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Dive into the enigmatic world of Bir Abu Matar, a testament to Biblical archaeology. Discover the Chalcolithic community’s intricate housing, farming practices, and trade ties, and explore the theories behind its repeated abandonments. Join us on this journey through ancient times.
Introduction to Abu Matar
Abu Matar is an intriguing archaeological site located approximately a mile southeast of Beer-Sheba and is close to Bir es-Safadi. Its discovery and subsequent excavations in the 1950s have shed light on a Chalcolithic community, revealing an underground habitat, the likes of which are uncommon in archaeological records.
Underground Architectural Marvels: Houses and Storehouses
Perhaps the most captivating discovery at Abu Matar is the unique underground houses. Entered from the surface through shafts, these houses have been constructed beneath the ground, which perhaps served as protection against the elements or potential invaders. These entrance shafts varied between 4–7 feet in depth and were designed with handholds and footholds, emphasizing the precision and forethought of the builders. The rooms beneath, predominantly oval or circular in shape, were connected via a series of tunnels. Moreover, the rooms’ floors held pits and silos, which were likely used for storage, indicating a society that practiced advanced planning for future provisions.
Surface Structures and Finds
Above these subterranean dwellings were signs of daily life. The surface showed evidence of fireplaces and basins, essential components for food preparation and other domestic chores. Additional silos were present, further indicating the community’s agrarian nature.
A fascinating feature of this community was their continued use of flint, not just for tools but also for domestic utensils, highlighting a blend of traditional practices with emerging new techniques. Equally remarkable was the discovery of malachite and ovens, which showed evidence of early copper smelting and casting—indicating a society that was transitioning into the use of metals.
The Evolution of Settlements at Bir Abu Matar
Introduction to Bir Abu Matar Bir Abu Matar, situated in the Chalcolithic period, showcases the Beersheba Culture. This settlement experienced a remarkable progression through three unique phases, each characterized by its distinct architectural style.
1. The Underground Phase Initially, the inhabitants of Bir Abu Matar constructed underground homes in the soft loess. These early homes were marked by a single, large rectangular room, accessed through a horizontal tunnel. Over time, the ceilings of these homes became unstable and collapsed. This prompted the locals to design a different style of home. These newer homes comprised of several round or oval rooms roughly measuring 3.5 x 4.0 meters. They were deeply set beneath the surface, with a significant layer of soil above their ceilings. The rooms were interconnected by tunnels, with at least one tunnel leading to a vertical entry shaft.
Inside these underground homes, storage spaces were carved into the floors and covered with large stone slabs. Evidence of charred grains indicates these pits were used for storing food. Other pits, sealed with plaster, were likely used for water storage. The floors of these rooms were often littered with ash, pottery fragments, and animal bones, suggesting daily activities took place within these spaces. Given the extreme temperature fluctuations outside, these underground homes provided a stable and comfortable environment. To counteract the perpetual darkness, residents likely used small ceramic bowls as rudimentary lamps. Interestingly, many of these homes seem to have been left intact by their inhabitants, as evidenced by sealed storage spaces and neatly organized household items.
2. The Semi-Subterranean Phase After a period, the same settlers, or perhaps their descendants, returned to Bir Abu Matar. They constructed semi-underground homes within the pits left behind by the previously collapsed underground dwellings. These newer homes were either round or oval and constructed using unbaked mud bricks. The walls had four depressions, one at each corner, to support wooden beams. These beams held up roofs crafted from branches and clay.
3. The Above-Ground Phase In the site’s final phase, the residents transitioned to building homes completely above ground. They constructed these new homes on stone foundations, which were laid atop the remnants of the previous two phases. From this phase, only the stone foundations remain intact. These rooms were typically rectangular, measuring about 3 x 7 meters, though some extended up to 15 meters in length. Scholars believe there’s a link between this phase and Level IV in Teleilat el Ghassul.
Bir Abu Matar offers a fascinating glimpse into the adaptive strategies and architectural innovations of ancient communities. The site reveals the community’s journey from fully underground homes to semi-underground and then fully above-ground structures, reflecting their evolving needs and understanding of their environment.
Art and Symbolism: Deciphering the Unknown
Abu Matar has also provided a glimpse into the artistic and possibly spiritual inclinations of its inhabitants. Numerous pebbles adorned with crosses and other symbols have been unearthed. Their purpose remains shrouded in mystery, but they point toward some form of symbolic or ritualistic practice. Moreover, the discovery of art objects such as pendants and beads made from various materials like mother-of-pearl, precious stones, ivory, and copper show a society that valued aesthetics and personal adornment.
The ‘Beer-Sheba Culture’: Drawing Parallels
The distinct cultural markers found at Abu Matar, especially its similarity with other sites in the northern Negev, led researchers to term it as the ‘Beer-Sheba culture.’ This culture, which appears to have spanned two to three centuries, shares characteristics with the culture of Tuleilat Ghassul. Carbon-14 tests place the Beer-Sheba culture within the latter half of the 4th millennium BC, a period that saw significant transitions in settlement patterns and technology across the broader region.
Tracing Origins: Affinities and Influences
While the exact origins of the inhabitants of Abu Matar remain uncertain, some of their cultural practices and artifacts share a resemblance with the pre- and proto-dynastic cultures of Egypt. These similarities may hint at a flow of ideas, trade, or people between these regions during the Chalcolithic period.
Understanding Bir Abu Matar: A Glimpse into Ancient Livelihoods
1. Animal Rearing and Dairy Production
A significant part of Bir Abu Matar’s economy revolved around animal husbandry. Locals primarily raised sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs. Analysis of the animal bones found at the site revealed that these animals were typically allowed to live to an older age, hinting at secondary usages, like dairy production. Artifacts like butter churns shaped like waterskins and horn-shaped goblets, found in the pottery collections, further highlight the importance of dairy in their daily lives.
2. Farming Practices
Wheat, barley, and lentil grains discovered on the site showcase the community’s reliance on agriculture. Grinding stones were also unearthed, providing evidence of grain processing. The extensive storage pits and spaces carved into the floors of homes suggest that the inhabitants not only produced sufficient food for their daily consumption but also had a surplus. They took measures to protect this excess produce from pests, sealing the storage spaces with large stone slabs.
3. Industrial Endeavors
Copper Production The site exhibits signs of a robust copper industry, with remnants of copper and malachite found. Copper ore, likely imported from places like Wadi Feynan or possibly Timna, was processed extensively in Bir Abu Matar. Evidence of smelting, such as slag cores and furnaces, has been uncovered. These furnaces, used for smelting, were built from earth reinforced with straw. Once smelted, the molten copper was cast in small bowls or poured into earthen molds.
Basalt Craftsmanship Exquisite basalt tools, regarded as some of the finest from the Chalcolithic era, were discovered at the site. Several homes contained sets of finely crafted basalt vessels. Given their unique design and superior craftsmanship, these tools likely had ritualistic significance and perhaps denoted social status.
Stone and Bone Tools A variety of flint tools, including scrapers, cutting instruments, and drills, have been unearthed. Other stone tools crafted from limestone and other hard stones were found, such as hoes, club heads, and figurines. Bone tools were less prevalent, but picks, needles, combs, and sickles made of bone were present.
4. Trade and Exchange
Artifacts found at Bir Abu Matar suggest a vast trade network. Basalt tools were possibly imported from northern regions like the Hauran. Marine shells used for decorative purposes hint at trade ties with the Red Sea and Mediterranean coastlines. There were also findings of large shells and ivory statuettes with designs reminiscent of pre-dynastic Upper Egypt, suggesting trade or cultural exchange with the Nile Valley.
5. The Mysterious Abandonment
Bir Abu Matar witnessed multiple cycles of settlement and abandonment. Before leaving, inhabitants systematically arranged their possessions in storage spaces, sealing them and the entire house with stone slabs. This methodical approach suggests a planned departure rather than a hasty exit. Several theories exist regarding the repeated abandonments:
- The site might have been seasonal, with residents migrating regularly due to their primary occupation of tending animal herds.
- Climate changes might have necessitated the abandonments.
- The final departure could be attributed to declining security conditions in the region during the end of the 5th millennium BC, pushing inhabitants to seek refuge in more defensible locations.
Importantly, there’s no evidence to suggest that violence or an external attack prompted these abandonments.
Conclusion: Deciphering Abu Matar’s Place in History Abu Matar stands as a testament to a society that thrived during the Chalcolithic period, displaying a blend of traditional and emerging practices. Its unique underground architecture, alongside its art and symbolic objects, offers a glimpse into a society that was both complex and adaptive. While many questions remain—such as the exact origins of its people and the full extent of its cultural interactions—Abu Matar provides invaluable insights into the life and times of the ancient Near East, emphasizing the richness and diversity of cultures that once flourished in these lands.