Negev Desert Tombs Linked to Ancient Trafficking of Sacred Prostitutes
While exploring in the remote Negev Desert in southern Israel in 2021, archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) stumbled upon something quite unexpected. Right along the route of a planned water line that will be passing through this area, they found a pair of above-ground burial markers made from piles of rock. After performing excavations at the site, they unearthed a pair of square burial chambers that dated back to the middle of the first millennium BC, 2,500 years ago. Most remarkably, these tombs appear to exclusively house the skeletal remains of women.
Over 50 Bodies Discovered Entombed in Israel’s Negev Desert
At first, the archaeologists assumed these were modest burial mounds left behind by Negev nomads who’d lived in the region at some point in the Middle Bronze Age (before 2,000 BC). Mounds of this type had been found in the Negev before. But once the excavation started, they realized they’d jumped to a false conclusion. “As we kept digging we understood that this was not something so common, but something from a later period and much larger,” Martin David Pasternak, the Israeli Antiquities Authority archaeologist who led this expedition, told Haaretz.
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The archaeologists were surprised and delighted to find that below the surface markers were two sizeable burial chambers separated by a courtyard. The largest of the perfectly square chambers was 23 feet (7m) long on each side, while the sides of the other were all 15 feet (4.5 m) in length.
During their excavations, the archaeologists were astonished to find more than 50 bodies entombed in the largest chamber alone. By the way some of the skeletons were haphazardly arranged, often piled on top of one another, it was possible to see that some of them had been moved around at some point. This was presumably done to make room for new incoming bodies. This finding suggests the tombs were used as burial sites for a long time, perhaps for several centuries.
A wealth of grave goods were found inside the tombs and based on the styles of these objects the archaeologists were able to date the burial site to the mid-first millennium BC (seventh century to fifth century BC). Radiocarbon dating will soon be performed on some of the skeletal remains, to see if a more exact range of years from that time period can be pinned down.
One of the cowrie shells found in the tomb. (Davida Eisenberg-Degen / Israel Antiquities Authority)
Burying the Dead at the Sacred Crossroads
It was notable that the tomb site was not located close to any known settlements from Iron Age times. The Negev desert was as harsh and hospitable then as it is now. But the Israeli Antiquities Authority researchers have an explanation as to why anyone would choose to bury their dead at such a remote location. “The site appears to be located at the head of an ancient crossroad,” they wrote in an article just published in the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, “and it seems that for generations it was used for communal graves and associated burial rituals carried out by travelers.”
This would mean that the recently discovered tomb in Israel was not a cemetery associated with a particular community or people. It was instead used by those who were just passing through and had experienced an unexpected loss on the way to their final destination.
Early indications are that most if not all of the skeletons excavated from the cemetery came from women. Rich collections of grave goods were found in the tombs, and they included mostly items that would have been owned or used by adult women during Iron Age times. This included many pieces of jewelry made from copper and iron, dozens of polished stone beads, bone rings made from camels, cowrie-shell pendants from the Red Sea region, as well as Egyptian scarabs. There were also many ceramic vases made from Cypraea shells harvested from the Red Sea, which ancient women from Egypt kept as to protect them from evil.
Egyptian faience amulet of Bes, Egyptian divine protector of women and children. (Davida Eisenberg-Degen / Israel Antiquities Authority)
Why Were Only Women Buried in Negev Desert Tombs
Notably, no weapons were recovered from the tombs, which suggests men were not being buried in this particular cemetery. But why would this be? According to the IAA researchers, there is an explanation for the gender discrepancy in the burials. They aren’t certain the burial site was used to entomb beloved family members or friends who’d passed away during a long trip. Instead, they say, it may have been reserved for deceased slaves who died while being taken across the desert to be sold into prostitution.
Ancient written texts, including Minaean inscriptions recovered in Yemen, reference the trafficking of women for the purposes of ritual prostitution throughout the region in the first millennium BC. After being purchased in Gaza or Egypt, the women would be transported across the desert to Arabia, where they would be sold into sacred prostitution rings connected to various religious sects.
As of now this idea is only a theory. But it would explain why women seem to have been buried in disproportionate numbers in the ancient cemetery, and why it was located at a site where two heavily trafficked roads leading west to east from Egypt to the Arabian Peninsula converged and crossed.
In their published study, co-authors Pasternak and archaeologist Tali Erickson-Gini wrote that crossroads were seen as sacred places in ancient times. At these locations, it was believed that the boundaries that separated the lands of the living and the dead were extremely thin, making contact with or passage to the other side much easier to achieve. If the deceased were indeed women destined to be sold as ritual prostitutes, it may have seemed appropriate to bury them at a place that was blessed by the gods.
Southern Arabian incense pot with lid. (Davida Eisenberg-Degen / Israel Antiquities Authority)
A Salad of Cultures in the Negev Desert
One of the more fascinating aspects of this discovery is the diversity of the objects that were buried alongside the deceased women. These artifacts from different areas of the Red Sea and Mediterranean region, suggesting that a vigorous trading network was in operation 2,500 years ago.
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The finds “represent a salad of cultures,” Pasternak stated, noting that ceramic vessels found indicated connections with the kingdoms of Edom, Moab and Phoenicia, all of which bordered the lands of ancient Israel. Many items from Egypt were discovered as well, which could indicate that many of the slave women were indeed from there. “Many of these artifacts may have ended in the hands of women who were indeed coming from Arabia, but we think there is enough historical evidence to suspect these were foreign women who were being taken to Arabia,” Tali Erickson-Gini said.
As for the tombs themselves, the archaeologists have already identified their distinctive style. “There is a strong southern Arabian element here,” Pasternak said. “We don’t have good parallels for these tombs in our region but there are similar communal tombs near Dubai, in Oman, and there are possibly burials of this kind in Yemen, though not much has been excavated or published there due to the current conflict.”
Among the artifacts found were alabaster vessels and incense burners, both of which were common in southern Arabia in the first millennium BC. The Israeli Antiquities Authority researchers are convinced the traders who used the newly discovered cemetery came from southern Arabia. Unfortunately, it is not possible to identify their point of origin exactly at this time. But that may change after the IAA archaeologists have had more time to study the incredible cache of artifacts and skeletons they unearthed deep in the heart of the forbidding Negev.
Top image: The two burial chambers found near Kibbutz Tlalim in Israel. Source: Emil Aladjem / Israel Antiquities Authority
By Nathan Falde