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Road building threatens the site of Tel Beit Shemesh, dating to at least the seventh century bc . Credit: Dr Z. Lederman, Tel Beth-Shemesh Excavations
The face carved in limestone is a vestige of a vanished world. With two dots for eyes and a slight hint of a smile, the 7,000-year-old figurine could be a ritual object, perhaps an amulet, or even a simple doll. The thumb-sized face is one of several dozen figures — mostly of goats and sheep — unearthed during an archaeological exploration lasting almost three years at En Esur in Israel1, about 52 kilometres north of Tel Aviv.
The excavation at En Esur, also known by its Arabic name of Ein Asawir, “is an extraordinary project”, says Dina Shalem, an archaeologist employed by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), who co-directed the dig with IAA archaeologists Yitzhak Paz and Itai Elad. By the Early Bronze Age, 5,000 years ago, Paz says that En Esur was a “mega-city, the largest so far known in the Southern Levant”, a region spanning modern Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan. Excavating En Esur was, he says, “a once-in-a-lifetime experience”.
Built over the remains of an earlier, smaller village (from which the stone face was unearthed), the metropolis spanned an estimated 65 hectares and was home to between 5,000 and 6,000 people; more than 20 times the typical size of villages in that area at the time. Thanks to a year-round flowing spring, the townspeople of En Esur thrived, growing wheat, barley, lentils, grapes and olives, and raising cows, pigs, sheep and goats.