90-year Anniversary: Excavations at el-Wad Cave

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This is a picture take inside from the el-Wad cave , located in the Wadi el-Mughara (the Valley of the Caves) in Mount Carmel, about 20km South of Haifa in Oktober 2016 during my last visit of this place.

El -Wad is large cave with a lofty roof  greater in area than any of the other three caves in the Wadi el-Mughara.  According to Garrod’s subdivision (Garrod and Bate 1937), it consists of an outer and an inner chamber (Chambers I and II) and a 71m long corridor (Chambers III-VI). In front of the cave there is a small terrace, sloping slightly downwards to a distance of 9.5m from the cave mouth. A large talus, some 45m in radius, falls steeply away from the terrace towards the plain. This is the largest of the Mt. Carmel caves. The accumulated layers provide evidence of human presence from the end of the occupation of the Tabun Cave (45 k .a.).

helwan2When, in 1927, the British Mandatory Government’s Public Works Department initiated the Haifa Harbor Project and quarrying threatened to destroy the caves’ cliff, Mr. Charles Lambert, Assistant Director of the Mandatory Department of Antiquities of Palestine, was assigned to check the complex of caves to see whether it was worth saving. In autumn 1928 Lambert made five soundings in el-Wad Cave, three inside and two on the terrace, resulting in several important discoveries. In fact, Lambert was the first to unveil the Natufian layers at el-Wad and to establish their stratigraphy. On the terrace, amongst stone walls and grinding implements, he came upon two burials, later known to be Natufian, the first ever unearthed at Mount Carmel ( Fig 1 and 2 : Helwan Lunates, characteristic for the early Natufian).

Inside the cave, a bone sickle handle carved as a young animal was found, the first prehistoric art ever published in the Near East. The subsequent recognition of the Mount Carmel caves as archaeologically important, and their registration as an antiquity site, was followed by six years of excavation directed, on behalf of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem and the American School of Prehistoric Research, by Dorothy A.E. Garrod (Garrod and Bate 1937).

helwan1Paleontological analyses were conducted by Dorothea M.A. Bate (1937), and the human remains were examined by T.D. McCown and A. Keith (1939). Garrod’s expedition excavated el-Wad during five seasons (1929-1933). In 1929 and 1930 work was carried out both in the cave and on the terrace , but in the following years on the terrace only. What she called Chambers I and II were dug to bedrock; Chamber III was partially excavated; soundings to bedrock were made in Chambers IV and V, while Chamber VI was not excavated as bedrock was exposed on its surface. The terrace and talus were dug to bedrock over an area of approximately 270 sq. m (Garrod and Bate 1937). At first, Garrod interpreted the archaeological sequence she found to include the Mousterian (Layer G), covered by three Upper Paleolithic assemblages (Layers E, D, and C), and ending with Natufian (Layers B2 and B1) and historic (Layer A) deposits. Layer F contained a mixture of Middle Paleolithic and Upper Paleolithic material (Garrod 1931).

kebara-font-yves-aggsbachLater (Garrod 1951) she changed her mind, and viewed layers G and F as a single cultural unit which she termed a “transitional industry” between the Middle and Upper Paleolithic techno-complexes. Layers E, D and C, representing the Aurignacian, were subsequently assigned to the Upper Paleolithic Stages III, IV and V respectively (Garrod 1951), and following the sequence proposed by Neuville (1934). The distinct characteristics of Layer C led Garrod to place it within Stage V of the Upper Paleolithic and she named the industry “Atlitian”. It has been recently suggested that this assemblage actually represents an Early Natufian occurrence in the inner part of the cave (Fig 3: El Wad point– more prominent in Stage III than IV).

In the cave, Garrod found only small patches of undisturbed Natufian deposits. In the outer chamber these included a collective burial of ten skeletons in extended position. However, the most extensive and important area, according to Garrod, was that excavated on the terrace as it had suffered less disturbance than those inside the cave and yielded the most notable Natufian finds. The archaeological remains included a few architectural elements and close to 100 burials, accompanied by a rich material culture of lithics, decorative items, bone tools, ground-stone implements, and a rich and varied faunal assemblage. It was on the basis of her excavations at el-Wad that Garrod was able to differentiate, through typological criteria, between early (Layer B2) and late (Layer B1) Natufian phases. The Early Natufian extended over the terrace and the outer chambers (I and II) of the cave while the Late Natufian was apparently restricted to the terrace (Garrod and Bate 1937; but see Weinstein-Evron 2008)

Many of the terrace structures and features, including pavements, a retaining wall and several basins cut in the bedrock, were assigned to the Early (Lower) Natufian. Similarly, the tightly flexed skeletons of both individual and group inhumations, as well as the decorated burials, were assigned to the early phase. Bone implements and art objects were numerous in the Early Natufian. The lithics of the early phase were characterized by relatively longer lunates than those found in the later phase, their backing predominantly shaped by bifacial “Helwan” retouch. Sickle blades were plentiful, while microburin technique was extremely rare. By contrast, the lithics of the Late (Upper) Natufian (Layer B1) were characterized by smaller lunates, with abruptly retouched backs and many microburins, while sickle blades were relatively rare. Bone implements and art objects, too, were rare. The burials contained only individual inhumations, the skeletons were slightly flexed and bore no ornaments. While the chronological relationship between the terrace and the collective burial in the cave mentioned above could not be precisely determined, the latter was considered to be of Early Natufian age (Garrod and Bate (1937). The results of Garrod’s pioneering work have led to the recognition of el-Wad as a key Natufian site.

Based on the size of the occupation, the varied and numerous finds, as well as the very long sequence, it has essentially become the prototype for a Natufian base camp. In 1980-1981, limited excavations were conducted by F. Valla, of the French Archaeological Mission in Jerusalem, and O. Bar-Yosef, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, north-east of Garrod’s terrace excavations in an area immediately adjacent to it (Valla et al. 1986) . Their aim was to re-examine the stratigraphy of the Natufian layers outlined by Garrod. The excavators suggested that Layer B1 could be further sub-divided, into Late and Final Natufian phases. The finds of the latter phase include flint artifacts, with many abruptly backed lunates that were considerably shorter than those of the Late Natufian, bone tools, and stone implements. Meticulous excavation procedures and the wet sieving of sediments guaranteed the recovery of a rich faunal assemblage including finds of fish, reptiles, birds and microfauna which made it possible to draw conclusions regarding paleoenvironmental conditions and the Natufians’ manner of exploitation of various biotopes.

In 1988-1989 excavations were carried out in Chamber III of the cave (Weinstein-Evron 1998) and an Early Natufian occurrence was unearthed. It contained rich lithic and faunal assemblages, together with characteristic basalt implements as well as art and decorative objects. Alongside the exploitation of local resources, long distance trade/exchange networks incorporating other Natufian groups were demonstrated .

It has been suggested, based on the recent excavations within the cave and a re-evaluation of archival materials , that the Natufian occupation of el-Wad extended over the entire terrace and that it was considerably more varied and complex than the picture which emerged from the original excavations. Moreover, the Natufian sequence at el-Wad is now recognized as one of the longest and most complete in the Levant. Within a series of layers encompassing some 3,000-3,500 years  all sub-stages, from the earliest Natufian through its late to final stages, are superimposed at the site.

Suggested Reading:

Mina Weinstein-Evron: Archaeology in the Archives- Unveiling the Natufian Culture of Mount Carmel

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/284342606_Spatial_organization_of_Natufian_el-Wad_through_time_Combining_the_results_of_past_and_present_excavations

http://arch.haifa.ac.il/index.php/contract-archaeology/books/144-early-natufian-el-wad-revisited

Fig 4:Wadi el-Mughara in Oktober 2016:

el-wad-outside-october-2016

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