The ancient Beit She’an Valley village of Tel Tsaf may have been a prehistoric commercial mecca, according to a recent article published in the journal Levant.
Alongside mounting evidence of organized large-scale agricultural production, a tiny 7,000-year-old blob of clay with geometric patterns — the earliest impressed sealing discovered in the region — is giving academics new insight into what may have been one of the earliest trade hubs and administration centers in the southern Levant.
According to Hebrew University Prof. Yosef Garfinkel, the sealing was used on a grain silo door or a commodities sack or vessel much in the manner of a hair placed on a doorjamb — to catch trespassers.
“Even today, an electrical meter is sealed with a plomba [lead seal] to see if somebody has opened it and played with the numbers,” Garfkinkel explained to The Times of Israel on Thursday. “It’s an administrative device still used today — like wax and notaries’ stamps.”
The clay sealing was uncovered in a Middle Chalcolithic context (5200–4500 BCE) during excavations conducted by Garfinkel and Ariel University’s Prof. David Ben-Shlomo and Dr. Michael Freikman in 2004–2007.
According to their recently published article in Levant, “A stamped sealing from Middle Chalcolithic Tel Tsaf: implications for the rise of administrative practices in the Levant,” the Tel Tsaf sealing is “thus far, the earliest known sealing from the southern Levant dated prior to the 4th millennium BCE, with an actual seal impression.”
The authors further propose that, taken alongside previously excavated complex agricultural storage systems, the new sealing may be first evidence of a trade hub, or “administrative control of trade and transportation of goods between local communities in the same area.”
According to the researchers, the minuscule partially preserved sealing — the original bulla was at least 10 millimeters long and some 6 millimeters wide — is impressed with at least two different seals.
The researchers suggest that the use of multiple seals to impress the bulla could be an indication of a much more sophisticated administration than previously thought and “testified to the presence of representatives of two different communities during the transaction, rather than the management of stored goods within the boundaries of the same settlement.”
Clay expert Ben-Shlomo told The Times of Israel that the material used for the small seal came from approximately 10 kilometers away from the site. “Potters often travel several kilometers to take clay from a rich site,” he said. “However, it could indicate that Tel Tsaf is possibly a central site to which neighboring smaller sites brought their wares.”
Some 150 plain partial sealings were discovered at the site alongside the impressed piece. Garfinkel said that a possible next step in the research is to identify the origins of these materials as well.
According to Garfinkel, the site at Tel Tsaf is notable for its well-organized very early silos and immense storage capabilities. He said their capacity was such that there was simply too much grain to have been constructed for a single family’s consumption prior to spoilage and it was therefore a reasonable assumption that they were used in trade.
A small family could consume up to 1.5 tons of grain a year, Garfinkel explained, but at Tel Tsaf, there were multiple silos, each of which could hold up to 30 tons. Though he cautioned that due to erosion and incomplete excavation, the evidence for the village’s size is only partial, he still argued that the amount of storage space in the grain silos vastly outstripped the residents’ consumption needs.
This massive amount of grain, alongside a number of previously discovered exotic items from foreign lands, leads Garfinkel to conclude that grain was being traded for items of prestige.
“I think they [the Tel Tsaf settlers] exchanged the grain with exotic artifacts which had become status symbols at the time — all the beads, ceramics, exotic items,” he said. They were purely to exhibit wealth, he said. “They were like diamonds, you cannot eat them, cannot do anything with them… If you’re starving, even with 10 tons of gold, you’ll die.”
The very early sealing could, therefore, be indicative of a mercantile exchange.
“The appearance of the stamped sealing at Tel Tsaf may reflect the emergence of the need to claim ownership of commodities and to ensure authorized access,” write the authors. And in an era prior to the written word, “It has been proposed that the seals bearing geometric motifs were a means of identifying a person, or a group of people, within the society, or of protecting private property,” the authors write in the article.
Meet the Flintstones
Settlement at Tel Tsaf, near the Jordan River and the modern state of Jordan, dates to circa 5200-4700 BCE. The site was initially identified in the 1940s during a Beit She’an Valley archaeological survey.
The first detailed excavation took place in 1978-1980, when findings from deep probe trenches suggested that there were two occupation periods at the site: the Pottery Neolithic period and the Early Chalcolithic period. Another set of excavations was undertaken by Garfinkel, et al, between 2004 and 2007, uncovering evidence of Middle and Early Late Chalcolithic settlement. University of Haifa Prof. Danny Rosenberg, who was not part of the study, has been excavating at Tel Tsaf since 2013.
Discovery of large-scale food storage suggests that the ancient people had reached an early formative stage in the development of human society. Excavations at Tel Tsaf have also unearthed well-preserved mudbrick architecture and evidence of long-distance trade. In 2014, archaeologists unveiled a 7,000-year-old copper awl, one of the earliest metal object yet found in the Middle East.
Rosenberg told The Time of Israel that there is “much evidence that the site was a hub for long-distance trade.”
“Tel Tsaf is unique in its accumulation of wealth and the storage and use of early bureaucracy,” said Rosenberg.
Rosenberg said that while his overarching interpretations of the site may differ from those of Garfinkel, he too has noted that the site exhibits an accumulation of wealth — mainly grain — and he sees that the Tel Tsaf community was engaged in far-flung trade, including “contacts with communities far away from Egypt, eastern Jordan, northern Levant and even beyond that.”
“Definitely something is going on and we think that Tsaf is the earliest evidence for increasing complexity if you like, maybe a move from the old Chalcolithic, early Chalcolithic way of life into something which later will be much more pronounced in terms of social complexity — social and economic complexity — that we’ll see in the late Chalcolithic, a few hundred years later,” said Rosenberg.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.