In March 2020, a salvage excavation was conducted along the Negev Junction–Neot Hovav power line (Permit No. A-8707; map ref. 184110–339/555218–458; Fig. 1) prior to the construction of a high-voltage line. The excavation, undertaken on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and funded by the Israel Electric Corporation, was directed by T. Abulafia and M. Birkenfeld with the assistance of Y. Alamor (administration), E. Aladjem (surveying and drone photography), E. Boaretto and J. Ibrahim of the Weizmann Institute (radiocarbon dating and sedimentology), and students and volunteers.
Nahal Zahal, which crosses Ramat Beqa‘ in the Negev highlands, flows from east to west as far as its confluence with Nahal Sekher near Ramat Hovav. The excavation area is located on ‘Adulam formation rocks, near Eocene flint outcrops, and south of the Negev dune’s eastern boundary (Roskin et al. 2014). The region is rich in vegetation, animals and water, and a nearby well attests to the presence of groundwater. As part of the Emergency Archaeological Survey of the Negev (Goring-Morris and Gol 1982), several prehistoric sites were identified in the area, particularly in the dunes to the north. Chalcolithic campsites were documented c. 2 km northwest of the site (Gilead and Goren 1986), along with concentrations of flints from the Epipalaeolithic (Natufian culture) and Neolithic periods. Notably, the Natufian site of Nahal Sekher VI is located c. 4 km to the north of the current excavation (Goring-Morris and Bar-Yosef 1987; Barzilai et al. 2015).
Prior to the excavation, during inspections of works by the Electrical Corporation, the top of a circular wall and a scatter of knapped flints, mainly of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) period, were discovered. They were located on the southern bank of one of Nahal Zahal’s tributaries, near its confluence with Nahal Sekher. As a result of these finds, two adjacent excavation areas were opened (A, B; Fig. 2), in which a circular structure and numerous flint items dating from the Early PPNB were found. The excavation comprised forty squares (1 sq m each), and all the sediments were sifted using 2 mm sieves. In several selected loci, finer sifting was carried out using a 1 mm sieve. Soil and carbon samples were collected for laboratory analysis.
Area A. Thirty-three squares were opened to systematically expose the wall discovered during the inspection. At this point, it was already evident that this wall constituted a circular structure and that a late, probably mechanically excavated, trench cut through its center. The soil extracted from the trench was piled on its north side and apparently covered the structure’s northern part. Therefore, the excavation focused on the structure’s southern part.
The excavation unearthed a large, central structure and a small cell abutting it from the southwest. The large structure (average diam. 5 m) was enclosed with a circular wall (W106; width 0.6–0.8 m; Fig. 3) built of two rows of medium-sized fieldstones; lower courses consisted of rectangular stones. Although the wall produced a uniform upper face, its inner row stood five or six courses high (height c. 0.6 m), while its outer row was two courses high (c. 0.2 m). It seems, therefore, that the wall was built into the slope. The excavation concentrated on a collapsed stones and the soil fill inside the structure. The soil fill was fine-grained, almost gravel-free and meager in finds; it may have gravitated down the slope. Below it, a layer of the Neolithic period was found. It included a small circular installation (L113; diam. 0.5 m) built of small and medium-sized stones and a large stone slab (L120; 0.5 × 0.7 m)—possibly an anvil or a work surface— near the wall. This layer appears to have been rich in organic matter and finds and was sampled accordingly.
The small cell (internal area c. 2 sq m), which abutted the structure on the southwest, was built of narrow, elongated stones placed on their narrow side (W117, W118). Another wall (W107; length 1 m) adjoined the building on its northeastern side.
Area B consisted of seven squares. A small southwest–northeast wall (W121; width c. 0.3 m, excavated length 1 m) and a circular installation built of small stones were exposed in the southern squares. Numerous flint items were found on the surface and in the soil fills above the wall and the installation.
The excavation yielded many knapped flint items, and the tools include many Helwan points (Fig. 4) characteristic of the Early PPNB. The numerous cores and debitage and several unfinished arrowheads from inside the building suggest that it was a flint-knapping site. Already at this early stage, it can be proposed that most of the flint was knapped in the open while the tools were finished inside the building. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the site is located near (c. 50 m) the Eocene flint outcrops.
An unusual stone item (c. 2 × 5 cm; Fig. 5; shaft straightener) was found in the southwestern cell: An elongated slot was designed on one side, while the other side was decorated with grooved pattern consisting of one long line and twelve shorter perpendicular lines. While small chunks of ocher were found throughout the cell’s soil fill, they clearly concentrated around and on the decorated item. The item itself may have been decorated or painted with ocher, but this remains to be confirmed by future laboratory analysis. Similar items are known from contemporary sites, but mainly from earlier sites like Netiv Hagdud and Zahrat Adh-Dhra‘ 2 (PPNA; Bar-Yosef et al. 1991; Edwards et al. 2002).
Abundant remnants of charred organic matter were found throughout the main building and the adjacent cell; they were handed over for botanical identification and dating in the Weizmann Institute.
The Early PPNB building uncovered in the excavation seems to have been part of a settlement site used by groups of hunter-gatherers during certain parts of the year, allowing the exploitation of an ecologically rich environment with readily available raw material. The few Negev sites of this period that have been systematically investigated include Abu Salem, Nahal Lavan 109 and Nahal Boker (Fig. 1; Noy and Cohen 1974; Gopher 1989; Gopher and Goring-Morris 1998). In Abu Salem (Har Harif), a series of round stone structures (diam. 1.5 m) arranged in a ‘beehive’ plan were discovered and dated to the Early and Middle PPNB periods based on arrowhead typology (Gopher and Goring-Morris 1998). At the other sites, Nahal Lavan 109 (western Negev) and Nahal Boker (Negev highlands), no clear architectural remains were identified. However, arrowheads were prominent, comprising Helwan points (up to 80% at Nahal Lavan 109; Burian, Friedman and Mintz 1976) or a combination of Helwan and Jericho points (at Nahal Boker; Noy and Cohen 1974). Therefore, both sites are dated to the Early PPNB.
Until recently, the Early PPNB in the southern Levant was regarded as a phase whose very existence was in doubt (Kuijt and Goring-Morris 2002; Kuijt 2003; Goring-Morris and Belfer-Cohen 2014). However, in recent years, sites have been firmly identified and dated to this period, including Moza, Kefar HaHoresh and Ahihud (Khalaily et al. 2007; Goring-Morris et al. 2008; Paz and Vardi 2014), contributing to the understanding of various aspects of this phase in the Mediterranean region, including its economy, ritual patterns, lithic technologies and material culture (Barzilai 2010; Fuller, Willcox and Allaby 2012; Caracuta et al. 2017; Munro et al. 2018). Recently discovered sites in Jordan (Fujii 2019; Rokitta-Krumnow 2019) shed some light on the period in arid and semi-arid areas, but settlement patterns in arid regions is still poorly understood.
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