Fertile Finds

A circle of cult objects, carefully arranged around an overturned basalt bowl (top), was discovered in a shadowy pit dug into the floor of a subterranean chamber at Bir es-Safedi, just a few miles southwest of Beersheba. An ivory blade frames a male figurine at left, and an ivory box, decorated with perforations that create a floral pattern, appears at right. At upper right, a second bowl leans against the wall of the pit; to its left is the head of a small figurine. Excavations led by French archaeologist Jean Perrot in the Beersheba region in the 1950s uncovered the oldest ivories ever discovered in Palestine.1

Also from Bir es-Safedi comes a 13-inch male figurine with holes in its chin, which may once have been filled with hair, to create a beard. The provenance of the female statuette remains uncertain, but the design suggests that it too comes from the Beersheba region. With strongly emphasized sexual organs and noses, these beautifully worked figurines are probably connected with a fertility cult. Both have hollow heads into which small offerings, such as seeds or grain, may have been placed.2

The objects were apparently carved locally from hippopotamus and elephant tusks: At Bir es-Safedi, Perrot discovered a Chalcolithic workshop, complete with workbench, an elephant tusk, awls and a drill.

Excavations by David Alon and Thomas Levy at a Chalcolithic temple at Gilat, about 10 miles northwest of Beersheba, in the Negev, revealed a unique fertility figurine made of pottery. The 12-inch high, striped statuette depicts a woman perched on a stool balancing a churn, used for making butter or cheese, on her head. The churn suggests that this vessel was used during rituals associated with increasing dairy production.

The design of Chalcolithic fertility figures varied dramatically by region, from the stiff Beersheba figures to the rounded vessel from Gilat to the abstract heads from the Golan. But many share at least one characteristic—an exceptionally large nose. This organ, Claire Epstein suggests, the Chalcolithic people viewed as the source of the breath of life.