Investigating changing socio-economic landscapes in the Early Bronze Age Levant through Zooarchaeology

By Gwendoline Maurer & Mariana Albuquerque

UCL Institute of Archaeology.

Back in February 2022, we received the great news in our inbox that The Palestine Exploration Fund had awarded us funding to travel to Haifa to carry out zooarchaeological research related to the Early Bronze Age of the Levant.

By May 2022, we were once again back in Israel and found ourselves at the University of Haifa. There, we were warmly welcomed by Dr. Nimrod Marom, and his team, at the Laboratory for Mediterranean Archaeology (MAR). Their impressive reference collection was invaluable to our work. Surrounded by skeletons of Persian gazelles, ibex, jackals, wolves, and fallow deer, among others, we felt right at home.

Fig. 1 – University of Haifa campus and our set of keys to the lab (Photographs by M. Albuquerque)

Our research is concerned with the studying of animal bones from archaeological sites in the Levant. This subfield of Archaeology is known as Zooarchaeology (Zoology and Archaeology combined). As Zooarchaeologists, our main interest is to understand how people in the past kept animals such as sheep, goats, and cattle; what they hunted; how they used the landscape around them and what they ate day to day.

During our stay in Haifa, we were working on the animal bone assemblages from three archaeological sites; Tel Qedesh, Tel Yaqush and Tel Bet Yerah. We specifically decided to study the animal bones at the University of Haifa, at the Zinman Institute of Archaeology, as it holds a fantastic and broad modern comparative reference collection. This ranges from birds, to small and large carnivores, mustelids, to different deer, gazelle, wild goat, sheep, ibex, donkeys, and horses. A fantastic change from the challenges we usually face when we record from the field, often without a reference collection at hand.

Fig. 2 – Gwendoline in the lab recording the assemblages. Tray of animal bones from TBY. (Photographs by M. Albuquerque) 

While working in the lab in Haifa, our aim was to identify each animal bone fragment to species, group, order, and/or body size class and to anatomical elements. We also recorded any signs of human modifications on the bones such as butchery, burning or working. This would later allow us to understand more about the human interaction with their landscapes, especially with their fauna. 

Fig, 3 – Astragalus with cut marks. (Photograph by M. Albuquerque)

The Early Bronze Age in the Levant is of specific interest to us as this period shows some interesting developments and concepts relevant to the societies and worlds we live in today! The Early Bronze Age I is marked by village societies. Whereas later, the Early Bronze Age II, for the first time in the Southern Levant, is described as somewhat ‘urban’. And once we get to EBIII, these societies seem to go through drastic changes and some form of disintegration of old systems.

Through analysing the animal bones from Tel Yaqush, Tel Qedesh and Tel Bet Yerah, dating to different phases of the Early Bronze Age, we are hoping to answer several different questions. We are investigating how and if animal economies and the way people in the Southern Levant used the landscape changed during this period, and how these relate to the changes described earlier. In a wider sense, we are trying to understand why human societies do what they do? How they functioned in the past and what this means for our present and future. Why did they live in “urban” systems? Why would they have chosen to abandon these systems? 

The exploitation of animals, i.e. domestic livestock and wild animals, their pastures, and resources required; as well the products they provide, the way their remains were processed and prepared, exchanged, consumed, and disposed of, are all embedded in the social and economic relations of human societies. Thereby, the study of animal bones from archaeological sites is an effective way to track and understand changes in social and economic systems over time. 

Fig. 4 – Bear phalanx. (Photograph by G.Maurer)

One of the most interesting finds we made was the remains of a bear, specifically a finger bone, from Tel Qedesh which dated to the Early Bronze Age I-II. This might represent a Syrian Brown Bear, which historically existed in the Middle East from Turkey to Turkmenistan. Nowadays, however, the Syrian Brown Bear can no longer be found in Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan. It certainly roamed in the Levant in the Early Bronze Age. We find it fascinating to speculate how this bear ended up at Tel Qedesh? Did the people of Tel Qedesh hunt bears? Or was it traded as a prestige object, possibly a bear paw or a bear pelt, and that way found its way to Tel Qedesh? These are some of the many questions we get to ask, from something seemingly as simple as one bone.

Whilst in Haifa, we had the pleasure to enjoy this wonderful city, located between the green hills of Mount Carmel and the blue Mediterranean Sea. When not in the lab, we explored the beaches south of the city, did yoga at the beach, visited the various museums, i.e. The Haifa Museum of Art, and the vibrant cultural programme Haifa has to offer. A highlight for us was an evening out we spent at Fattoush bar where we watched a concert by the Palestinian-Scandinavian Band called Sarma. An unlikely combination that reminded us of how often we humans can borrow from different cultures. And isn’t this exactly what archaeology constantly shows us?

One of the great advantages of working where our assemblages come from is to be able to see and experience certain landscapes that are somewhat similar to those we are studying. Not only we got to visit several archaeological sites but there was a particularly great moment when we got to see ibex in the wild for the first time. This might seem obvious, but it was a poignant reminder that those bones we study in the lab were once living beings, just as real as those animals in front of us. 

And, at the end of the day, as archaeologists, our greatest desire is to be able to shed light on the link between the past and the present. And, somehow, be able to say something relevant towards humanity’s future through our research. The history of the Early Bronze Age people at Tel Bet Yerah, Tel Yaqush and Tel Qedesh, is one of many that we believe is worth telling. 

Fig. 7 – The authors visiting Masada National Park. (Photograph by C.Maurer)

Fig 8 – “Poetry Lane”. Ceramics and tiles art installation on our way to the lab. Museum without Walls.