It was once thought that the dispersed communities of Chalcolithic Palestine—in the Golan Heights, the Judean and Negev deserts, the Jordan Valley and Israel’s northern coastal plain—had little contact with each other. But remarkable similarities between the artifacts discovered in the Peqi’in burial cave and finds from these other Chalcolithic sites tell another story.
The Peqi’in cave is a veritable museum of Chalcolithic art; its cultic objects and grave goods exhibit artistic styles of various Levantine subcultures. This suggests that the Peqi’in cave served as a regional mortuary center, where people from all over ancient Palestine converged to bury their dead.
The most abundant vessels strewn about the Peqi’in cave were ossuaries—2-foot-long stone or ceramic boxes used for secondary burials. After about a year, when the flesh had decayed from the skeleton, the deceased’s bones were placed in an ossuary. Some of these painted vessels, resembling miniature houses, are decorated with human-like features such as prominent noses, ears and hair (see the single ossuary, above). Secondary ossuary burial was also practiced at Chalcolithic settlements on the Levantine coastal plain. In 1958, for example, about 120 ossuaries were discovered in a rock-cut burial cave in Azor, south of modern Tel Aviv. Many of the Azor ossuaries (see the collection of ossuaries, below) were painted with geometric or floral patterns and had rectangular windows cut into their facades. Like the Peqi’in ossuaries, many were adorned with anthropomorphic features, such as large noses.
In addition to ossuaries, the Peqi’in morticians reburied bones in jars made of a mixture of clay and basalt and decorated with a rope-like pattern. In 1973, British archaeologist Claire Epstein—excavating on the Golan Heights, a region rich in volcanic basalt—discovered basaltic potsherds dating to the Chalcolithic period, an early indication that a Chalcolithic settlement had flourished on the Golan. Nearly all of the Chalcolithic pottery subsequently found on the Golan was made from a mixture of clay and basalt, giving the vessels a rich reddish hue. Unlike the Peqi’in jars, the Golan jars contained the paraphernalia of everyday life, rather than reinterred bones: In Rasm Hdarbush, for example, grain and dry goods were stored in these large jars called pithoi.
Perhaps the most interesting of the Golan’s Chalcolithic finds are shallow basalt offering bowls carved above cylindrical pillars. Nineteen such pillar figures were 059discovered at Rasm Hdarbush, many decorated with human-like whiskers, eyes, hair and goatees. All of the pillar figures have exaggerated noses—much like the ceramic ossuaries found in Peqi’in (see photo of ceramic ossuary lid).
The excavators of the Peqi’in cave also found more than 20 circular flint disks with holes punched in their centers (see photo, above). Although it is not known what these perforated tools were used for, identical disks have been found in domestic contexts in Rasm Hdarbush. Until the discovery of the Peqi’in cave, only a smattering of artifacts had connected the Chalcolithic subculture of the Golan with other contemporaneous communities.
Chalcolithic communities also flourished in the Negev Desert. Beautifully carved ivory figurines were found in Bir es-Safedi, just a few miles southwest of the modern city of Beer-Sheva. One of these carvings (above) is eerily similar to an ivory figurine (below) found among the vandalized ossuaries of the Peqi’in cave. The nose of the Beer-Sheva ivory is typically pronounced, as are its genitals. Holes were bored into its chin; hair may have been stuffed in these holes to give the impression of a beard.
At Gilat, about 12 miles northwest of Beer-Sheva, archaeologists found nearly 60 violin-shaped stone figurines, the largest collection of such objects in the eastern Mediterranean region. It has long been thought that these figurines are fertility symbols representing the female torso. Similar violin-shaped statues (see photos of violin-shaped statues) also lay among the debris of the Peqi’in cave—providing another link with the Chalcolithic subcultures of the Negev.
Surprisingly, the Peqi’in cave contained very few metal objects. This fact, coupled with the cave’s state of disarray, suggests that tomb robbers plundered the site in antiquity and carried off its valuables. The few bronze tools that were found would have been regarded as luxury items. They were produced at a time when bronze smelting was a novel industry (another half millennium would yet pass before the dawn of the Bronze Age). These include bronze axes and standards for wooden staffs, perhaps used for ceremonial purposes. The Peqi’in metal objects are similar to a hoard of Chalcolithic cultic objects, found in the so-called Cave of the Treasure, in the stark Judean desert. Over 400 copper artifacts—including maceheads, scepters, chisels, axes, standards and ornamented crowns—were discovered there, wrapped in a straw mat and hidden in a niche of the cave. Why these remarkable cult objects were stashed away is still a puzzle. Scholars believe that the copper hoard may have been used in late Chalcolithic times (c. 3500 B.C.E.) during worship at a temple discovered near the cave.
The Peqi’in cave, then, proves that the many Chalcolithic subcultures of the Levant were not as isolated as once thought. The cave drew people from all over ancient Palestine who brought not only their dead but their distinctive works of art.