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Photograph of the ‘dogleg’ part of the Neolithic wall at Tel Hreiz, Israel. Source: E. Galili and J. McCarthy

Neolithic Wall is the World’s Oldest Sea Defense System

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In Israel, archaeologists have found evidence of what could be the oldest sea defense wall. The Neolithic wall is up to 7000 years old and was built by a community as they battled against rising sea levels. The find illustrates how an ancient group of people struggled with climate change and their efforts ultimately failed.

The discovery was made at the site of a Stone Age settlement by a team of Israeli and Australian archaeologists at Tel Hreiz on Israel’s Carmel Coast. The site now lies in shallow waters and is one of a number of submerged Neolithic villages in the area. There have been numerous important finds at Tel Hreiz, including a stone cist grave , stone structures, and bowls.

The archaeological site at Tel Hreiz has been known since the 1960s, but in 2012 storms revealed new structures that are unlike anything else found in the region. Dr. Jonathan Benjamin from Flinders University, one of the leaders of the excavation, stated that “There are no known or similar built structures at any of the other submerged villages in the region,” according to Phys.org.

Finds from the Tel Hreiz: (a-b) exposure of stone-built features in shallow water, (c) wooden posts dug into the seabed, (d) bifacial flint adze, (e) in situ stone bowl made of sandstone, (f) in situ basalt grounding stone (scale = 20cm); (g) a burial, (h) suspected stone-built cist grave, and (i) antler of Mesopotamian fallow deer. (Images by E. Galili with the exception of Fig 3G by V. Eshed)

Finds from the Tel Hreiz: (a-b) exposure of stone-built features in shallow water, (c) wooden posts dug into the seabed, (d) bifacial flint adze, (e) in situ stone bowl made of sandstone, (f) in situ basalt grounding stone (scale = 20cm); (g) a burial, (h) suspected stone-built cist grave, and (i) antler of Mesopotamian fallow deer. ( Images by E. Galili with the exception of Fig 3G by V. Eshed )

Submerged Stone Age Villages

The village at Tel Hreiz was originally built about 10 ft (3.05 meters), above sea level, a safe distance away from the Mediterranean. However, as the glaciers melted at the end of the last Ice Age the Mediterranean began to rise. Ehud Galili of Haifa University told The Daily Mail that the inhabitants of this area would have “experienced a sea-level rise of 4–7 mm a year or approximately 12–21 cm during a lifetime (up to 70 cm in a 100 years).”

The rising sea level would have become noticeable to the people in the Stone Age Village over the years. The increasing waters of the Mediterranean meant that they would have experienced more extreme weather events. Galili stated that “This rate of sea-level rise means the frequency of destructive storms damaging the village would have risen significantly,” reports IFL Science .

(a) isometric modelling of the Tel Hreiz seawall based on an aerial photograph of the site and its hinterland (b) schematic cross section of the site today, and (c) during the Pottery Neolithic period. (J. McCarthy, E. Galili, and J. Benjamin)

(a) isometric modelling of the Tel Hreiz seawall based on an aerial photograph of the site and its hinterland (b) schematic cross section of the site today, and (c) during the Pottery Neolithic period. ( J. McCarthy, E. Galili, and J. Benjamin )

The Neolithic Wall Plan

This required a response from the community at Tel Hreiz and they built a massive seawall. The archaeologist found the remnants of the wall, which is 327 feet long (99.67 meters) long, in shallow waters. It was laid out in an ingenious dog-leg (sharp bend) pattern, to hold back the rising tides .

The coastal defense system was made of boulders and large rocks that were taken from a riverbed 1 mile (1.61 km) away from the site. This feature is dated to 7000 years ago and is believed to be the oldest sea defense wall found to date. It would have been a major construction project and taken a great deal of time and effort.

However, the sea defense wall only held the Mediterranean back for so long, simply delaying the inevitable. In the long run, the coastal defense system failed. The waters rose higher and higher and this probably forced the villagers to leave the area after it was inundated, possibly during a winter storm.

Artist reconstruction of the PN village and the sea wall. (Drawing J. McCarthy and E. Galili)

Artist reconstruction of the PN village and the sea wall. ( Drawing J. McCarthy and E. Galili )

Dangers of Global Warming

The fate of the Stone Age community and the challenges they faced are truly relevant to the modern world . Global sea levels are rising because of global warming and it is believed that the sea could rise up to 3 mm a year. This is not as dramatic as what was experienced by the people who lived 7000 years ago on Israel’s Carmel Coast . Nonetheless, many coastal communities are imperiled by rising seas. It is expected that even if governments meet the targets set out in the Paris Climate Accord that the sea-level will rise.

This will pose a major challenge to many coastal communities and they will experience the same dangers faced by the inhabitants of Tel Hreiz some 7000 years ago. Dr. Galli is quoted by The Daily Mail as stating that “coastal defense, technological innovation and decisions to ultimately abandon long-standing settlements remain relevant.” The dangers of a rising sea-level is already a reality for cities such as Jakarta.

The findings of the study are published in the PLOS ONE online journal.

Top Image: Photograph of the ‘dogleg’ part of the Neolithic wall at Tel Hreiz, Israel. Source : E. Galili and J. McCarthy

By Ed Whelan

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