When the Netivei Israel Company wanted to build a new road from Motza to Jerusalem, its managers no doubt assumed that it would be a simple enough process. The area where the road was planned wasn’t thought to contain any significant historical sites, for one thing. But then a survey of the land revealed something remarkable just inches below the surface.
The discovery, just three miles outside of Jerusalem, was completely unexpected and has the potential to radically change what we know about ancient Israel. As the dig continued and the sheer scale of the site became apparent, the astonishment grew. Nothing like this had ever been found before here, so experts knew there was much to be studied and explored.
It’s not the first time something archaeologically significant has been found in this part of Israel, near the town of Motza, but it is the first of this size and importance. Now the experts have to be sure they learn everything they can about the site and preserve as much as possible while the roadworks continue.
The current state of Israel has existed since 1948, but the region has a history going back thousands of years. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all claim to be descended from a man called Abraham who lived in ancient Israel, though the former is believed to be in spiritual terms. They consider the region to be part of the Holy Land, so much of its history is intimately tied in with those religions.
Over the course of the last 2,000 years, Israel belonged to the Roman Empire and its successor the Byzantine Empire before becoming part of a Muslim caliphate in the 7th century A.D. In the Middle Ages, European Christians and Middle Eastern Muslims battled for control of their sacred sites in the wars known as the Crusades.
But it’s Israel’s more ancient history that is difficult to know – our main source of information is the Hebrew Bible and it’s proved difficult to check its accuracy. Furthermore, the scriptures that make up the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Old Testament were written hundreds of years after the reported events they depict.
Experts have hoped to use advances in technology to discover whether the events in the Bible really did happen. For example, discoveries made hitherto have suggested that the timelines depicted in the scripture have been off. And the truth is still uncertain in a lot of cases, especially when it comes to the oldest Bible stories.
For instance, we’re pretty certain that the Israelites didn’t knock down a giant wall at Jericho by blowing a trumpet, but the question of whether King David ruled a united Kingdom of Israel is a little more ambiguous. There’s one ancient inscription that mentions a House of David, but it’s unclear if it’s related to the biblical figure.
Excavations also suggest that any kingdom ruled by David must be smaller than the Bible claims, because there were no major settlements in the area during the appropriate time period. It’s been suggested that David, if he existed, was ruler of a small and remote hill town – quite a contrast to the stories of his powerful kingdom.
On the other hand, the remains of a fortress on the hill of Khirbet Qeiyafa do indicate that the area may have been more built up than previously thought. The fort doesn’t appear to have been there for very long, but it’s still more than you’d expect in a little hill town. Evidently, these new discoveries in the search for biblical answers seem to raise more questions.
It’s not until after the supposed time of the united Israel that archaeological evidence becomes a little more clear. By peeling through the layers, excavations in Jerusalem have traced the city’s history back through the Ottomans, the Byzantines and the Romans to the independent kingdom of Judea. But beneath that level, nothing has been found.
Other sites that have opened debate over the historicity of the Hebrew Bible include giant gates at Tell Hazor in Galilee and a copper mine at Timna. That copper mine was even nicknamed “King Solomon’s Mines,” just like in the novel by H. Rider Haggard. The most advanced scientific dating puts it in King Solomon’s era, but that doesn’t mean it was ruled by Solomon.
One possible reason for the difficulty in proving biblical history is that it can be difficult to find archaeological evidence of nomadic societies. Even the giant empire of Genghis Khan left few traces behind in its first century of rule. Nomadic societies may have had large populations, but they wouldn’t have left stone buildings for archaeologists to explore, giving one potential explanation for contradictory findings.
Recent excavations of biblical significance include Gath, which is supposedly the birthplace of the giant Goliath. Gath was a Philistine city state and in the Hebrew Bible, Goliath was their champion who fought David. Although Goliath was much bigger and stronger than his adversary, the latter used a simple sling and stone to defeat his enemy.
Experts who have been studying the remains of what seems to be Gath believe they may have an explanation for why Goliath was described as a giant. The excavations reveal a massive Iron Age settlement beneath more recent ruins that have already been explored. If the older city was so much bigger than others of the time, then perhaps it makes sense that the Israelites viewed its inhabitants as giants.
Going further back, however, it becomes even more difficult to know about Israel’s history. Some of the oldest human remains in Israel predate the Neolithic Period and actually come from the Paleolithic, during what is known as the Old Stone Age. They were found in caves at Mount Carmel between 1929 and 1934 by British archaeologist Dorothy Garrod.
Following these ancient humans were the Natufians of the Middle Stone Age. These people may have been some of the first to eat edible plants and build permanent homes, potentially leading to the emergence of agriculture in later years. As well as Israel, this society also lived in what are now Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
But let’s return to modern-day Israel, and examine the Netivei Israel Company, which had been constructing a new highway as part of what’s known as the Route 16 Project. The plan was to build a road from Motza to the western side of Jerusalem. The company funded a dig by the Antiquities Authority, but what resulted would surprise everyone.
For many years, historians and archaeologists believed that this region of Israel was uninhabited during the Neolithic Period. Instead, excavations near Motza Junction revealed something extraordinary – the remains of a massive settlement that was built 9,000 years ago.
Jacob Vardi, the site’s co-director of excavations, told journalists that the site was a “game changer.” He claimed that the city would have been a “real metropolis” because of its size and population, which would make it the ancient equivalent of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. The city spans about half a kilometer and must have involved careful planning by the builders of the time.
There is evidence that the city may have once been the home of up to 3,000 people. Alleyways run between large buildings where there are public facilities and living spaces, as well as sites where rituals may once have been practiced. The city is full of ancient jewelry, figurines and tools as well as seeds and other artifacts.
Elsewhere, thousands of items have been unearthed in the city. Some of the tools are made of flint, while a spearhead from the Bronze Age has also been found. Other weapons include arrowheads, stone bracelets and obsidian beads from Anatolia. This suggests, of course, that the civilization may have had trading links with other societies.
Some tombs in the city contain stone figurines that may have been part of ceremonial burials. One tomb was 4,000 years old and contained two warriors that had been buried with a spear and dagger. It also included a donkey which had been interred just in front of the tomb, likely meant to accompany them to the afterlife.
The value of this excavation is immeasurable, indeed there may never been a dig of this size of a site this age in the Middle East before. Archaeologists believe that simply having this much evidence to analyze will lead to huge progress in our understanding of the time period – and there is a lot to preserve.
As well as the city, there is evidence that intensive agriculture was being practiced by the ancient residents. There are storage sheds full of lentil seeds and other legumes that somehow survived from the city’s heyday. Experts have also studied the animal bones found at the site, and they think that traditional hunting was gradually being replaced with sheep farming.
Humanity would only just have been shifting from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to more stationary farming when the city was inhabited. That’s part of the reason it was thought unlikely that there had been any major settlements there. The only reason it was found now was because of the survey work in preparation for the new highway.
For its part, the site is a good place to build a city. The ground is fertile and there is an abundant supply of water from sources including the Nahel Sorek. There is even an ancient path in the foothills which leads towards Jerusalem. But the remarkable thing is how early it was built – it is thousands of years older than the pyramids in Egypt, which are considered one of humanity’s greatest ancient construction projects.
The Neolithic Period is the common name for the last part of the Stone Age, and as you might expect, it’s known for its stone tools. But it was also the time when agriculture was being established and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was being replaced by settled living. Different parts of the world saw this shift at different times, so when the Neolithic started is debatable, though it probably began around in around 10,000 B.C.
Other innovations of the Neolithic period included weaving and the making of pottery. The building of settled communities also led to conflict between different villages and towns. One of the first places to experience the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution was the area of the Middle East known as the Fertile Crescent, as it was ideal for farming.
One of the first settled communities in the Middle East were the Natufians, who lived through the transition from hunter-gathering to settled living. Furthermore, Neolithic settlements have also been found in Turkey and Syria, while the period, along with the Stone Age, came to an end when advances in metalwork led to the beginning of the Bronze Age.
It’s not the first time, however, that the site, known as Tel Motza, has proved a profitable area for archaeologists. It’s home to many storage buildings and grain silos from multiple historical periods. In 2012 an ancient temple was discovered during other road-building preparations. Tel Motza would have been built around 2,750 years ago, during the time of the Kingdom of Judah.
The transition from hunter-gathering to settled living also changed how ancient people worshipped. This period saw them create more complex religious rituals, along with statues and other ornaments. Figurines and pottery have been found at Tel Motza, including chalices and bowls that would have been used in religious ceremonies.
Tel Motza would have had huge walls and an impressive entrance, experts believe. As it faced east, this would have meant the rising sun could flow into the building and illuminate the sacred objects – a common feature in ancient temples in this part of the world. There was also a courtyard at the center of the temple, featuring what archaeologists think was probably an altar.
There’s not a lot of evidence of ritualistic behavior in this part of Israel during the time of Tel Motza, and this makes the temple extra valuable. The fact it is so close Jerusalem is also interesting, because in later years, many temples would be abolished as all religious rituals moved to Jerusalem.
Modern-day Motza was built in the area known as Colonia in the mid-18th century, when a group of Jewish families purchased the site from its Arab residents. It became an agricultural colony, the first of its kind, where a range of vegetables and rare fruits were grown.
Experts are now having to revise everything they thought they knew about Neolithic settlements in the Middle East because of the new city. Vardi even referred to the site as the “Big Bang” in terms of its significance in prehistoric research. The only other Neolithic sites anywhere nearby are in the Northern Levant, or on the other side of the Jordan River.
Other ancient sites in Israel include Jericho, which was one of the first-ever human settlements and has origins dating back as much as 9,000 years. Most archaeologists may have decided that the Israelites did not destroy the walls of Jericho, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any walls. In fact, the stone fortification that surrounded it is the oldest wall of its kind ever discovered.
Like Tel Motza, Jericho has evidence that its ancient inhabitants practiced agriculture. The layout of the town also suggests planned and organized living. Jericho was abandoned at several points in its history, but people returned the place because it has a good water supply. And as for the walls of Jericho tumbling down, they likely did this due to an earthquake, experts believe.
At the newly discovered city, 3D modelling is being used to record the buildings, so that every part of the site can be documented. In addition, modern technology should allow an unprecedented level of analysis even away from the site and inside the laboratory.
Another important part of the process is making sure that this discovery is available to the general public. A display is being constructed at Tel Motza with illustrations used to depict the site, whilst two other archaeological sites called Tel Yarmut and Tel Bet Shemesh are hosting other conservation activities. This will all help make the discoveries accessible to the public.