In 2015, 2016 and 2018–2020, five excavation seasons were carried out at the site of Nahal Ef‘eh in the Negev Highlands (G-85/2015, G-93/2016, G-23/2018, G-40/2019, G-27/2020; map ref. 2142/5541; Fig. 1). The excavation, conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), and funded by the Israel Science Foundation (Grant No. 345/18) and CARE archaeological foundation, was directed by J. Vardi and F. Borrell (flints), with the assistance of E. Cohen-Sasson (administration), L. Edeltin, T. Goloubinoff, L. Teira, R. Lupo and R. Lavi (area supervision), L. Teira and J. Tapia (drafting and plans), E. Aladjem (surveying, RTK and photogrammetry), M. Birkenfeld (GIS), I. Milevski (stone tools), E. Boaretto (radiocarbon analysis), M. Ramsey (phytoliths), Y. Asscher (analytical laboratory), V. Caracuta (botany), C. Tornero (animal bones), L. Gourichon (avian bones), A. Burg and N. Morag (minerology) and J. Roskin (geomorphology and environmental research).
The site of Nahal Ef‘eh extends across one of the Hatira Anticline hillslopes, near the Nahal Ef‘eh bank and to the north of the Rotem and Yamin plains in the Negev Highlands. The area features strata of sand and river pebbles deposited during the Miocene period. Adjacent streambeds contain small pools that are annually replenished with water. Unlike loess soil, the ground is water-absorbent, resulting in a relatively fertile environment compared with that of the Negev Highland ridges, particularly in the winter and spring months. The site was discovered in the Negev Emergency Survey and will be published in the Archaeological Survey of Israel (A. Eldar, Map 175, in preparation).
The excavations were carried out on a slope between two small tributaries of Nahal Ef‘eh. The main architectural remains exposed were attributed to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, whilst a courtyard and an animal pen excavated near the river at the foot of the site, were dated to Early Bronze Age II (Cohen 1999:39–40). Prehistoric remains identified to the south and north of the two tributaries have not yet been excavated.
Two excavation areas (A, B) were opened on the eastward sloping hillside. Area A was located on the northwestern, highest point of the central part of the site, near a gully bordering it on the north, and Area B was located ten meters to the south.
In Area A, six elliptical or circular buildings dating from PPNB were excavated (Fig. 2: 1, 2, 5–8), and in Area B, one PPNB building was exposed (10). The buildings were dug into the ground—sometimes levelling the bedrock—and were enclosed by a stone wall. The western side of the buildings was better preserved than their eastern side due to the slope. The buildings yielded many finds, including flint items, stone tools, botanical finds, animal bones and small finds.
In the first season in 2015, a small probe test pit (1 sq m) was dug inside a built compound on the eastern side of the site, exposing a habitation level 0.1 m beneath the surface, and yielding a few potsherds and flint flakes dated to Early Bronze I. After two excavation seasons, a vertical shaft (depth 1.4 m) dug by antiquity looters was discovered in the area of the test pit. The subsequent cleaning of the shaft’s sides and the resulting section revealed habitation levels underlying and predating the Early Bronze Age stratum; organic material was sampled from these levels. The excavation at the site was curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Building 1. An elliptical structure (max. width 3.5 m) was surrounded by a wall built of locally quarried, upstanding large rock slabs (preserved height c. 0.7 m; Fig. 3). The wall was preserved for a single course, apart from the western part that was preserved for two courses; some of the wall sloped outward, lying on the sloping ground. The entrance was on the western side. The floor was partially made of earth and partially paved with stone slabs. On the southern side of the building, an upright stone slab partition defined a niche that contained stone tools, and a stone-built installation in the middle of the building contained two limestone bowls. Many charcoal fragments were found on the eastern side of the building, some of which were sent for radiocarbon analysis (see below).
Building 2. The outer wall of the elliptical building (max. width 4 m) was built of rock slabs and large stones, preserved for one to two courses (Fig. 4). The eastern part of the wall was eroded and the entrance was not extant. The floor was made of plaster or a similar material that may also have coated part of the walls. A stone slab installation was extant in the middle of the building. Stone grinding and pounding tools, including pestles and two shaft straighteners, were found on the eastern side of the building. Stumps of walls and remains of installations were uncovered between Buildings 1 and 2.
Building 5. The elliptical building (max. width 5 m) was partly enclosed by an outer wall. The wall was not extant on the northern side, either because it was dismantled after the building was abandoned, or because no wall was built here, leaving the building open toward Building 6 and the adjacent courtyard. No entrance was found, possibly due to erosion down the slope. The building’s plastered floor was partly painted red (Fig. 5) and plaster traces on the lowest wall course suggest that the walls were coated also with plaster. A large, upside down stone bowl was found in the middle of the building (Fig. 6) and two stone pestles, one limestone, the other basalt, were found near the wall on the side of the building.
Building 6. An elliptical building (diam. 2.7–3.0 m) with an adjacent walled compound (3.5 × 5.5 m) was exposed (Fig. 7). The outer wall was well-preserved (max. height 1.4 m), but the stones of the upper courses had collapsed inside the compound. An elliptical installation inside the building comprised a pit dug into the ground and lined with small fieldstones. A wall preserved for a single course on the eastern side of the building was possibly a retaining wall or a bench. Stone grinding and pounding tools were found in the building and the fenced compound, and many flint tools, including more than 100 arrowheads, were retrieved in the fenced compound (see below).
Building 7. A circular building (diam. 3 m) had an outer wall preserved for up to two courses (0.6 m; Fig. 8). The lower course was built of elongated stone slabs arranged lengthwise, and the upper course was built of large and medium-sized stones. The floor was made of tamped earth, and was paved with several stone slabs on its eastern side. An installation was built next to the southern wall. The building was probably built in an early construction phase of the settlement, as the northern part of the wall was missing and may have been dismantled.
Building 8. The building (diam. 4.0–4.7 m) was only partially exposed as the excavation was curtailed (Fig. 9). The outer wall was preserved for three courses of stone slabs placed lengthwise. A storage installation (diam. 1.0 m, depth 0.5 m) located between the northern side of Building 8, and Buildings 5 and 7, was dug into the ground and lined with stone slabs (see Fig. 2).
Building 10. An elliptical building was partially enclosed by a wall (Fig. 10). The illicit digging by the antiquity robbers had previously revealed the inner face of the wall and a habitation level, and the wall had subsequently partly disintegrated. The wall was built of two rows of upstanding rock slabs. The northern side of the building yielded a concentration of variously shaped basalt pestles. Two consecutive floor surfaces were made of a white plaster-like material, and an intervening soil layer yielded meager finds without stones. A circular pit lined with stone slabs found in the context of the lower floor contained bird bones.
Flint Tools. The flint assemblage contained all the components of a knapping industry: flint pebbles, cores and much debitage (Borrell and Vardi 2022). Some of the cores and debitage align with bidirectional blade knapping (Fig. 11). The assemblage included many arrowheads characteristic of the PPNB, the majority Byblos-type and a few Jericho-type (Fig. 12). The arrowheads were formed using simple retouching, some also using pressure-retouching. End scrapers, awls and drills were also found. The excavation also yielded three sickle blades that are uncommon in this period; these may have been used to cut vegetal material rather than for harvesting crops.
Botanical Finds. The botanical finds included many charcoal fragments mostly collected on the floors, possibly coming from the roofing materials. Most of the plant matter represented local species such as Retem (Retama raetem) and Tamarisk (Tamarix sp.).
Animal Bones. The animal bones retrieved belonged to species found in the site’s vicinity today, such as gazelle (Gazella sp.) and wild ass. The avian bones from Building 10 were probably of small birds of prey, but their identification has not yet been finally confirmed.
Small Finds. The finds included a bead, bead fragments made of various materials, fragments of an unidentified greenish stone, a stone incised with a crisscross pattern, and four shells, including a cowrie shell. A hemispherical piece of raw copper, possibly to produce a bead or a drop, may have been brought from Faynan.
Radiocarbon Dating. Radiocarbon analysis of nine charcoal samples mostly dated the Nahal Ef‘eh site to the middle phase of PPNB (eighth millennium BCE). Two installations outside Buildings 2 and 6 provided dates compatible with the Pottery Neolithic period (sixth millennium BCE), a charcoal sample from the upper layer in a cross-section of the test pit also dating to this period.
Summary. The site at Nahal Ef‘eh was a large hunter-gatherer encampment dated predominantly to the middle phase of PPNB, the replacement of some buildings by later buildings suggesting that it was occupied for a long period of time. There was evidence of some activity in the Pottery Neolithic period, although no residential units were attributed to this period. The relatively large size of the site reflects the favorable living conditions, including accessible water in nearby small pools and relatively rich flora and fauna resources, supporting seasonal occupation in the winter and spring, although further research is required to substantiate this assumption. The circular or elliptical building tradition aligns with that of nomadic populations in desert regions (Vardi et al. 2018). Similar architectural remains were uncovered at sites in Sinai, for example, at Ein Qadis (Gopher, Goring-Morris and Rosen 1995), Ujrat el-Mehed and Wadi Jibba (Bar-Yosef 1982); in the southern Negev, as at Nahal ‘Issaron (Goring-Morris and Gopher 1983) and Nahal Reuel (Ronen et al. 2001); and in Transjordan, as at Shkärat Msaied (Kinzel et al. 2016) and ʻAyn Abü Nukhayla (Henry and Beaver 2014).
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