Subsistence practices in an arid environment: a geoarchaeological investigation in an Iron Age site, the Negev Highlands, Israel

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The Negev Highlands (southern Israel) is an arid zone characterized by settlement oscillations. One settlement peak occurred in the early Iron Age IIA (late 10th and early 9th centuries BC). The most conspicuous structure in many sites of this period is an oval compound comprised of an internal courtyard surrounded by rooms. Two hypotheses for the function of these oval compounds are that they served as Israelite fortresses which guarded the southern border and routes of the Solomonic kingdom, or that they represent local agro-pastoral groups. In order to gather more information regarding the subsistence practices conducted in these oval compounds, we carried out a small-scale excavation at the site of Atar Haroa. We focused on sediment sampling and used several geoarchaeological, as well as isotopic, techniques in order to identify macroscopic and microscopic remains related to animal husbandry and crop agriculture. The remains identified from the archaeological sediments were compared with modern reference materials collected from abandoned Bedouin camps. The excavation included two half rooms and several test pits in the courtyard of the oval compound, featuring one Iron Age occupation level composed of gray sediments and relatively small amounts of pottery, bones and macro-botanical charred remains. Micromorphological, mineralogical, dung spherulite and isotopic analyses carried out on the gray occupational sediments from the rooms show that they originate from wood ash and dung, both used as fuel. Similar analyses of the gray sediments in the courtyard show that they originate only from degraded livestock dung. Phytolith analyses show that the gray anthropogenic sediments have similar concentrations of phytoliths as in control (yellowish) sediments and in the dung of winter free-grazing desert livestock and lichen-grazing black dwarf Bedouin goats. Phytoliths indicative of cereal crops are completely absent in the archaeological dung remains, indicating that cereal crops were not processed by the site inhabitants. Based on ethnographic and archaeological parallels, and on the presence of grinding stones and absence of sickle blades in the excavated rooms, we infer that the inhabitants at the oval compound at Atar Haroa subsisted on livestock herding and bought or exchanged cereal grains. Our results support the hypothesis that the inhabitants at the oval compound at Atar Haroa were desert-adapted pastoralists, rather than garrisoned soldiers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)965-982
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2008
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Steve Weiner and the Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science (Weizmann Institute of Science) for laboratory support, Arnon Ben-Israel, Uri Mintzker and Id Kashchar for contemporary information on Bedouin herding practices in the Yatir and Nahal Avdat sampling sites. We also thank Noga Blockman and Guy Avivi for logistics and excavation, Eran Arie and Norma Franklin for excavation, Sde Boqer Fieldschool for excavation volunteers and logistics, Elisabetta Boaretto for radiocarbon dating, Nili Lipshitz for wood identifications, Sivan Einhorn for picking from the dry sieved material, Ofir Katz for phytolith morphological analyses, Dan Yakir and Manuela Negreano for stable isotope analyses, and Baruch Rosen and Simcha Lev-Yadun for general discussions. The study was supported by The Israel Science Foundation (grant No. 642/05) to I.F., and the excavations funded by the Jacob M. Allkow Chair in the Archaeology of Israel in the Bronze and Iron Ages, and The Chaim Katzman Archaeology Fund, Tel-Aviv University.


  • Atar Haroa
  • Dung
  • Fortress
  • Iron Age
  • Negev Highlands
  • Nitrogen isotopes
  • Phytoliths
  • Subsistence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology


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