Rare 3,800-year-old passageway and vault found in northern Israel

A rare and surprisingly well-preserved structure dating back to the Middle Bronze Age some 3,800 years ago was unearthed over the summer at the archaeological site of Tel Shimron, in the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel.

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Archaeologists excavated a corbelled passageway and a large vault built of thousands of unfired mud bricks, the first example of corbelled architecture found in Israel.

Corbelling, sometimes referred to as a “false arch,” is an ancient technique in which bricks are stacked progressively inward to create a vaulted ceiling, and was common in ancient Mesopotamia, but had not previously been found in the southern Levant. Vessels and other artifacts were also found at the site.

In ancient times, Shimron was a major city on the trade route through the area, but although Tel Shimron was known to be an important archaeological site, systematic excavations only began there in 2016. They have continued seasonally since.

The excavations are being co-directed by archaeologists Dr. Mario Martin and Dr. Daniel Master on behalf of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University and Wheaton College, Illinois, working with experts from Israel, the United States, and Europe.

Mario Martin, co-director, Tel Shimron excavations, at the site in Northern Israel. (credit: EYECON)

Master, who recently completed 25 years of excavations in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, told The Media Line that it would be interesting to compare the two sites, which both date from the same period but are geographically different, with Tel Shimron being in the north and inland while Ashkelon is in the south and coastal.

Only about 500 square meters (5,380 square feet) of Tel Shimron have been uncovered thus far, but it is estimated that the complex’s total size is a massive 200,000 square meters (49 acres), nearly double the size of the much more famous archaeological site at nearby Megiddo. The whole structure was artificially elevated by more than 4 meters (13 feet).

Excavations at Tel Shimron

Martin told The Media Line that the discoveries date to a time when Shimron was at its largest, “an era of intense urbanization in the region, as well as the development of city-states and the emergence of the Canaanite culture.”

The researchers said that the site was first mentioned in ancient Egyptian texts around 2000 BCE. Shimron is also mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.

“In the Middle Bronze Age, one of the things we see is the power, the monumentality, and the way in which Shimron was able to dominate [the local] trade route uniquely. It was never as powerful as it was in this period,” Master said.

Daniel Master, co-director, Tel Shimron excavations, Jezreel Valley, Israel. (credit: EYECON)

He said the site was an international hub, with pottery from Crete, Syria, and other locations from around the Mediterranean discovered there.

“[This] highlights the power and reach of the site during this period,” he said.

Excavations at Tel Shimron began on the southern side of the acropolis, where a tower complex consisting of some 9,000 mud bricks was unearthed. Inside the tower, a 1-meter-wide passageway with walls about 5 meters (16 feet) high was then uncovered.

At the entrance to the passageway, researchers found a fully intact “Nahariya Bowl,” a vessel with seven cups that was used for cultic offerings and ceremonies. This vessel helped to date the structure to the Middle Bronze Age.

The corbelled vault was found at the end of the passage. From it, a tunnel leads down that continues for a further 2 meters before being blocked by large stones. Removing the stones would risk collapse and danger to the excavation teams and they have been left in place.

“The Tel Shimron passageway with a corbelled vault fills an important gap in the history of architecture in this region,” Master said in the press release announcing the find.

“The vault is an ancestor to the mud brick radial arch in the gate at Tel Dan and is an extraordinary example of Mesopotamian mud brick technology,” he said.

Both the passage and the vault are made of unfired mud bricks, the first such discovery in the Southern Levant region. The researchers said that unfired mud brick structures almost never survive the test of time, making the find particularly exciting.

“It’s not like the Romans or Mesopotamians, who fired their bricks,” Martin told The Media Line. “[With mud brick] you just take mud, you dry it in the sun, and that’s your building material.”

He said it was most impressive that these simple mud bricks not only held together in such a massive passageway and vaulted structure but that they were so well preserved.

The level of preservation suggests that whoever built the passageway only used it for a short time before reburying it. The backfilling prevented deterioration or water damage.

With the exposed mud brick structures being extremely fragile and liable to collapse if left in the elements, the researchers have backfilled the site again.

In the next excavation season, they intend to resume digging the blocked passageway from the other end, predicting that they will find one of two structures usually found at the top of cities like this: a temple district, or the royal palace.

“They’re normally built together as kind of one unit,” Martin said.

In addition to preserving the site between excavation seasons, the backfilling will also protect the ancient city from looters, and the public from being injured.

Martin said it would be fairly easy to dig the site up again at a later date.

“There’s definitely a Part Two to this story,” Master said.

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