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The bird plaquette.

Rare Ritual Artifacts Reveal Details on Life at the Cusp of the Agricultural Revolution

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A remarkable collection of etched limestone pebbles may change our knowledge of prehistory in the Levant. Moreover, a beautiful head of a bird, which was carved into a limestone plaque 16,500 years ago, may be among the oldest ritual objects ever found in the Levant.

According to the Times of Israel , the collection of etched limestone pebbles was found in Ein Qashish by the banks of the Kishon River, in the Jezreel Valley, Israel. One of them was marked with the head of a bird and may be among the oldest ritual objects ever found in the Holy Land.

All of the etchings were made between 23,000 and 16,500 years ago on limestone pebbles. The pieces of limestone are small and fit in the palm of one’s hand. As the researchers wrote in their study published August 24, 2016, in the online journal Plos One , the discovery is “rare evidence of graphic symbols applied by late Pleistocene hunters-gatherers in the Levant.” For example, the carving of the 16,500 years old bird head may be one of the oldest ceremonial artifacts discovered in the Levant.

The chevron plaquette.

The chevron plaquette. ( Alla Yaroshevich et al. )

During the excavations between 2012 and 2013, researchers discovered three stone carvings on pebbles. The works were conducted by Ein Qashish by the Israel Antiquities Authority as part of the expansion of Highway 70 in northern Israel’s Jezreel Valley, north of the modern city of Yokne’am.

Radiocarbon dating of charcoal fragments found in the same layer as the stones dated some to around 23,000 years ago and others to 17,000-15,000 years ago. However, other small stone tools suggest that the bird head carving, which is a bald ibis, comes from the Epipalaeolithic period, just before the dawn of agriculture.

Microlithic tools found in association with the limestone artifacts.

Microlithic tools found in association with the limestone artifacts. ( Alla Yaroshevich et al. )

The researchers write that the bird-head plaquette depicts “the head of a bird seen in profile, together with a slightly curved, deeply incised line right above it. The bird is characterized by a large, curved beak and three ‘feathers’ in the form of little curvilinear, roughly parallel lines attached to the bird’s nape. A large round eye appears in the middle of the upturned, drop-shaped head.”

They go on to say that the interpretation of the bird plaquette was based on an analysis related to the enigmatic ''Bird Man'' from the Lascaux Cave in southern France. This famous painting was an inspiration to conclude that the symbol of the bird was related to spiritual life and it was an object used in a mysterious and forgotten ritual. It could have also been an example of ritual-related accessories. Finally, the symbol carved on the pebble may have been a part of a communication system.

A bald ibis.

A bald ibis. ( Victor Ochieng /CC BY SA 2.0 )

Researcher Alla Yeroshevich, an Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist who was lead author of the study, said that it is possible that another artifact, called ‘the ladder plaquette’ may have served as an artificial memory system. The archaeologist suggested to Times of Israel that it could have kept track of “time and location for particular activities, events of aggregation, either for specialized hunting, marital issues, rituals, exchange of resources.”

Moreover, the etchings may have even served as a primitive calendar. The people who created the objects belonged to a society on the cusp of the agricultural revolution. They already knew that understanding the seasons was very important for survival. According to Yeroshevich :

''This is use of symbols which others can understand. It’s like you writing [the numeral] 1 and that’s something that everyone in the world understands its significance.''

Photo (top) and 3D scanning of the ladder plaquette.

Photo (top) and 3D scanning of the ladder plaquette. ( Alla Yaroshevich et al. )

The region of the Jezreel Valley is very rich in findings. On March 1, 2016 Ancient Origins reported on another discovery in that area. That finding was made at Beit She’an Valley - a National Park in northern Israel and one of the most important excavation sites in the country. One of the more recent discoveries at the location was uncovered by a 7-year-old boy, who found a 3,400-year-old figurine.

According to  Heritage Daily , the boy, named Ori Grinhot, was hiking in the area of the National Park with his friends and a father of one of them. When he stumbled across the statue on the Tel Rehov archaeological site, the stone shifted and the boy saw an image of a person covered with soil. He started to rub away the mud and found an ancient figurine. The rare clay figurine is a representation of a naked woman. It was made by pressing the soft clay material into a mold.

Beit She'an National Park.

Beit She'an National Park. ( benito roveran/CC BY 2.0 )

For centuries, Beit She’an played an important role because of its location close to the Jordan River Valley and the Jezreel Valley. It was significant from the earliest known period of its existence until modern times. In 1933, American archaeologist  G.M. Fitzgerald from the University of Pennsylvania Museum  started the first excavations there. He dug on Tell el-Hisn, meaning ''castle hill''. These excavations allowed him to date the earliest settlement back in the Chalcolithic Period (some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago). They also proved that people lived there during the Bronze age and after.

Now, the limestone pebbles provide further proof of earlier human activities in the region as well.

Top Image: The bird plaquette. Source: Alla Yaroshevich et al.

By Natalia Klimczak

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