Dry Bones Reveal Rise and Fall of Negev Settlements During Byzantine Era

The hand of Hashem came upon me. He took me out by the spirit of Hashem and set me down in the valley. It was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many of them spread over the valley, and they were very dry. Ezekiel 37: 1-2 (The Israel Bible™)

The Prophet Ezekiel’s dream-like, enigmatic vision of the Valley of Dry Bones – originally an allegory about the future return of Judeans to the Land of Israel – has become one of the cornerstones for the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead.

But dry bones of sheep, goats, a crocodile and an African antelope thought to have been extinct in the region 1,000 years before that, were found by University of Haifa archaeologists. Prof. Guy Bar-Oz and his colleagues have just published their findings in the prestigious journal Scientific Reports.

The animal bones “testify to the diet of the local residents, and diet is an unmediated testimony to the real life, culture, prosperity and collapse of society,” said Bar-Oz, who heads the university’s Zinman Institute of Archaeology.

What does it mean to move from a sheep-based economy to a goat-based economy? What does an uncontrolled hunter of the last settlers in the Byzantine Negev teach? And what are crocodile bones doing in the middle of the desert?

The ancient Byzantine settlements in southern Israel that the team studied, include Avdat, Halutza, Shivta and Nessana (today’s Nitzana), which were believed to flourish in the 4th to 7th centuries CE until their abandonment with the Islamic conquest of the Land of Israel. Last month, the team announced that the collapse of the cities began in the middle of the sixth century, even before the Muslim conquest. Now the new study led by Bar-Oz, together with Dr. Nimrod Marom of the university’s Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies provides additional reinforcement to the story of the collapse, this time by examining the animal bones found in the city’s refuse.

The main discoveries show clear differences in the consumption of meat among the three periods: the end of the Roman period and the beginning of the Byzantine period; the Byzantine period; and the end of the Byzantine and the beginning of the Muslim period. In the first, earliest, period around the third to fourth century CE, most of the bones found were of sheep – with a minority of chickens and almost no wild animals.

In the middle period, which reflects the peak of the Byzantine flowering, most of the bones were of goats, but a few pig bones were also found; at the end of the Byzantine period, at the end of the sixth century and the beginning of the seventh century CE, most of the bones are sheep again. But with them there is a significant increase in pig bones and bones of wild animals. Another characteristic of the bones is that farm animals were slaughtered at a young age even before they stopped growing stage and reached an optimal age for slaughter.

According to the researchers, the findings tell the story of the rise and fall of the Byzantine Negev. “Sheep need a large amount of water, grazing, and the desert,” they wrote. The significance of sheep farming is usually wandering in large grazing areas – that is, a nomadic society that grows sheep for eating or for commerce. This is a more stable economy under conditions of permanent residency and agriculture,” the researchers explained.

(Courtesy: University of Haifa)

According to these findings, before the flowering of the Byzantine era, Negev society was essentially nomadic, similar to the traditional Bedouin society. At the height of the Byzantine period, the settlements’ economies grew stronger, and they shifted to large-scale agricultural crops. The return to the sheep economy in the middle of the 6th century showed once again that during this period, agriculture in the Negev began to decline; the abundance of animal bones indicates that the sheep were no longer enough for the inhabitants, so they began hunting for wild animals. The large number of pig bones also attests to a certain economic distress, as a pig is an animal suitable for closed communities without grazing land, since it can exist from the settlement’s garbage.

The fact that the residents of the Negev went hunting was, it turns out, very significant. Among the bones found during this period were the bones of a species of large African antelopes (the hartebeest, or Alcelaphus buselaphus) that was once common on the landscape, mainly on the coastal plain and the northern Negev. To this day, researchers had thought that this habitat was extinct from our region in the seventh century BCE. It has now been discovered that it continued to exist in the Negev for another 1,000 years. Since the wild animal bones found in the settlements also included very young animals, hunting at the end of the Byzantine period may have been so extensive that it eventually led to their extinction.

There was another unique finding among the many bones – those of the swamp crocodile – the first and only of its kind to date outside Egypt in the context of the Byzantine Empire. According to the researchers, there is no doubt that the crocodile was imported, probably from the Nile. Since only armored bones and internal bones were found, it is impossible to know whether this was a ceremonial use of the crocodile’s remains – on a statue or something similar – or whether it was eaten.