vessels were found on the packed earth floor and on the benches. Unit 26, southeast of Unit 25, continued to use W137, removing the Phase 3 wall’s western end and replacing it with a rounded corner (Fig. 9). Units 25 and 26 were probably separated by a small courtyard, bounded to the north and east by Walls 127 and 149, also Phase 3 walls that formed a corner and continued in use.
The trial square at the northwestern edge of the excavation area (Sq A/B1) yielded additional architectural remains that were attributed to Stratum III, although they could not be specifically assigned to one of Phases 5–2. The remains included part of a circular podium with an adjacent packed earth surface (Fig. 10). Early Bronze IB finds were retrieved on the podium surface, on the floor and inside the podium.
Phase 1 (Stratum II; Intermediate Bronze Age)
A settlement layer (at least 0.5 m thick) that was almost entirely removed by the roadworks before the excavation, was attributed to this phase. The soil in this layer is characterized by gray, fine-grained tell-like soil, which is easily distinguished from the brown soil that characterizes Phases 5–2. Most of the excavation squares contained earth fills mixed with densely packed small and medium-sized stones covering over the earlier architectural remains, filling depressions and levelling the ground (Fig. 11). When the ground was leveled, many Phases 3 and 2 building stones were robbed, and the finds from the Intermediate Bronze Age penetrated the earlier phases. Floors and walls were built on top of the soil fill layers. There was only one place in the center of the excavation area where a wall from Phase 2 (W198) continued to be used, flanked by a short wall section (W246) founded on the stratum’s soil fills.
The excavation uncovered remains of a settlement from Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, Pottery Neolithic A, Early Bronze IB and the Intermediate Bronze Age. The remains align with the results of the previous excavations at the site, affording a more precise understanding of the settlement in each period. The Neolithic settlement (Phase 6; Strata VI–V) extended across Area K, as also Areas A and H along the riverbed and Areas F, G and J on the slope. The EB IB architectural remains exposed in Area K (Phases 5–2; Stratum III; ‘Erani C phase) reflect the accelerated development of the site’s pre-urban settlement, and are consistent with previous finds from the site, especially from the excavations in Areas D and H (Golani et al. 2016). Area K has yielded remains from Stratum II, the Intermediate Bronze Age (Phase 1). Based on these finds, and contrary to a previous understanding (Golani et al. 2016: Fig. 1), the settlement in the Intermediate Bronze Age period extended to the south and southwest as far as the northeastern boundary of Area H. The results of previous excavations in Areas C and E indicated a relatively dispersed and sparse settlement during this period, but the quantity and the thickness of the leveling fills in Area K, together with the thick layer removed prior to the excavation, indicate the substantial size of the Intermediate Bronze Age settlement, showing that it was a large, permanent settlement. Two burial caves containing Intermediate Bronze Age finds excavated c. 750 m south of the current excavation (Ben-Ari 2015) may be part of the settlement’s burial ground in this period.