Tel Halif was an important settlement site during many historical periods, from the Chalcolithic to the Early Islamic periods. Iron Age burial caves were surveyed and excavated in the area. Most of them were chance discoveries, identified during probes that were conducted prior to construction and development, and some were breached by antiquities robbers. An Iron Age burial cave was first excavated in 1964 at Kibbutz Lahav, c. 300 m south of Tel Halif. The cave consisted of two rock-hewn burial chambers. There was a hewn bench and a bone repository in one of the chambers, and twenty-five Iron Age pottery vessels were discovered in it (HA 1964). Another burial cave was exposed near the current excavation. It was hewn in limestone rock and consisted of a burial chamber with a rock-cut shelf and a bone repository. The cave, which was not disturbed by antiquities robbers, and was excavated in its entirety, contained c. 350 pottery vessels and other artifacts from the Iron Age II (ninth–eighth centuries BCE; Biran and Gophna 1965, 1968, 1970). Three caves were discovered and partially excavated at the foot of the hill on the southern side of Tel Halif, where the current excavation took place; two of those caves had been plundered by antiquities robbers. The plan of the tombs consists of a single hewn chamber, rock-cut shelves along three of the walls, and pits that served as bone repositories in the corners between the benches. These ‘Judaean-type’ tombs date to the Iron Age II (950–750 BCE), and 200 pottery vessels, iron blades with bone handles, jewelry and small finds were discovered in them (Seger 1972a, 1972b). Two other caves were located on the southern hill and they too consisted of a hewn burial chamber with shelves and bone repositories. Pottery vessels dating to the eighth century BCE were discovered in them, including a Samaria bowl with a molded pomegranate in its center (Seger 1978; Cole 1978). Extensive archaeological activity—surveys and excavations—has been conducted in the area of Tel Halif in recent years (see Borowski 2013 for a detailed listing of the finds from the burial caves).
The current excavation was conducted in a natural cave formed by karstic dissolution in a layer of hard limestone rock, on the slopes of a spur that descends from the south to the north and northwest. In antiquity the cave was adapted for use by quarrying; rock surfaces were leveled and fieldstones walls were built, in order to narrow the opening of the cave and to line the rock walls where they were cracked or broken. A built entrance to the cave was constructed on the east, and two built steps led down from it to the interior of the cave (6 × 7 m; Figs. 1–3). The bottom step was founded on top of a fieldstons wall constructed at the front of the cave, apparently to narrow the opening and facilitate closing it. Two flat fieldstones were placed across the opening as a threshold, and perhaps blocked alluvium and surface runoff from entering the cave. A shelf was hewn c. 1 m above the floor level on the southern side of the cave (Fig. 4), and another at a height of 0.6 m on the western side. The northeastern corner of the cave was enclosed by fieldstones walls, which completed the line of the natural rock that sustained damaged in that area. Silt penetrated through the opening and the cracks in the walls and accumulated inside the cave (3.7 × 4.7 m) between the walls and the shelves. The alluvium covered and sealed the archaeological strata and filled the cave almost to the ceiling. The antiquities robbers disturbed the stratigraphy of the cave in several places. Four activity phases were identified. Unlike many of the burial caves that were excavated and documented in the vicinity, no repository was discovered here.
Phase 1 (fourth millennium BCE). Soil fill containing several pottery sherds that date to the Chalcolithic period, including fragments of jars with rope ornamentations, was discovered in hollows in the bedrock that formed the floor of the cave. In addition, a small stone figurine in the style of the ‘violin’ figurines was found (Fig. 5). The artifacts were probably gathered from the vicinity of the cave in antiquity, and were deposited inside it when the floor was leveled for use during the second phase. These finds are not surprising since numerous remains from the Chalcolithic period were discovered in archeological excavations at Tel Halif and the surrounding area.
Phase 2 (fourteenth–thirteenth centuries BCE). A floor level of tamped gray earth bonded with small gravel was exposed above the bedrock (Fig. 6). This level was obviously made to conform to the bedrock surface in the central space of the cave. It contained many Late Bronze pottery sherds, including imported Cypriot ware, bilbils and milk bowls. Careful sieving of the soil from this level produced two seal rings. One was made of faience and the other was of a red stone, set in a bronze ring bearing the image of a warrior grasping a shield in his left hand and in his right hand holding a sickle-sword above his head (Fig. 7). Other artifacts recovered from the floor level included scarabs, jewelry and a large number of beads. No human bones were found in this level. The abundance of finds in this phase indicates that the cave was initially used during the Late Bronze Age, perhaps as a dwelling or for burial. Several pottery sherds dating to this period were discovered in a probe that was excavated from the floor level down to bedrock.
Phase 3 (ninth–eighth centuries BCE). A horizontal layer of limestones was exposed. It was apparent that the stones were placed there on purpose to cover the level below. The possibility that the stones fell from the ceiling of the cave was rejected because the layer of stones extended over areas where the ceiling remained intact. Intact pottery vessels dating to the Iron Age II in Judah (ninth–eighth centuries BCE; Figs. 8–10) were discovered between the stones and slightly beneath them. The vessels included black juglets, chalices, pinched clay lamps, jugs and amphoriskoi. Below the layer of stones was a meager quantity of poorly preserved human bones, most of them crumbled on touch. All the material that was removed was carefully sieved on the ground outside the cave. Several scarabs, beads, seals, and bronze and bone jewelry were discovered. An alabastron made of pale yellow alabaster was found in a heap of debris left by the antiquities robbers on top of the western shelf. Two scarabs were found during the sieving of soil that was scraped from the rock surface of the southern shelf when it was cleaned.
Phase 4 (third–second centuries BCE). Brown alluvium soil accumulated (average thickness 1.1 m) since the cave went out of use, and until it was breached by the antiquities robbers. Several intact pottery vessels were discovered in this accumulation, including two fusiform bottles and a clay lamp. The vessels date to the Hellenistic period (second century BCE) and were probably brought to the cave at that time. The population of the Hellenistic period prepared many burial caves on the slopes of the hill, in the vicinity this cave. Pottery characteristic to the period was found on three sides of the cave, at different levels, with no clear context. Two human skulls and the remains of two well-preserved skeletons were exposed in the pile of debris left by the antiquities robbers c. 1 m above the level of the southern shelf. An intact fusiform bottle and part of a bronze toggle-pin were discovered alongside them. The bones from this phase were well-preserved, unlike the powdered bone-fragments discovered in the earlier phases.
The cave at Tel Halif is a natural cave that was used by the residents of the nearby tel in the Late Bronze Age. It was large and high and its wide opening gave easy access to man and to sheep and goats; it seems that the cave was used as a shelter or in relation to grazing.
Many burial caves were hewn in the hill south of Tel Halif when it was prepared for use as a cemetery during the Iron Age II, probably in the ninth century BCE, when this cave was first used for burial according to the excavation results. A massive wall with a staircase was built at the opening to the cave. The wall was constructed to narrow the entrance to the cave and to make it possible to close it and protect its contents. A shelf was hewn and levelled at the southern part of the cave, apparently to place the deceased on. Similar picture emerges from the analysis of finds in contemporary adjacent tombs that were discovered and excavated on the hillside. The cave was used for burial over a long period, during which large quantities of material accumulated on its floor. The damp climatic conditions in the cave resulted in the disintegration of the bones of the deceased, which were apparently placed on the floor of the cave alongside many funerary offerings and jewelry, and were covered with a layer of stones. Once the cave was no longer used for interment a large quantity of alluvium penetrated the chamber from the surface above the layer of stones, and buried the finds. The residents of the tel continued to use the hill south of Tel Halif as a cemetery in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. During the Hellenistic period (the third–second centuries BCE) people apparently re-entered the cave and left several pottery vessels there. These were placed on top of the alluvial deposit, without any construction or accompanying context. The cave was covered over and was broken into again by antiquities robbers in the modern era. More than 500 pottery vessels, many of them intact, were discovered in the cave, as well as an alabaster vessel, a stone incense burner, scarabs, seals, bullae, bronze items and numerous pieces of jewelry. The finds are extremely rich and diverse. Some of the vessels that were found were imported from Cyprus and some were of Egyptian origin, or made under Egyptian influence, among them were the seals bearing the names of king Thutmose III who reigned in 1504–1450 BCE and Amenhotep III who reigned in 1386–1349 BCE. The variety of finds can attest to the composition of the population at Tel Halif, its identity in the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age II, and the influence of Egyptian culture on the population in Israel. The cave provides a wealth of information about the cemetery south of Tel Halif.