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Nahal Zahal, an Early PPNB Site in the Northern Negev: A Preliminary Report on the First Excavation Season

Michal Birkenfeld et Talia Abulafia
p. 65-82


Résumé. Le site de Nahal Zahal se trouve à Ramat Hovav (nord du Néguev). Une fouille de sauvetage effectuée en mars 2020 a révélé une occupation du Néolithique précéramique ancien B (EPPNB ; environ 8600-8150 cal. BC), comprenant au moins une grande structure ronde avec des cellules et des installations adjacentes, ainsi qu’un riche assemblage lithique. Les preuves de l’existence de l’EPPNB dans le Néguev sont limitées. Elles comprennent de petites occupations de chasseurs-cueilleurs dans, et autour, des hauts plateaux du Néguev (i.e., Abu Salem et Nahal Boqer) et des sites de campement dans le Néguev occidental (i.e., Nahal Lavan 109). Aucune date radiométrique n’est actuellement disponible pour cette phase dans la région, et la chronologie est basée sur la sériation typologique. Les fouilles de Nahal Zahal fournissent des informations considérables sur les stratégies de peuplement et de subsistance de l’EPPNB. La préservation exceptionnelle du matériel organique offre une occasion unique de dater par la radiométrie l’occupation du site et de l’EPPNB du Néguev en général.

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Excavations at Nahal Zahal were headed by the authors on behalf of the IAA and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and conducted under permit #A-8707/2020. We would like to thank IAA Southern Precinct and Prof. Ofer Marder from BGU for all their assistance, as well as the volunteers and workmen and women who took part in the excavation. Field documentation, drone photos and plans were done by Emil Aladjem and Ilanit Azoulay (IAA). Lithic drawings were done by Sergei Alon (BGU). The Nahal Zahal project was generously funded by the Irine Levi Sala CARE Foundation.


1The Early Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (EPPNB) in the southern Levant was perceived, until not long ago, as a poorly documented, obscure phase, the very existence of which was at times doubted altogether (Kuijt and Goring-Morris 2002; Kuijt 2003; Goring-Morris and Belfer-Cohen 2014). The identification and excavations of well-dated, complex EPPNB occupations at sites such as Motza, Kfar HaHoresh and Aḥihud in Cisjordan (Khalaily et al. 2007; Goring-Morris et al. 2008; Paz and Vardi 2014; Birkenfeld 2018) as well as Kharaysin in Transjordan (Ibañez et al. 2015) have added significantly to our understanding of this phase in the Mediterranean zone: Its economy, ritual behaviour, lithic technologies and other material culture traits (e.g., Barzilai 2010; Fuller et al. 2012; Caracuta et al. 2017; Munro et al. 2018). However, our knowledge of settlement and subsistence strategies in the desert regions of Sinai, the Negev and southern Jordan has remained quite limited. Very few EPPNB occurrences had been reported in these regions over the years, and even less had been systematically excavated and studied. It is only in recent years that several newly discovered sites in the Jordanian Badia (e.g., Fujii 2019, this volume; Rokitta-Krumnow 2019) are starting to shed light on EPPNB dynamics in the Transjordanian arid regions, suggesting that the alleged gap or hiatus in desert occupations during the EPPNB may represent, more than all, the state of research rather than an archaeological truism.

2The Negev Desert is located in southern Israel. Sitting on the crossroads between the African and Asian continents, it represents a central node in the Saharo-Arabian desert belt. It is a large region, ca. 12,000 km2 in area, bounded by the Sinai Peninsula to the west, the Red Sea to the south and the Jordan Valley to the east. From the north, its boundary largely follows the 200 mm isohyet, stretching from the coastal plain in the west to the Judean desert and the Dead Sea in the east. The Negev is divided mainly into five central regions (fig. 1):

  1. The northern Negev is mainly comprised of loess plains. Even today, the area is suitable for dry farming, with a modern average of 200–300 mm yearly rainfall.
  2. The western Negev, including the southern coastal plains, is between the large sandy plains of Halutza and Nizzana to the south and the Besor, Grar and Ruhama ravines to the north. As the northern Negev, this area is considered semi-arid, with relatively high precipitation reaching ca. 200–300 mm a year.
  3. The central Negev highlands comprise five parallel ridges of up to ~1000 m in elevation. With a yearly precipitation average of 75–100 mm and poor-quality soils, it is characterised by scanty Irano-Turanian steppe vegetation.
  4. The southern Negev is a large plateau, dissected by several large wadis, dominated by Nahal Paran. This sub-region is considered hyper-arid, with poor-quality soils and less than 25 mm a year in precipitation and high evaporation rates.
  5. The Arava Valley, part of the large Rift Valley, has barely any rainfall but a relatively large quantity of freshwater springs, allowing for relict patches of tropical Sudanian vegetation.

3The modern climate in the Negev ranges from semi-arid to arid to hyper-arid, on a general north-south trend. Aridity levels are influenced not only by the low precipitation ranges but also by substantial variability in precipitation: a) from one year to another (i.e., a relatively rainy year can be followed by a very dry year, with no repetitive pattern or order), and b) in the way precipitation spreads throughout the rainy season. While the rainy season usually occurs between December and February, actual precipitation may be concentrated at the beginning or end of this period or even to a single event. This type of single, intense rain event is responsible for another related climatic phenomenon typical of the Negev—floods—especially in ravines with large catchment areas such as Wadi Zin, Wadi Paran and the Besor. Other characteristics include high-temperature variability (geographically as well as temporally), strong winds and dust storms, very low humidity, and extremely high evaporation rates, reaching ca. 3,000 mm per year (Gal 2000). While most of the Negev is characterised by Saharo-Indian vegetation, an Irano-Turanian phytogeographic belt (steppe vegetation) extends over the northern area, separating the Mediterranean phytogeographic zone from the desert (Zohary 1962; Danin 1983). While some have argued for a somewhat wetter climate during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, it seems that the semi-arid and arid climate (given, of course, the geographic variability) prevailed in the region since the middle Pleistocene (Amit et al. 2006, 2017; although see Vaks et al. 2010 and references therein).

4Very few EPPNB sites have been identified in the Negev, and even fewer have been systematically excavated. In fact, until recently, only three clear occurrences have been reported: the sites of Abu Salem, Nahal Lavan 109 and Nahal Boqer (Noy and Cohen 1974; Gopher 1989; Gopher and Goring-Morris 1998; Burian et al. 1999; fig. 1). At Abu Salem (Har Harif, western Negev highlands), PPNB remains (both Early and Middle PPNB) were identified, partially overlapping an earlier Harifian occupation. The PPNB stratum comprised a small in situ occupation with a series of round stone-built structures (ca. 1.5 m in diameter) set in a “beehive” formation. Finds include mainly a chipped stone tool assemblage as well as a small but distinctive ground stone tool assemblage and marine molluscs. The lithic assemblage was made on local raw material and seems to have been oriented towards blade manufacturing, with relatively high percentages of bidirectional blade cores. Within the tool assemblage, projectile points predominate and include mainly Jericho points accompanied by Helwan and Byblos points. Other tools include notches and denticulates, retouched blades and scrapers. Burins, sickle blades and bifacials are almost non-present (Gopher and Goring-Morris 1998). No organic finds were preserved, and no 14C dates are available for this site. The succession at the site was dated to the Early and Middle PPNB based on projectile point seriation (Gopher 1994: 103–105; Gopher and Goring-Morris 1998: 8).

5Nahal Lavan 109 is a surface artefact scatter, ca. 900 m2 in area, located on and partially covered by a consolidated sand dune in the western Negev. No clear architectural remains were identified at the site, which has gone through post-depositional deflation processes. Finds include a lithic assemblage, ostrich eggshell beads, molluscs, several ground stone artefacts, and a few animal bones (Burian et al. 1999). The lithic assemblage includes mainly projectile points of the Helwan type, tranchet axes, and long narrow blades with fine denticulation. Perforators and burins are relatively abundant as well. Most impressive is the large obsidian assemblage, comprised of more than 140 artefacts, including mainly debitage and a few tools, including Helwan points. The obsidian from Nahal Lavan 109 was sourced to Göllü Dağ, central Anatolia, and was apparently brought to the site as raw material (Burian et al. 1976, 1999).

  • 1 Round stone-built structures were recorded in proximity to the lithic scatter, but with no clear re (...)

6The site of Nahal Boqer is located in the Negev Highlands, at the foothills of Mt. Halukim, not far from the remains of a now-dry freshwater spring. It comprises a lithic assemblage 1 that was systematically collected during the 1970s (Noy and Cohen 1974). The tool repertoire is dominated by projectile points (Helwan and Jericho points) but is also quite varied and includes scrapers, burins, retouched blades (including a few sickle blades), perforators and denticulates. Bifacials are few but present and include a tranchet axe (Noy and Cohen 1974). No organic materials were recorded during fieldwork, and no 14C dates are available. Like at Nahal Lavan 109, the chronology was determined based on techno-typology and projectile point seriation.

7Almost fifty years have passed since these three sites were first studied and published. Until recently, they remained the only available data source on the earliest stages of the PPNB in the Negev region. During the spring of 2020, development work conducted on the banks of the Zahal Ravine (Nahal Zahal) exposed a small site, comprised of at least one structure and a substantial artefact scatter. This included mainly debitage items, but also several Helwan points, indicating a possible EPPNB date for the site. Consequently, a short salvage excavation was conducted in March 2020. In this paper, we will present a report on the first season of excavations at the site. We will describe its environmental setting, the architectural features exposed, and the artefacts collected. Lastly, we will present the available 14C ages for the site and discuss the possible implications of Nahal Zahal on our current understanding of the EPPNB of the Negev region.

The site

8The site of Nahal Zahal (ITM 184334/555360; 31.088586/34.835641; fig. 1) is located in the northern Negev Desert. It is situated on the southern bank of the Nahal Zahal wadi, a small tributary of Nahal Sekher. As mentioned above, the modern climate in the northern Negev is characterised as semi-arid, with precipitation at the site’s specific location reaching an annual average of ca. 150 mm. Evaporation rates are relatively high (with an average of 2,000 mm per year) and average temperatures range between 7–10 ℃ in winter and 20–33 ℃ in summer. Vegetation in the area is mainly Saharo-Arabian typified by an abundance of shrubs and biennial plants and a relatively low species diversity (Danin 2004; Langutt et al. 2011). The site sits on a low, north-facing slope above the wadi, at ca. 345 m ASL. Lithology-wise, the hill on which the site is located is part of the Adulam formation, an Eocene formation of chalk and limestone, rich in flint. Exposures of this flint are available in the immediate vicinity of the site, ca. 50 m uphill. Thus, it seems the site was located in an advantageous setting, enabling the exploitation of the lithic raw material as well as the adjacent wide valleys with their fluvial and aeolian loess deposits. Other lithic raw material sources of varying qualities are located nearby and were most likely one of the factors drawing human groups to the area throughout the different eras (e.g., Goring-Morris 1987: fig. I.14; Barzilai et al. 2015).

Fig. 1 – Map showing the location of the site of Nahal Zahal and other contemporary sites.

Fig. 1 – Map showing the location of the site of Nahal Zahal and other contemporary sites.

Map M. Birkenfeld

9Excavations at the site were conducted according to standard procedures for prehistoric excavations, using a 1 m2 grid excavated in 0.5 m sub-squares. All sediments were fine-sieved using a 2 mm mesh. Sediments from selected loci were wet-sieved using a series of micro-meshes (up to 1 mm) to further retrieve organic and micro remains. Soil samples were taken from various levels for pollen and phytolith analyses. Documentation was conducted using both “traditional” methods (e.g., hand-drawn architectural plans) as well as digital photogrammetry and drone-based imagery. Remains of charred organic material were taken for botanical identification and dating.

10Two areas of excavation were opened (fig. 2); the main area, area A, was set to encapsulate the architectural features exposed during construction work. A test area, area B, was set ca. 10 m to the east, in an attempt to delineate the eastern boundary of the remains.

Fig. 2 – Site plan showing the two excavation areas.

Fig. 2 – Site plan showing the two excavation areas.

Drawings E. Aladjem, I. Azuolay


11In area A, the remains of a large round structure, ca. 6 m in diameter, were observable on the surface prior to excavation. The structure was unfortunately cut in its centre by a modern robbers’ trench, running east-west. The excavation focused on the southern part of the structure, south of the robbers’ trench, in an attempt to identify the main walls and delineate the plan of the structure as well as to assess the level of damage caused by the modern disturbances.

12Excavations exposed a round wall, 0.6–0.8 m in width, built of two rows of medium-sized fieldstones (W106; figs. 2–4). It seems that the structure was dug into the surrounding slope and the wall built into it: while both faces of the wall were preserved to a height of ca. 0.6 m, the inner face consisted of at least six courses while the outer face comprised only two, propped on top of and supported by the upper slope (figs. 3–4). The lower courses of the inner face of the wall were built of rectangular stones, probably cut from the Adulam formation limestone exposed nearby, on top of the hill. The main, southern wall of the structure shows a clear collapse in its centre, probably due to the weight of the sediments pushing against it from upslope. A small, round cell, ca. 1.2 m in size (inner area) abuts the structure to the southwest. The cell was built of narrow, elongated stones that were placed vertically, on their side (fig. 2: W117–W118). The southeastern wall of the cell seems much wider than its southwestern counterpart and the other walls of the structure and reaches ca. 1 m in width. It is still unclear whether this represents an intentional, platform-like construction, or a collapse of a once-narrower wall. The remains of another wall, abutting the exposed structure to the north, might represent another similar cell, yet to be excavated.

Fig. 3 – Photo of the structure.

Fig. 3 – Photo of the structure.

A. Detail of wall showing at least five preserved courses to the left of the photo and collapsed stones to the right; B. Top plan showing unexcavated northern wall marked in light blue line.

Photo E. Aladjem, T. Abulafia

Fig. 4 – Profile views of the structure, facing southeast (A) and of W106, facing northwest (B).

Fig. 4 – Profile views of the structure, facing southeast (A) and of W106, facing northwest (B).

Drawings E. Aladjem, I. Azuolay

  • 2 Unfortunately, excavations were forced to a halt by the Covid-19 pandemic and the first national qu (...)

13The upper fill within the structure was fine-grained, almost gravel-free, and very poor in finds. It seems to have been washed downslope and filtered through the spaces between the wall stones. The top of the actual in situ Neolithic layer was exposed at the bottom of the fill, at a depth of ca. 0.65 m. This layer, sampled only in a restricted area, appears to be rich in organic material and archaeological finds, including mainly lithic artefacts. The top of several installations was identified as well, seemingly incorporated into the structure’s floor. These include a small, rounded installation (L113), ca. 0.5 m in diameter, built of small and medium-sized stones, as well as a large stone slab (0.7 × 0.5 m) that may have been used as an anvil or work surface (L120). The latter was located near to and abutting the structure’s main wall2.

14In area B, a 7 m2 test trench was excavated, with a north-south orientation, following the natural slope. The excavation exposed a few ephemeral installations, including a 0.3 m wide, somewhat provisional wall (W121), comprised of two rows of small to medium-sized stones organized in a southwest-northeast orientation. The wall was exposed for only one metre in length and seems to continue into the sections. Sediments in and around the installations and the wall were relatively rich in artefacts, primarily flint tools and debitage.

The Radiocarbon ages

15Three charcoal samples were analysed at the Center for Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia. All three samples derive from within the main structure in area A, from fill sediments above the actual in situ floor, but below the collapse of the wall. The charcoal samples were treated following the acid/alkali/acid (AAA) protocol involving three steps: (1) an acid treatment (1N HCl at 80 °C for 1 hour) to remove secondary carbonates and acid-soluble compounds; (2) an alkali (NaOH) treatment; and (3) a second acid treatment (HCl) to remove atmospheric CO2. The sample was thoroughly rinsed with deionised water between each step, and the pretreated sample was dried at 105 ºC. For accelerator mass spectrometry analysis, the cleaned samples were combusted at 900 °C in evacuated/sealed ampoules in the presence of CuO. The resulting carbon dioxide was cryogenically purified from the other reaction products and catalytically converted to graphite using the method of Vogel et al. (1984) Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research B5, 289–293. Graphite 14C/13C ratios were measured using the CAIS 0.5 MeV accelerator mass spectrometer. The sample ratios were compared to the ratio measured from the Oxalic Acid I (NBS SRM 4990). The sample 13C/12C ratios were measured separately using a stable isotope ratio mass spectrometer and expressed as δ13C with respect to PDB, with an error of less than 0.1‰. Calibration was done following CALIB REV8.2 Copyright 1986–2020 (Stuiver and Reimer 1993) and using the IntCal20 Northern Hemisphere radiocarbon age calibration curve.

16The results of the radiocarbon dating are summarised in table 1 and fig. 5. The results give a general duration of ca. 300 calendric years, spanning between ca. 10,500 cal. BP and 10,200 cal. BP, with an average median probability of 10,300 cal. BP. As stated, the three samples originate from the upper fill within the structure, above the actual in situ deposition and below the collapse of the wall. Thus, we see these ages as a terminus ante quem for the actual activity at the site and post-dating it. These dates place the site securely within the time span of the Early PPNB (see discussion below).

Table 1 – Detailed information of the radiocarbon samples from NZ.

Table 1 – Detailed information of the radiocarbon samples from NZ.

Fig. 5 – 14C ages from Nahal Zahal.

Fig. 5 – 14C ages from Nahal Zahal.

M. Birkenfeld

The lithic Assemblage

17The lithic assemblage from the first excavation season at Nahal Zahal comprises a total of 1885 artefacts, deriving from both areas A and B (table 2). These include tools (n = 103, 5.50%), cores (n = 18, 1%), debitage (n = 795, 42%) and debris (n = 968, 51%). Due to the limited sample size, we will treat the assemblages from both areas as one. However, differences between the two areas will be discussed when relevant.

Table 2 – General breakdown of the chipped stone assemblage from Nahal Zahal.

Table 2 – General breakdown of the chipped stone assemblage from Nahal Zahal.

18Raw materials include two main types. The first, a brown to dark-brown flint, derives from the Eocene outcrops immediately above the site. Evidence for exploitation of these outcrops was indeed recorded during the excavation, as remaining embedded nodules within the outcrop show signs of intentional battering and flaking. The other frequently used type of raw material is a translucent, high-quality light brown-grey flint, often referred to as Chalcedony (Goring-Morris 1987, Marder and Goring-Morris 2020). This type of raw material, which is very typical of the preceding Harifian of the Negev (Goring-Morris 1987, Marder and Goring-Morris 2020) is also available nearby, less than 10 km south of the site (J. Vardi, pers. comm.). At the same time, a high degree of patination was noted, comprising about 25% of the assemblage, especially surface material.


19The assemblage comprises eighteen cores (ca. 1% of the entire lithic assemblage). These include several categories (table 3; fig. 6): Most frequent are single platform cores (n = 6), which were aimed at the production of both flakes and blades. These are followed by opposed platform blade and bladelet cores (n = 4). Amorphous cores were recorded as well (n = 2), as were tested nodules (n = 3). Cores are usually small and exhausted and exhibit flaws such as hinges or cracks. Both main raw materials are represented within the cores, although the local brown to dark-brown raw material is slightly more common. Both types were used to produce both blade/bladelets and flakes. It should be noted that out of the eighteen cores, only two (which exhibit opposed platforms on the same side) can be considered bidirectional blade cores. This resonates within the debitage as well (and see below).

Table 3 – Core types at Nahal Zahal.

Table 3 – Core types at Nahal Zahal.

Fig. 6 – Flint cores from Nahal Zahal.

Fig. 6 – Flint cores from Nahal Zahal.

1. Opposed platforms, same side; 2–4. Single platform; 5. Opposed platform, same side.

Drawings S. Alon


  • 3 The dorsal blow technique (DBT) is a method used for blade truncation, also referred to as Side-blo (...)

20The debitage comprises 768 artefacts in total (table 2). It is dominated by flakes (62%), while blades (including bladelets) comprise a smaller group (though much more significant in area A than in area B; ca. 25% and <1%, respectively). Primary elements comprise ca. 11% of the debitage and contain both flakes and blades. They appear to be more frequent in area B than in area A. Core maintenance elements are not abundant, comprising in total ca. 3% of the debitage category, but include all typical PPNB types such as ridge blades, core tablets and other core trimming elements. Burin spalls are approximately 1.30% of the assemblage and include chamfered pieces. Other spalls consist of a few examples of dorsal blow technique (DBT) truncations3 and a single, tranchet biface spall. The wide range of debitage types, including artefacts representing different stages of flint knapping (i.e., primary elements, ridge blades, core trimming elements, etc.) indicate that flint production was indeed performed on-site at Nahal Zahal. Subtle differences between the two areas are observable, especially in the frequencies of primary elements and CTE’s (table 2).


21The tool assemblage includes 103 tools, representing 5.50% of the total lithic assemblage (table 4, figs. 7–8). The assemblage is clearly dominated by retouched flakes and retouched blades (n = 26, 25% and n = 21, 20.40%, respectively). These are followed by notches (n=16, 15.50%) and projectile points (n = 12, 11.65%), perforators (n = 9, 8.80%), scrapers (n = 6, 5.80%) and burins (n = 4, 3.90%). Two tranchet axes currently comprise the bifacial tool category. Other items include retouched fragments, which could not be assigned to a particular typological category (n = 7, 6.80%).

Table 4 – Tool types at Nahal Zahal.

Table 4 – Tool types at Nahal Zahal.

Fig. 7 – Flint tools from Nahal Zahal.

Fig. 7 – Flint tools from Nahal Zahal.

1–8. Helwan points; 9. Borer; 10–11. Projectile points in preparation; 12. Awl; 13. Bec; 14–15. Retouched blades; 16. Burin.

Drawings S. Alon

Fig. 8 – Flint tools from Nahal Zahal.

Fig. 8 – Flint tools from Nahal Zahal.

1–2. Scrapers; 3. Massive borer; 4. Tranchet axe.

Drawings S. Alon

22Retouched blades are often inversely or alternately retouched (ca. 50% of the retouched blade category) or are partially retouched on one or two of their lateral edges (ca. 45%; fig. 7.14–7.15). They are quite short and wide, reaching an average size (complete items) of 42 × 15 × 4 mm. Both the brown and translucent flint types were used for blade production, as was also demonstrated by the cores.

23Notches represent the third-largest tool type group within the assemblage. It is comprised mainly of thick flakes, and at times CTEs, with one or two notches on their lateral edges. They are usually fashioned on brown to black-brown raw material. Worth noting is the absence of denticulates, although this could be due to the limited sample size. A single massive, notched tool was recovered from area B. Projectile points include twelve items, all deriving from area A, seven of them from within the structure. All complete items can be identified as Helwan points (fig. 7.1–7.8). They were made on high-quality raw material, mostly on the translucent “Chalcedony”. Two items were fashioned on pink flint, perhaps heat-treated. While most of the items were clearly fashioned on small flakes, the final proportions are similar to those of blades/bladelets, averaging (complete items) 32.40 × 12.20 × 2.60 m. Three of the items, all deriving from within the structure, were found in various stages of tool design (fig. 7.10–7.11).

24Perforators include awls (n = 4; fig. 7.12), borers (n = 3; fig. 7.9) and bec items (n = 2; fig. 7.12–7.13), all deriving from area A. They are made on a variety of raw material types. While awls and becs are usually fashioned using very fine, almost nibbled retouch, borers usually display abrupt and semi-abrupt retouch. Worth noting are massive perforators, including a massive awl and a massive borer with steep retouch (fig. 8.3).

25Scrapers are represented by eight artefacts (fig. 8.1–8.2). They are usually made on thick, mostly primary flakes of dark-brown flint. All of the scrapers can be defined as side scrapers, with two examples of steep scrapers.

26Burins are rare (n = 4; fig. 7.16) and appear only in area A. All examples are of the dihedral type, and a single burin was fashioned on a previously retouched flake.

27Bifacial tools are represented by two axes. These were made on light-brown flint. They are small (53 × 27 × 13 mm and 66 × 30 × 19 mm) and have a slightly convex working edge, thinned using transversal (tranchet) blows from both sides (fig. 8.4).

The lithic assemblage – interim summary

28The lithic assemblage recovered during the first season of excavation at Nahal Zahal is limited in size, but nonetheless includes all debitage and tool categories typical of the Early PPNB in the region (and see below). While both flake and blade cores are represented, flake production dominates both the debitage and tool categories. The assemblage clearly indicates that on-site lithic manufacture was indeed practiced and supports the assumption that the adjacent flint outcrops were utilized by the inhabitants of the site.

29Some differences between areas A and B were identified, mainly in the composition of the tool assemblage and in the frequency of different core maintenance waste. These may indicate a spatial distribution of different activities within the site, where the main knapping process (decortication as well as blank production and core maintenance) was conducted outside the structure. Differences in tool type frequencies could indicate some chronological differences between the two areas, but the provisional nature of the excavation and the assemblage does not warrant an in-depth exploration of this issue at this point.

30Chronologically, the ubiquity of Helwan projectile points, together with the two tranchet axes, points to an EPPNB age of the site, in concordance with the 14C dates. The massive perforators, together with the massive scrapers represent to some extent a continuation of local traditions dating back to the end of the Upper Palaeolithic and Epipalaeolithic in the Negev (Goring-Morris 1987). So does the extended use of the translucent, grey “Chalcedony” raw material, which is very typical of the Negev Harifian. The appearance of the two axes is of interest, as bifaces are usually absent from PPNB assemblages in the Negev in general, with the exception of Nahal Lavan 109 and Nahal Zihor (Burian et al. 1999; Grosman et al. forthcoming; and see discussion below).

The shaft-straightener

31A unique artefact was retrieved from the northwestern cell of the structure; it is a small, stone item, measuring 57 × 32 × 12 mm (fig. 9). It has a plano-convex section, almost rectangular. On one side, the item carries a U-shaped, longitudinal groove, ca. 4 mm deep and < 10 mm wide, usually referred to as a “shaft-straightener” (Wright 1992, 1993). On its opposite side, the item is decorated with incisions of a longitudinal line, crossing it from side to side, from which 12 perpendicular lines (ca. 22 mm in length) emerge. The item was found face down within the deposit, surrounded by remains of brown- reddish mineral, probably ochre. Traces of this mineral, together with small patches of charcoal, were recorded within the U-shaped groove and await mineralogical analysis.

Fig. 9 – Shaft straightener from Nahal Zahal. Note red (ochre?) and black (charcoal?) residue in and near the groove.

Fig. 9 – Shaft straightener from Nahal Zahal. Note red (ochre?) and black (charcoal?) residue in and near the groove.

Photo Y. Ostrovski

32Shaft straighteners are quite well known in PPNB contexts, both in the Mediterranean and in the arid zones (Wright 1993). Similar incisions are much rarer and are known mainly from earlier phases within the PPN (e.g., PPNA Netiv Hagdud and Zahrat adh-Dhra’ 2 [Bar-Yosef et al. 1991; Edwards et al. 2002: fig. 8, Edwards 2007]; PPNA/PPNB Ein Suhun [Nadel et al. 2000]).


33The first excavation season at the site of Nahal Zahal was a relatively short one, cut even shorter by the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic. Its preliminary results are given here, focusing on the site’s chronology, architectural remains and lithic tool assemblage recovered. These results, while preliminary in nature, shed important light on local Early PPNB patterns in the Negev Desert.

  • 4 Birkenfeld M. in prep. – Renewed Excavations at Nahal Issaron.

34Round architecture is one of the hallmarks of the early Neolithic in the arid zones of the southern Levant in general and the Negev desert in particular. It is considered by many to represent a continuation of a more Palaeolithic-type way of life, including variable mobility levels, hunting and gathering-based economy and certain social structures (Flannery 1972, 2002; Banning and Byrd 1989; Banning 2003; Goring-Morris and Belfer-Cohen 2008). In that respect, the large round structure exposed at Nahal Zahal is in accordance with our current knowledge of the early Neolithic of the Negev. However, unlike other sites, the architecture at Nahal Zahal is not of the “beehive” formation type, where structures are clustered together, abutting one another. This formation is known from later contexts within the desert PPNB, e.g., LPPNB Nahal Issaron (Goring-Morris and Gopher 1983; Birkenfeld, in prep.4) or Ujrat el Mehed and Wadi Tbeiq in Sinai (Bar-Yosef 1982), but also from Abu Salem, one of the three other EPPNB sites in the Negev region and the only one, other than Nahal Zahal, with clearly associated architecture (Gopher and Goring-Morris 1998). The Nahal Zahal example, as a single-standing structure, is in many respects reminiscent of Late and Final Epipalaeolithic architecture in the region. Specifically, Harifian (i.e., Late Natufian of the desert) base camps, which also featured relatively standardized, single, semi-subterranean round structures with smaller 1–2 m diameter appendices (e.g., Ramat Harif GVIII, Goring-Morris 1991; Goring-Morris and Belfer-Cohen 2008), albeit somewhat larger. Grinding slabs, as well as mortars, embedded into the floor as indoor installations, as recorded at Nahal Zahal, are typical of the Harifian base camps as well.

35The lithic assemblage from Nahal Zahal is indeed limited in size, but nonetheless informative; the assemblage is flake oriented, which manifests in both tool blanks and debitage. All typical tool and debitage categories are present, and lithic production was clearly practised on-site. This production utilized local, high-quality flint from the immediate vicinity of the site as well as other nearby sources. The use of translucent “Chalcedony” is substantial and part of the in situ production sequence. Some differences between the two excavation areas were identified, mainly in the composition of the tool assemblage and in the frequency of different core maintenance waste. These differences may be functional in nature (i.e., different activities taking place in different foci) or chronological. More information is clearly needed to explore this further. Chronologically, the techno-typological markers, and most specifically the ubiquity of Helwan projectile points and the two tranchet axes, are in agreement with the 14C dates, placing the occupation of the site securely in the Early PPNB, ca. 10,500–10,200 cal BP.

36When we compare the Nahal Zahal lithic assemblage to those of the other known Early PPNB sites in the Negev, certain similarities appear: All four assemblages (i.e., Nahal Zahal, Nahal Lavan 109, Nahal Boqer and Abu Salem) exhibit similar utilisation of high-quality translucent (“Chalcedony”) flint as well as locally derived flint in the form of small pebbles. Accordingly, cores are small and were often discarded due to either exhaustion or faults. There are similarities in tool typologies in the indicative tool categories (projectile points, bifacial tools, perforators, etc.) as well as in the more expedient, flake-based tool types. Most similar is the assemblage from Nahal Lavan 109, located about 40 km to the southwest of Nahal Zahal. Worth noting is the similarity in bifacial tools, especially since bifaces are usually absent from PPNB assemblages in the Negev in general. At Nahal Lavan 109, bifaces comprise the second-largest tool group (n = 192, 12%), and it seems that at least some of their preparation was conducted on-site. As in Nahal Zahal, axes at Nahal Lavan 109 are small, with a mean length of 65–70 mm and 24–25 mm in width, and thin, usually 10–15 mm thick (Burian et al. 1999: 98, figs. 5–6). Their working edge is usually fashioned using a transversal tranchet blow, and they are in general, very similar to the two items recovered at Nahal Zahal.

37Some differences are apparent between the four assemblages. For example, it seems that while Nahal Zahal’s assemblage is flake-oriented, all other three assemblages are more blade-oriented, though to different degrees (Noy and Cohen 1974; Gopher 1989; Gopher and Goring-Morris 1998; Burian et al. 1999). Accordingly, there is a more pronounced presence of bidirectional blade cores at the three sites than at Nahal Zahal. This could be, of course, a result of the limited sample size at Nahal Zahal, and may change following further research. We also have to take into account that some of the other sites, mainly Abu Salem but also Nahal Boqer, have a more complex stratigraphic sequence, including preceding (Harifian) or succeeding (M/LPPNB or even later) occupations and that some of the apparent variability could be due to intrusions or intermixture. Still, it seems to us that some of the variability could result from chronological issues. This is especially apparent in the projectile point assemblages (fig. 10): while at Nahal Zahal all complete projectile points are of the Helwan type, assemblages from the other three sites exhibit a combination of Helwan, Jericho, Byblos and at times also Amuq points. This, together with the lesser dominance of bidirectional blade technology, should place Nahal Zahal relatively early within the EPPNB in comparison to the other sites.

Fig. 10 – Projectile point composition at the four EPPNB sites in the Negev.

Fig. 10 – Projectile point composition at the four EPPNB sites in the Negev.

NZ = Nahal Zahal, NL109 = Nahal Lavan 109, AS = Abu Salem, NB = Nahal Boker.

M. Birkenfeld, T. Abulafia

38In fact, Nahal Zahal not only seems to be quite early within the Negev sequence, but it also appears to portray a certain continuation of earlier local “traditions” or trajectories. This is reflected in the architectural plan (see above) but also in the lithic assemblage: mainly the ample use of the translucent “Chalcedony” and the predominance of flakes in the debitage as well as in the tool category, typical of the Harifian (Goring-Morris 1991). The massive perforators and massive scrapers also represent a continuation of local patterns dating back to the end of the Upper Palaeolithic and Epipalaeolithic. The engravings on the shaft-straightener were also more comparable to PPNA examples than to later Middle and Late PPNB ones, albeit not in the Negev but mainly in the lower Jordan Valley and eastern Samaria hills. This is interesting, considering the extremely meagre evidence for the PPNA occupation of the Negev and Sinai following the demise of the Harifian (with the exception of Abu Madi I in southern Sinai; Bar-Yosef 1991). Kuijt and Goring-Morris (2002) have suggested that as human populations centered in the Mediterranean zone and in unusually well-watered locations, exploitation of the desert during the PPNA was characterised by small groups of highly mobile hunter-gatherers (Kuijt and Goring-Morris 2002: 372). The EPPNB sites of the Negev were suggested to mark “a gradual recolonisation of the arid regions of the southern Levant” (Gopher and Goring-Morris 1998: 16). The extension of local Harifian characteristics at Nahal Zahal, as described above, may indicate that this “re-settlement” could have been local rather than external, i.e., by local Negev populations, reducing their mobility.

39To conclude, the site of Nahal Zahal provides an important opportunity to explore EPPNB dynamics in the arid Negev. The limited scope of the first season did not allow for clear, direct evidence regarding seasonality or subsistence-related inferences. However, the complex architecture exposed and the related installations, hint that Nahal Zahal should be perceived as at least a semi-permanent, perhaps seasonal occupation. This is supported by the relatively wide array of activities performed on-site, including lithic production and tool preparation (i.e., the shaft straightener and related evidence for projectile point fabrication), etc. Further research is, of course, needed to understand the immediate environment of the site, including the ability of the Zahal stream to serve as a perennial water source, especially since no other permanent water sources such as springs have been identified nearby. We hope that the continued investigations at the site, together with the unique preservation of organic material, will enable an in-depth discussion of Early PPNB subsistence and settlement patterns. The exceptional opportunity to radiometrically date the occupation at the site will enable a better understanding of local as well as regional dynamics of the period.

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1 Round stone-built structures were recorded in proximity to the lithic scatter, but with no clear relation to it. These structures should, most likely, be dated to the Early Bronze age (Noy and Cohen 1974).

2 Unfortunately, excavations were forced to a halt by the Covid-19 pandemic and the first national quarantine that followed on March 2020. The remains were covered with geotextile and sieved sediments and await the second season of excavations, scheduled to take place during the summer of 2023.

3 The dorsal blow technique (DBT) is a method used for blade truncation, also referred to as Side-blow blade flake (SBFF) and see Copeland 1996; Nishiaki 1996; Vardi and Gilead 2011 for discussions.

4 Birkenfeld M. in prep. – Renewed Excavations at Nahal Issaron.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 – Map showing the location of the site of Nahal Zahal and other contemporary sites.
Crédits Map M. Birkenfeld
Fichier image/jpeg, 780k
Titre Fig. 2 – Site plan showing the two excavation areas.
Crédits Drawings E. Aladjem, I. Azuolay
Fichier image/jpeg, 56k
Titre Fig. 3 – Photo of the structure.
Légende A. Detail of wall showing at least five preserved courses to the left of the photo and collapsed stones to the right; B. Top plan showing unexcavated northern wall marked in light blue line.
Crédits Photo E. Aladjem, T. Abulafia
Fichier image/jpeg, 3,9M
Titre Fig. 4 – Profile views of the structure, facing southeast (A) and of W106, facing northwest (B).
Crédits Drawings E. Aladjem, I. Azuolay
Fichier image/jpeg, 64k
Titre Table 1 – Detailed information of the radiocarbon samples from NZ.
Fichier image/jpeg, 358k
Titre Fig. 5 – 14C ages from Nahal Zahal.
Crédits M. Birkenfeld
Fichier image/jpeg, 42k
Titre Table 2 – General breakdown of the chipped stone assemblage from Nahal Zahal.
Fichier image/jpeg, 464k
Titre Table 3 – Core types at Nahal Zahal.
Fichier image/jpeg, 184k
Titre Fig. 6 – Flint cores from Nahal Zahal.
Légende 1. Opposed platforms, same side; 2–4. Single platform; 5. Opposed platform, same side.
Crédits Drawings S. Alon
Fichier image/jpeg, 112k
Titre Table 4 – Tool types at Nahal Zahal.
Fichier image/jpeg, 232k
Titre Fig. 7 – Flint tools from Nahal Zahal.
Légende 1–8. Helwan points; 9. Borer; 10–11. Projectile points in preparation; 12. Awl; 13. Bec; 14–15. Retouched blades; 16. Burin.
Crédits Drawings S. Alon
Fichier image/jpeg, 175k
Titre Fig. 8 – Flint tools from Nahal Zahal.
Légende 1–2. Scrapers; 3. Massive borer; 4. Tranchet axe.
Crédits Drawings S. Alon
Fichier image/jpeg, 148k
Titre Fig. 9 – Shaft straightener from Nahal Zahal. Note red (ochre?) and black (charcoal?) residue in and near the groove.
Crédits Photo Y. Ostrovski
Fichier image/jpeg, 606k
Titre Fig. 10 – Projectile point composition at the four EPPNB sites in the Negev.
Légende NZ = Nahal Zahal, NL109 = Nahal Lavan 109, AS = Abu Salem, NB = Nahal Boker.
Crédits M. Birkenfeld, T. Abulafia
Fichier image/jpeg, 39k
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Michal Birkenfeld et Talia Abulafia, « Nahal Zahal, an Early PPNB Site in the Northern Negev: A Preliminary Report on the First Excavation Season »Paléorient, 49-2 | -1, 65-82.

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Michal Birkenfeld et Talia Abulafia, « Nahal Zahal, an Early PPNB Site in the Northern Negev: A Preliminary Report on the First Excavation Season »Paléorient [En ligne], 49-2 | 2024, mis en ligne le 09 avril 2024, consulté le 26 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Michal Birkenfeld

Department of Archaeology, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva – Israel

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Talia Abulafia

Israel Antiquities Authority, Jerusalem – Israel

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