The Chalcolithic Period
The estimated size of the Chalcolithic-period settlement (c. 30 dunams) is based on the trial trenches dug throughout the entire excavation area (see Fig. 1; Abadi-Reiss and Varga 2019). This estimation is minimal, as the extent of the site to the east and west was not checked. Extensive areas of the site were uncovered—a total of c. 5 dunams—revealing a public area, a residential and copper production quarter and an industrial area. Because the Chalcolithic strata in the various areas could not be linked to each other with certainty, they will be described separately.
Area A (Fig. 2). Four Chalcolithic-period strata were uncovered below an accumulation of soil (thickness c. 2 m) that sealed them. These included the remains of activity areas (L238), which featured wall-enclosed compounds. Some of the walls (W174, W187, W301) were wide, and the majority of these were built of three rows of stones, mostly pebbles, to a height of three courses. Other walls (W159, W194, W261) were narrow and built of one row of stones to the height of a single course. Within the compounds were ovoid or round installations, either rock-cut or built (L180, L182, L207, L258, L267; diam. 0.2–0.3 m, depth 0.1–0.6 m), which contained pottery and flint.
All four strata uncovered in this area clearly demonstrate a continuity of the Ghassulian culture; however, the architectural remains revealed no continuity of use, with walls and pits that canceled out earlier elements.
Small stones, sherds, flint artifacts and animal bones were found on several superimposed compacted soil surfaces (L118, L235) in the western side of Area A. These surfaces may represent either activity areas or refuse dumps. Height differences between the surfaces ranged from 0.45 to 1.8 m. Construction was less dense in the western part of Area A and denser on the northwestern margins of the area, toward Area I.
Area C (Fig. 3) yielded three Chalcolithic-period strata. The earliest comprised mainly fills of local soil with archaeological remains and pits hewn in the bedrock (L788, L791, L808), as well as a few architectural elements that had been disturbed by construction in the two later strata in this area. A unique monumental, symmetrical building (Structure III; interior c. 4 × 25 m) was discovered in the middle stratum. Its walls (thickness c. 1 m, preserved height c. 1 m) were built of robust fieldstone; the lack of fallen stones suggests that the superstructure above the stone courses was built of mud-bricks. The doorway can be clearly identified, as it includes a dressed threshold and a pair of doorposts. In front of the doorway and the structure’s façade were remains of a leveled courtyard whose floor consisted of crushed kurkar, above which numerous fragments of pottery were found; the boundaries of the courtyard were only partly excavated.
In a later phase of the structure, the floor was raised and rebuilt but the plan was not change. Numerous pottery sherds were found on the top floor. The preservation of the plan of this structure over a long period of time, even after it had been repaired, clearly differed from the situation in other areas, where the earlier architectural plan was obviated in every stratum.
The unique assemblage of pottery discovered in Structure III is attributed typologically and technologically to the Ghassulian culture of the Chalcolithic period. The frequency of pottery types in the assemblage is unique due to the large number of cornets recovered from the floors of both phases of the building. Approximately 1500 ceramic finds were found on the early floor, about half of which were cornets, a vessel which also comprises 18% of the 1700 ceramic finds retrieved from the later floor. Cornets are usually identified with cultic activity, thus associating the building with such activity, although it has recently been suggested that these vessels were used for lighting (Gorzalczany 2018:67). Such a large quantity of cornets is not typical of ceramic assemblages of the Ghassulian culture (Commenge-Pellerin 1987: Fig. 7; Levy and Menachem 1987:319; Gilead and Goren 1995: Fig. 4.21; Lovell 2010: Table 3). The only other site where cornets constitute a very large percentage of the finds is ‘En Gedi (Ussishkin 1980: Table 1.18).
Other significant remains discovered in Area C are those of a road (uncovered length 25 m, width 2.5 m) bounded by two walls (W732, W735). The road bedding included layers of pottery waste from the Chalcolithic period and small stones that were leveled. In a few places lower walls were found under the walls flanking the road, along a similar axis. The road does not conform to the direction of Building III; it extends northwest of the structure. The road continued to the northeast in Area A, to a point where the high rock surface precluded its identification.
Area E (Fig. 4) is c. 400 m north of the margins of the Chalcolithic village. Trial trenches opened throughout this area revealed three strata of construction from this period, comprising short narrow walls, occupation levels, installations and evidence of copper production. This is the only area where the settlement stratum from the Chalcolithic period is significantly higher than the bedrock and is not founded directly on it.
The lower stratum was uncovered only in the eastern part of Area E. Very meager remains were found of a destroyed installation built of mud-bricks, where burnt material was found along with a few fruit pits. South of the installation were two occupation levels of compact soil above a layer of sand; these levels yielded numerous sherds, flint tools and fragments of grinding stones and a basalt bowl.
The middle stratum yielded meager remains of a wall constructed of medium-sized and small fieldstones, with mud and sherds applied to the face of the walls. The middle stratum also revealed occupation level—beaten earth covered with numerous sherds, flint tools, fragments of grinding stones and animal bones. Two large basalt bowls were also unearthed; inside one of them was a square stone tablet (0.2 × 0.2 m).
The uppermost stratum was exposed only in the southern part of the area. Both short and long walls were uncovered, built of medium-size and small fieldstones. Two partition walls were constructed out of large storage vessels, mainly jars and holemouth jars, whose bases were set one within the other. At least two built spaces were found in this stratum, as well as an occupation level which bore numerous sherds, including broken bowls, basalt fenestrated footed bowls and animal bones. Also found were two mace heads and tools made of copper, as well as pieces of copper slag.
The building style and the small area to which the building remains were confined, as well as their distance from the main cluster of remains belonging to the Chalcolithic-period village—all attest that the remains in Area E belong to a small satellite site contemporaneous with the larger settlement to the south. The architecture in both sites is similar and resembles the building remains from this period uncovered in Areas A and I. The material culture in Area E, attributed to the Ghassulian culture, is identical to that in the other areas. The copper finds, comprising both vessels and pieces of slag, and the exceptionally high concentration of metal in the soil indicate that this was an industrial area.
Area F (Fig. 5) yielded a stratum rich in pottery, flint and stone finds from the Chalcolithic period along with only meager architectural remains. The latter comprised scant remains of two walls (W1514, W1536) and an occupation layer (L1534). It appears that this area was not continuously settled throughout all the phases of the village’s existence. The trial trenches opened at the site indicate that this was the northern edge of the Chalcolithic settlement; no architectural remains from this period were found farther north.
Area I (Fig. 6) revealed four Chalcolithic strata (4–1). A large quantity of sherds was found in each, as well as flint tools and animal bones. The remains of Stratum 4, the earliest stratum, lay in part directly on the kurkar rock and in part on a layer of crushed kurkar and small stones that served to level the ancient surface (L4050, L4061, L4064). The architectural remains in this stratum were meager and disjointed. A wall segment built of small fieldstones set on the layer of crushed kurkar was probably part of a round installation (L4058). Inside the installation were large fragments of pottery vessels. The northwestern part of another round installation built of small fieldstones (L4041) was uncovered c. 2 m south of the wall. A mud-brick and stone wall (W4040) that cut Installation 4041 was ascribed to Stratum III. Structure remains, mostly square in plan, were found in Strata 2 and 1.
The walls of the structures in all the strata in this area belong to three types: thick walls (W4032, W4059) built of stones ranging in size from large to small; narrow walls (W4008, W4019, W4036) built of small stones; and walls (W4040, W4073) built of mud-bricks and small stones. On the one hand, there is clear continuity of material finds in all four strata and, but on the other hand, the construction in each stratum damaged remains of the earlier stratum.
Area J (Fig. 7) yielded the remains of two massive rectangular structures (I, II) along with rich occupation levels from the Chalcolithic period. Disjointed building remains from an earlier phase of the period were also uncovered, as the excavation reached down to bedrock.
Both structures were built of fieldstones (width of walls c. 1 m) and had no interior partitions. Constructed perpendicular to each other, they were probably broad-room structures. Dozens of large pottery vessels, mostly in situ storage vessels, were found broken on the floor in Structure I. The quantity of ceramic finds is unusually large compared to finds in other structures at the site and in structures attributed to the Ghassulian culture in general. Furthermore, instead of the familiar variety of ceramic types typical of the Ghassulian culture, large storage vessels predominate the assemblage from Structure I. These were scattered in the center of the room rather than placed in a row or in shallow depressions along the walls, like storage vessels in the other areas of the site. Structure I also revealed a large quantity of Canaanean blades, one Canaanean blade core and a great deal of debitage from of this technology. Two copper axes were found in the two broad walls of the structure: one on a wall and the second between two wall courses. An ossuary (sent for restoration) was discovered on the floor of the structure. Structure II, on the other hand, yielded meager material finds, which include a few potsherds of the Ghassulian culture. This paucity of finds is particularly conspicuous when compared to the abundance of Chalcolithic pottery in all other excavation areas.
The finds from the Chalcolithic period. The building remains of the Chalcolithic settlement uncovered at the site were attributed to the Ghassulian horizon based on the finds from all the areas, which demonstrate both a typology and a technology associated with the Ghassulian culture (for this culture’s characteristics, see Rowan and Golden 2009; Gilead 2011). The ceramic assemblage includes fossils directeurs of this culture: V-shaped bowls, churns and cornets. The most common vessel decorations are red bands, found mostly on the rims. The typological breakdown of the assemblage resembles that in other sites attributed to the Ghassulian culture (Lovell 2010:109); however, the ratio of open to close vessels at the site is slightly smaller than usual. The most common tools in the flint assemblage are backed sickle blades, end scrapers and bifacials. Hundreds of basalt fenestrated footed bowls decorated with incised lines were found at the site, as well as stone tools and copper items.
The Hellenistic Period
Area C. Pits dug into the Chalcolithic stratum yielded potsherds, mainly to bowls and jars, dating from the third–second centuries BCE. In a pit that was dug partly into the edge of the road uncovered in this area, were two jars and two amphorae (Fig. 8) dating from the third–second centuries BCE. These pits may represent the outskirts of a cemetery—extending mostly beyond the excavation limits—that served the inhabitants of the Hellenistic settlement located c. 700 m southwest of Area C.
The Byzantine Period
Area D (300 sq m) was opened in an agricultural plain and divided into three segments that revealed poorly preserved building remains. A wall (length 1.1 m, preserved height c. 2.5 m) in the northern segment was built of dressed, medium-sized kurkar stones. Alayer of earthen fill surrounding the wall contained numerous Byzantine-period sherds. The central segment (Fig. 9), situated 15 m south of the northern one, contained the remains of a room. The southern segment, c. 16 m south of the central one, revealed two construction strata with meager remains which seem to belong to four buildings. These remains were severely damaged by modern agriculture due to their proximity to the surface.
Area H was opened 800 m north of the center of the village of Ni‘ilya. Thirteen squares were opened, revealing remains of a rock-cut winepress in the eastern part of the area and scant remains of two other installations, probably winepresses as well, in the center and western part of the area. The remains lay only c. 0.8 m below the surface and were very poorly preserved due to intensive agricultural activities over the past several decades.
The treading floor, collecting vat and settling basin of the rock-cut winepress were all preserved. A hewn depression in the treading floor served to accommodate a screw installation, and a hewn channel lead from this depression to the settling basin. The flooring of the treading floor did not survive in situ, however pieces of the flooring—potsherds set into plaster in a herringbone pattern—were found in the collecting vat. A plastered channel led from the treading floor to the settling basin. Both the settling basin and the collecting vat were rectangular in shape. Their walls were lined with a mixture of small stones and gray hydraulic plaster, and they were floored with square stone tiles, a few of which survived in situ.
Two phases of a plaster floor with a round depression, probably the remains of a winepress collecting vat, comprised the installation remains in the center of the area, and those in western installation comprised two adjacent square vats, apparently rock-cut, lined with small stones and plastered. In the western vat of the latter only the floor bedding, it consisting of several layers of plaster, survived. A few industrial mosaic tesserae from the floor of the eastern vat were also preserved.
The Early Islamic Period
Area G. The remains of a hewn installation and three hewn pits (not drawn) were uncovered; the fill in the pits contained sherds from the Early Islamic period. East of the pits were meager remains of the foundation of a northeast–southwest wall built of unworked limestones and set on the kurkar rock. A segment of another wall, cut in the kurkar rock, were also found.
The Ottoman Period
Area B. The village of Ni‘ilya is mentioned in nineteenth-century surveys (Guérin 1868:172; Conder and Kitchener 1883:244). It extended over the hilltop and southern and western slopes of a kurkar hill. The excavation area, in the southwestern part of the village, was selected after examining aerial photographs and removing vegetation (Fig. 10). A census taken at the end of the nineteenth century indicates that the village already existed, but the village nucleus from that period has not been identified at the site.
Area B (800 sq m) revealed the remains of four of the village dwellings, dating from the time of the British Mandate (1917–1948), each comprising rooms surrounding a central courtyard. The main construction materials were medium-sized kurkar stones, some of which were dressed, combined with concrete for reinforcement. The interior walls (average width 0.5 m) and the exterior walls (average width 0.65 m) were coated with white and blue plaster. Most of the floors were made of white plaster on a bedding (thickness c. 5 cm) of crushed kurkar. The floors in two of the rooms consisted of concrete tiles set on crushed concrete. Probes under the floors of four rooms in different houses indicated that they were not built over ancient remains. The excavation revealed a densely inhabited village with well-built houses, each with a central courtyard. Conclusions could not be drawn regarding the settlement’s plan due to the limited extent of the excavation. The ancient nucleus of the village should apparently be sought elsewhere, perhaps on top of the hill, northeast of the excavated area.
The excavation revealed a large and impressive site that sheds light on the Chalcolithic period in Israel in general and in Ashqelon in particular. The exposure of the site in Area E, as well as the discovery of pottery and flint from the Chalcolithic period in the trial trenches and in archaeological inspection work near the site, attests to a settlement pattern of a large central settlement surrounded by smaller ones. The extensive exposure of the site enables to identify the settlement’s character. This appears to be the largest Chalcolithic settlement uncovered so far in Israel, and it reveals various aspects of life in an urban settlement at this time—residential and industrial, as well as religious and cultic.
In the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods, the excavated area was part of the flourishing agricultural hinterland of Ashqelon. This is evinced in the remains of winepresses in Area H, structures in Area D and scattered remains discovered throughout the rest of the excavation areas. Due to the proximity of these remains to the surface, they were severely damaged by Ottoman-period and modern agricultural work by the villagers of Ni‘ilya. The limited excavation of the village remains indicated that at least part of it was densely built with courtyard houses which were refurbished and renovated over time.