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The sacred and the mundane: domestic activities at a Late

Natufian burial site in the Levant

Leore Grosman
Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem, 91905, Israel
Department of Physics of Complex Systems, The Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot 76100, Israel

Natalie D Munro
Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut, Unit 2176, 354 Mansfield Road, Storrs, CT 06269, USA

Natufian, ritual, Levant, fauna, lithic analysis

Hilazon Tachtit, a small Natufian cave site in northern Israel, served first and foremost as a ritual location for the
burial of the dead. Burials were found in all loci of the 30 m2 occupation. At least twenty-eight individuals were
buried at the site—two of them in structures that were too small for human habitation. The ritual nature of the site
is supported by some aspects of material culture, including the deposition of unusual animal parts and other
kinds of ‘special garbage’ in the graves. Nevertheless, the dominant activities attested by the lithic and faunal
assemblages are mundane and include hunting, tool manufacture and food processing. The ritual and domestic
duality of the site attests to the integration of the sacred and the mundane in everyday Natufian life and to the
importance of considering multiple dimensions of material culture in the interpretation of site function.

1 Introduction sacred and mundane activities in everyday Natufian

Excavations at the Natufian cave site, Hilazon Tachtit life. Likewise, the study indicates the importance of
in the Southern Levant (ca 12,000 cal BP), plainly es- investigating the full range of material remains from a
tablish that it functioned first and foremost as a hu- site before a comprehensive interpretation of its func-
man burial locale with clear ritual significance tion and activities can be presented.
(Grosman 2003). Nevertheless, this interpretation, Multiple lines of archaeological evidence point to
based on the site’s stratigraphy and features, de- a change in the spiritual outlook of the Natufians in-
scribes only one dimension of the human activities habiting the Mediterranean region of the Levant ca
undertaken there. Classes of smaller material re- 15,000 years ago. This shift is documented in the
mains such as flint and fauna instead reflect the more rise in frequency of artistic manifestations such as
mundane activities that occurred at the site. Here we figurines, and stone and bone objects bearing incised
consider the dichotomous nature of the material patterns (Bar-Yosef 2002). Likewise, beads manu-
record from Hilazon Tachtit by presenting a detailed factured from marine shells, in particular Dentalium,
analysis of the chipped stone and faunal assem- frequently appear in groups, particularly in human
blages from the first four seasons of excavation (1995, graves, indicating a new interest in personal adorn-
1997, 2000, 2001). We use these analyses to docu- ment in the form of headdresses, necklaces, armlets
ment the range of domestic activities that were un- and belts (Belfer-Cohen 1988). Most importantly, a
dertaken at the site, in particular everyday activities change in spiritual belief is indicated by the appear-
such as hunting, food preparation and tool use. Di- ance of cemeteries, which are unknown in Southwest
verse reconstructions of the activities undertaken at Asia prior to the Natufian (Bar-Yosef & Belfer-Cohen
Hilazon Tachtit are formed from the study of different 2002). The location of graves at human habitation
material classes, attesting to the integration of both sites, investment in their preparation, and the burial

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The sacred and the mundane: domestic activities at a Late Natufian burial site: Grosman & Munro

of ornaments and other artefacts with the dead im- Yanuch Formation between the end of the Eocene
plies increased organisation and institutionalisation and the Miocene epochs (Frumkin & Flischhendler
of mortuary practice. In the later phase of the Natufian 2005). To date, in situ prehistoric deposits have been
period, mortuary rites were common practice and located only in the largest chamber at Hilazon Tachtit.
some sites such as Hilazon Tachtit functioned prima- The interior surface of this cave is ca 100 m2, with no
rily as cemeteries. evidence of a front terrace. The easternmost cham-
ber was excavated during the 2000 season and a
2 Hilazon Tachtit
small flint assemblage was unearthed (n = 132). No
Hilazon Tachtit is a small cave located on the right diagnostic artefacts were found except for one arrow-
bank of the Nahal Hilazon in the western Galilee of head. During the 2005 excavation season, the small,
Israel, some 14 km from the Mediterranean shore- western chamber was tested for cultural remains, but
line and 200 m above sea level (figure 1). The cave none were found before bedrock was reached. Fu-
faces east and is situated high on a limestone cliff ca ture survey will test other caves in the immediate vi-
120 m above the stream channel. Hilazon Cave com- cinity of the site.
prises four tightly clustered chambers. Like other In June 1994, TD Berger and H Khalaily conducted
caves in the area, the dome-shaped chambers were a surface collection on the colluvial slope immediately
formed by karstic activity that dissolved the hard lime- below the entrance of the large central chamber at
stone of an eroded shelf of the Upper Cenomanian Hilazon Tachtit. The resulting lithic assemblage con-

Figure 1 The location of Hilazon Tachtit in the southern Levant

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tained Mousterian, Kebaran, and Natufian artefacts. of sporadic pottery fragments in Layer A indicate
Given the dominance of the latter, a systematic excava- that this practice began in Byzantine times. The
tion was initiated in 1995. Under the co-direction of TD thin successive accumulations consist of com-
Berger (University of New Mexico) and one of the au- pacted organic matter that breaks into large dis-
thors (Grosman), the first season of excavation was coidal plates. These deposits were subject to an-
spent cleaning detritus and historical deposits from nual episodes of burning by shepherds to exter-
the cave. Natufian artefacts were found under the ashy minate bugs and ticks to protect the health of the
historical accumulations. Since then, the authors have animals.
conducted four additional field seasons (1997, 2000, The uppermost portion of Layer B is composed
2001 and 2005) under the auspices of the Hebrew of a dark, ‘greasy’ sediment. In several places the
University with the aim of exposing the complete sur- Natufian layer was disturbed by historical levelling.
face of the Natufian layer (figure 2). Within the excavated 44 m2, only a depression in the
cave floor – an area of ca 30 m2 – contained Natufian
3 General stratigraphy remains. In all other areas, the bedrock was found
The excavation in the large chamber of the cave (44 m²) immediately under Layer A. The Natufian archaeo-
revealed two primary stratigraphic units: Layer A which logical layer was excavated to bedrock in several lo-
is composed primarily of ashes and goat dung and cations within this depression, yet the full extent and
Layer B, an anthropogenic layer containing the Natufian thickness of the deposits are not yet known. The ex-
remains. cavated Natufian layer contains a number of graves
Layer A is a 1.5 m thick deposit that was cre- and two structures. Although the material remains
ated by sheep and goat herds overwintering in the are limited in number, at least in comparison to the
cave from November to late March. The presence finds from classic Natufian camp sites (eg, el-Wad,

Figure 2 Site plan of Hilazon Tachtit and the excavated area

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The sacred and the mundane: domestic activities at a Late Natufian burial site: Grosman & Munro

Eynan), they exhibit all of the unique characteristics elements are missing from the pits. The bones from
of a Natufian assemblage. the torso of what appears to be one individual (based
Charcoal samples recovered from the structures on age and size estimates) were packed together in
provide three uncalibrated radiocarbon dates of a vertical orientation in an area of only .25 m2, sug-
10,750±50 BP (RTT 3760), 10,530±60 (RTT4592) and gesting that the remains of this body had been moved
10,770±65 (RTT 4593). After calibration (INTCAL subsequent to burial. The skeleton is missing its long
2005) the Natufian occupation falls in the range of bones and skull. Bones originating from several
12,400–12,000 cal BP which supports the lithic ob- hands (carpal and metacarpal) and feet (tarsals and
servations that Layer B is of Late Natufian age (see metatarsals) were also found in articulation. Conse-
below). quently, these collective graves probably form a pri-
The occupation at Hilazon Tachtit is divided into mary burial area that was occasionally re-opened to
two primary areas: the structures located near the remove skulls and long bones – elements typically
cave’s entrance and the primary burial pits situated in found in secondary burials in the Natufian and
the inner part of the cave (figure 2). Excavation of the Neolithic periods in the Levant (Kuijt 2001).
site is still underway, thus the base of the structures The location of Hilazon Tachtit on top of a steep,
has not yet been reached, and some burials still re- high escarpment with an excellent view of the val-
main in situ. ley as it opens to the coastal plain, the small size
of the site, the construction of two structures that
3.1 The structures
are too small to serve for habitation, and the large
Two structures cover an area of ca 7 m2 and contain
number of burials (n = 28) suggest that the site
three major localities of human remains. These in-
had a special function. The mere presence of buri-
clude the following.
als and structural remains sets Hilazon Tachtit
1 A primary burial of a young adult lying directly on
large stones situated between the two structures apart from other small (<200 m2) Natufian site. The
(L14). Natufians’ investment in the modification of the
2 Structure A (L-M13-14) – a semi-circular structure cave’s natural surface to construct complex graves
(1.2 m diameter) built from imported undressed for the burial of multiple people implies that they
large stones (west wall) and natural brecciated
attributed great symbolic and ritual importance to
bedrock that formed inside the cave (east, north
and south walls). An artificial oval cut into the this place
breccia forms an inner deeper basin within the
structure. Rich concentrations of cultural remains 4 The lithic assemblage
were retrieved from the upper levels of the
structure (ca 50 cm below surface). Apart from The lithic analysis includes the Natufian assemblage
sporadic small bones (eg, phalanges, carpals derived from the first four seasons of excavation at
and tarsals) recovered from the upper levels, the Hilazon Tachtit (1995, 1997, 2000 and 2001). The fre-
majority of human remains were found as part of
a primary burial sealed in the oval cut of the quency of tools (n = 1,163; 12.6%), debitage (n = 3,569;
breccia under a large triangular slab. 38.6%) and debris (n = 4,504; 48.7%) are relatively
3 Structure B (K-J 13-14 ) – a circular structure low with an overall density of only ca 200 flint artefacts
partially built from imported undressed stones per m3. Similar densities were found at the neigh-
was aligned with the bedrock slope of the cave. bouring site of Hayonim Cave, but the Late Natufian
A primary burial was dug into a late occupation
layer at the top of the structure and sealed by a burial site of Nahal Oren exhibited much denser con-
limestone slab, marking the end of the centrations (Grosman et al 2006). It is clear that the
structure’s life. Excavation has not yet reached constant shift of sediments caused by multiple burial
the bottom of the structure, but a rich fill beneath
the burial indicates an earlier phase of active phases resulted in admixture as sediments contain-
use. ing lithics (and other material remains) moved
amongst the burials and adjacent areas. Fortunately,
3.2 Primary burial pits (L-M 10-12)
lithic concentrations were also found inside the struc-
The burial pits occupy an area of 5 m2 and extend to a
tures, but outside the burial pits. The original spatial
depth of 50 cm. At this point, the area contains at least
distribution was maintained in these areas.
three consecutively used pits. The pits contained sev-
eral individuals representing different age groups 4.1 Technological characteristics
(adults, adolescents, children and infants). Many bone The lithic raw material is heterogeneous with no indi-

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Table 1 Frequency and percentages of lithic tools in the Hilazon

Tachtit assemblage
debitage, cores with both bladelet and flake scars
predominate (68%); 25% are bladelet cores and only
7% are flake cores. Evidently, the last phase in the
Scrapers 42 3.6 exhaustion of the core was the manufacture of
Burins 69 5.9
Awls and Borers 34 2.9 bladelets and small flakes. Most bladelets tend to be
Backed Pieces 72 6.2
Truncations 64 5.5 short and squat, as noted in other Natufian assem-
Notches and Denticulates 174 15.0 blages (Valla 1984). Very low microburin counts indi-
Retouched Pieces 215 18.5
Composite tools 6 0.5 cate that controlled cutting of bladelets to a specific
Varia 24 2.1 length was not done using this technique. Although
Non-Geometric Microlithics 328 28.2
Geometric Microlithics 135 11.6 the microburin technique was known to the Natufian
TOTAL 1163 100.0 knappers at Hilazon Tachtit, they did not use it to modify
cations for selection of specific raw materials for manu- their microliths.
facturing different tool types. The colour of the flint 4.2 The tool assemblage
ranges from light brown to dark and reddish browns Tools with varying intensities of retouch are most com-
indicating a wide diversity of flint types. Most of the flint mon in the Hilazon Tachtit assemblage (18.5%, table
is of local origin, and consists primarily of small peb- 1). Slightly retouched items (with less than 1 cm of
bles collected from the wadi bed immediately below continuous retouch) were not assigned to the tool
the cave. category. The high proportion of retouched tools (fig-
The ratio of cores to tools is 1:9 and the ratio of ure 4) likely results from the inclusion of a posteriori
cores to debitage is 1:25, suggesting that local raw tools in the retouched category or of broken tools lack-
material was brought to the site and some tools were ing their indicative working edge (eg, truncations,
produced in situ. Yet, in general there is a preference denticulates, scrapers, and others).
for blade/bladelets as tool blanks: 30.7% of tools are Notches (figure 4) were made on all blank types
manufactured on flakes, 63.3% originate on blade/ including microliths and are well represented in the
bladelets, and the other 6% are unidentified. These assemblage (15%). Tools with a single notch in vary-
counts agree with observations from other Natufian ing locations, awkward retouch and poor craftsman-
assemblages (Belfer-Cohen 1988; Belfer-Cohen & ship are the most common subtype in this category
Grosman 1997; Byrd 1989; Goring-Morris 1987; (65%, figure 4). The frequency of notches at other
Olszewski 1988). Nevertheless, the large number of Natufian sites varies – at Beidha this is the largest
scrapers and burins made on flake blanks at Hilazon tool class (30%), while at Hayonim Cave, it comprises
Tachtit portrays a preference for flakes, at least in the only 2.9–5.2 % of the tool assemblages (Byrd 1989;
macrolithic component. The frequencies of blades Belfer-Cohen 1988). In general, there is little invest-
and flakes in the debitage agree with the early indica- ment in the modification of notches, and they can be
tions of a flake-based technology: 58.1% flakes and considered an ad-hoc tool type. The difference in the
31.3% blade/bladelets. frequency of notches in various Natufian assem-
The cores (n = 101) are small and quite exhausted blages may thus stem from the criteria used by indi-
(average length = 4.2 cm, width = 3.2 cm, and thick- vidual researchers to define this tool type. For exam-
ness = 2.3 cm; figure 3). Nevertheless, core trimming ple, shallow notches could be described as notches
elements appear only in low frequencies (5% of or incorporated within the ‘retouched Items’ group
debitage) probably because of the small dimension which displays great heterogeneity in types and per-
of the original pebbles which required a short reduc- centages.
tion sequence to produce the finished tool. Alterna- A unique item in the Hilazon assemblage is a sub-
tively, the rarity of large cortical flakes knapped in the type of notched tool termed ‘alternating notches on
initial reduction phases may indicate that the reduc- parallel sides’ (7.1%). The parallel notches on these
tion sequence began off-site. Ca 50% of the cores tools have been retouched on the proximal edge and
have single platforms, 11.6 % have double platforms resemble the proximal end of a Neolithic arrow head.
at 90º, 18.3% have double parallel platforms, and Endscrapers comprise only a small part of the
8.3% have three parallel platforms. Interestingly, al- Hilazon assemblage – 3.6 % (table 1). Simple
though flakes are the dominant component of the endscrapers manufactured on flakes predominate

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(26%). The scraper category possesses great mor- however do not accord well with other Natufian burial
phological heterogeneity due to the high percentage ground assemblages such as Hayonim Cave and
of scrapers that could not be classified in the avail- Nahal Oren which have high percentages of burins
able sub-categories (Varia – 9.7%; based on Hours’ that were likely connected with activities related to burial
[1974] type-list). The working edge of most (Belfer-Cohen 1988; Grosman et al 2006). Burins re-
endscrapers is found at the distal end. Lateral re- quiring the smallest amount of modification are most
touch occurs in low frequencies. common in the Hilazon assemblage (dihedral burins
Burins have long been considered a special tool on natural breaks – 49.3%). Generally the burins were
class used primarily for engraving or grooving relatively made using a single blow, and 70 % of them are manu-
hard materials such as bone, antler, wood, ivory, or factured on flakes. Most of the burins are distal and the
stone. Recent use-wear studies emphasise the fact impact scar is often found on the dorsal surface and
that burins were used to manufacture bone tools can not be seen when the burin is turned over.
(Yamada 2000). At Hilazon Tachtit burins were uncom- The majority of the backed pieces are manufac-
mon (5.9%) and correspond to the relatively small bone tured on blade blanks and comprises 6.2% of the tool
tool assemblage at the site (35 tools). These counts, assemblage. Forty-three per cent of backed blades are

Figure 3 Typical lithic cores from Hilazon Tachtit

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Figure 4 A selection of tools from Hilazon Tachtit: 1–4: retouched tools; 5–7: sickle blades; 8: pick; 9: awl; 10–11: retouched notches

sickle blades. Only items with visible sheen were de- modification.
fined as sickle blades although other blades have a Geometric and non-geometric microliths, in par-
similar shape and dimensions (figure 4). It is quite ticular backed bladelets and geometrics (lunates),
possible that these other blades were used as sickles are a major component of Natufian assemblages
for only short periods and thus did not acquire the char- (figure 5). Forty per cent of the Hilazon Tachtit tool
acteristic lustre. There is high variability in the degree assemblage is comprised of microliths, the majority
of sheen coverage, from the whole lateral surface to of them broken (72%). Only complete or nearly com-
sporadic dots on some tools. On the whole, sickle plete tools were assigned to the geometric category.
blade manufacture is homogeneous and highly stand- Nevertheless, some of the broken microliths likely
ardised, the blanks are mostly well made blades. also belong to this category. Because we could not
With few exceptions (eg, backed blades and picks) be certain, they were assigned to the non-geometric
the macrolithic tools show no evidence for standardi- category. The non-geometric category is dominated
sation within each tool category. Homogeneity is found by pieces with abruptly retouched bladelets that may
only in the shape of the working edge. Minimal effort be broken lunates. Finely-retouched bladelets are
was invested in modifying the macrolithic blank. The the second most common type (13.5%) and form a
high percentage of retouched items and notches dem- heterogeneous group with substantial variation in
onstrates low energetic investment in secondary the intensity, location and quality of retouch. Together,

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Figure 5 A selection of lunates from Hilazon Tachtit

the complete geometric forms comprise 10% of the high end of this range (18.7 mm). Unlike the length
tool assemblage. measure, the widths of the lunates are narrowly dis-
The geometric microlith category is dominated by tributed (3–5 mm). The average length of the lunates
lunates (88%), followed by small percentages of tri- from Hilazon Tachtit falls at the upper end of the
angles and rectangles. Nearly all lunates, ‘the fossil range. Still, the high frequency of backed lunates fits
directeur’ of the Natufian period, are abruptly retouched well within the Late Natufian subdivision. The near
and backed. The chronological subdivision of the absence of Helwan retouch on lunates in the lithic
Natufian into Early and Late phases is primarily de- assemblage confirms the assignment of Hilazon
termined by the proportion of different types of lunates. Tachtit to the Late Natufian phase.
Lunates shift from elongated forms with Helwan re-
touch in the Early Natufian to short, backed forms in
5 The faunal assemblage
the Late and Final Natufian (Valla 1984). The lunates Several indicators can be used to distinguish fau-
from Hilazon Tachtit (11–30 mm) match the lengths nas discarded following mundane activities such
for the Late (14–21 mm; el-Wad B2, Hayonim Terrace as food preparation and consumption from those of
Upper, Mallaha Ic) and the Final Natufian (12–14 mm; ritual or other non-subsistence purposes. Food
Mallaha Ib, Nahal Oren V, and Fazael IV; Valla 1984). refuse results from the removal of meat, bone fat
Most of the lunates from Hilazon Tachtit are between and other edible products from the skeleton. This
12 and 20 mm long and are distributed throughout results in the disarticulation of skeletal elements,
this range. Nevertheless, the average length is at the bone breakage, and the production of defleshing

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marks and impact fractures on bone surfaces (Lyman 11 gazelle long bone shafts (8.1% of gazelle long bone
1994 and references therein). In contrast, skeletal shaft fragments). These numbers are low even for
remains disposed after non-food use are most often Mediterranean Palaeolithic and Epipalaeolithic as-
articulated, complete or broken only after deposition, semblages which exhibit small frequencies of
and lack defleshing cutmarks. cutmarks in general (Bar-Oz 2004; Bar-Oz & Munro
The faunal assemblage from Hilazon Tachtit re- 2004; Martin 1994; Rabinovich 1998 a, 1998b). Fi-
covered up to and including the 2001 excavations nally, 4.1% (n = 139) of the assemblage is burned.
comprises 3,382 identifiable specimens. Of these, Because black staining (probably manganese) is
2,544 are identified to genus and species. The re- common in the upper layers at Hilazon Tachtit, burn-
maining fraction (n = 838) is identified to broad taxo- ing was assigned conservatively. Hearths were not
nomic categories based on body size (ie, small, me- present at Hilazon Tachtit and burned bone is not con-
dium and large mammals, birds, and ungulates). centrated in any given area suggesting that bones
Nearly half of the elements identified to body size (n = were burned during cooking and then dispersed in
374) are classified as small ungulates. Because the fill following deposition.
mountain gazelle (Gazella gazella) is the only small Despite the dearth of bone surface damage, the
ungulate identified in the assemblage, the small un- gazelle assemblage from Hilazon Tachtit is highly frag-
gulate and gazelle assemblages are combined into mented (average fragment size = 2.72+/–1.58 cm).
a single gazelle category for the purposes of this study. Trampling and human processing are common cul-
prits of bone fragmentation in archaeological sites.
5.1 Macroscopic preservation
While trampling is expected to preferentially break
The fine macroscopic condition of the Hilazon Tachtit
bones with poor structural resistance to mechanical
fauna is attested by the recovery of delicate bone tis-
loading and low mineral density (ie, spongy cancel-
sues including complete bird elements and the
lous bone and bird bones), human processing pref-
spongy cancellous bone of gazelle fawns. Likewise,
erentially fragments adult long bone shafts to access
there is low incidence of damage on bone surfaces.
nutritious marrow. Humans may also intentionally frag-
Weathering is observed on 59 elements (1.8%), only
ment adult cancellous bone to extract grease – but
two of which were weathered beyond Behrensmeyer’s
grease production is rarely practiced in the absence
(1978) stage 2, while a mere 17 elements (0.5%)
of marrow extraction. Thus, unlike trampling, human
exhibit rodent gnawing. Light root etching was the
processing is not expected to act on bone density. A
most common damage type, but affected only 4.1%
comparison of gazelle bone survivorship against bone
(n = 139) of the assemblage. Light weathering and
density (using Lam et al’s [1998] BMD1 density val-
moderate root etching indicate that bones did not sit
ues for caribou) reveals no significant density-medi-
long on the site’s surface, but were rapidly covered by
ated bias in the Hilazon gazelle assemblage (rs=.183,
cave sediments where they came into contact with
n=28, p>.05). Human processing is supported by low
the active soil layer. Five instances of polish resem-
completeness values for adult gazelle long bone
bling digestive etching and 4 punctures potentially
shafts (2.8%; MNE = 35), especially in comparison to
created by carnivore teeth indicate that few if any ani-
delicate juvenile gazelle (25.0%; MNE = 12) and par-
mals were transported to the cave by birds of prey or
tridge (44.4%; MNE = 25) long bone shafts. The fact
carnivores. Furthermore, the disarticulation, distribu-
that marrow-bearing bones are much more frag-
tion and fragmentation of the bone assemblage indi-
mented than bones containing little or no marrow,
cate that other factors such as natural death or fluvial
despite higher bone density, excludes trampling and
action were not responsible for the accumulation of
strongly favours human processing of bone as the
the assemblage (see below).
major formation agent of the Hilazon Tachtit assem-
Classic evidence for human damage such as
cutmarks and impact fractures are also rare at Hilazon
Tachtit. Cutmarks were observed with the naked eye 5.2 Relative taxonomic abundance
on only 0.4% of all bone fragments and 0.8% of the Faunal specimens were identified to the most spe-
gazelle assemblage (n with cutmarks = 16). Likewise, cific taxonomic category possible with the aid of the
impact fractures, produced when fresh cortical bone comparative collection in the Department of Ecology,
is struck by a hammerstone, were observed on only Systematics and Evolution at the Hebrew University

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in Jerusalem. The relative abundance data are based and an unidentified Equid are represented by only
on NISP counts. The Hilazon Tachtit assemblage is one or two bones respectively. Foxes (Vulpes vulpes)
divided into three major taxonomic groups including are the most common carnivore (45.0% of carni-
ungulates (35.7%), carnivores (3.9%) and small vores), while six elements (5.0%) are identified as
game (60.4%; table 2). Small game includes those Canis sp and fall into the size range of both small
taxa that were captured by humans but weigh less wolves (Canis lupus) and what have been argued to
than 3 kg. be early domestic dogs (Canis familiaris; Tchernov
The ungulate assemblage is dominated by the & Valla 1997). The jungle cat (Felis chaus; 12.5%),
mountain gazelle (Gazella gazella; 94.0%) and fol- and three Mustelids including pine marten (Martes
lowed distantly by wild boar (Sus scrofa; 1.9%) and foina; 9.2%); polecat (Vormela peregusna; 1.7%) and
wild cattle (Bos primigenius; 0.9%). Fallow deer badger (Meles meles; 0.8%) round off the carnivore
(Dama mesopotamica), red deer (Cervus elaphus), assemblage.
The tortoise (Testudo graeca) is not only the most
common small game animal (84.6%), it is by far the
Table 2 NISP of identified animal taxa in the Hilazon Tachtit
assemblage most abundant species in the Hilazon Tachtit assem-
blage, comprising close to half of the total NISP
(45.4%). Partridge (Alectoris chukar; 4.7%) and hare
(Lepus capensis; 5.1%) are numerous, but trail dis-
Equid 1
Cervid 7 tantly behind the tortoise in overall abundance. The
Dama mesopotamica 2
Cervus elaphus 1 remaining birds include a few species of
Bos primigenius 8 Falconiformes (Buteo buteo, Accipiter nisus, and uni-
Sus scrofa 21
Capra sp. 8 dentified species; 1.8% of small game); an unidenti-
Gazella gazella 644 fied owl (<1.0%), waterfowl (Anas platyrynchos and
Small Ungulate 375
Medium Ungulate 11 Fulica atra; (<1.0%); and pigeons (Columba livia;
Large Ungulate 6
<1.0%). All remaining bird elements are not diagnos-
Huge Ungulate 2
UNGULATE SUBTOTAL 1086 tic to species and are assigned to more general body
CARNIVORES size categories. Likewise, small fish vertebrae (<1.0%)
Carnivora 26 were recovered, but lack diagnostic features.
Musetlidae 4
Felis chaus 15 Despite the diversity of species represented at
Canis sp. 6 Hilazon Tachtit, gazelle (30.0%) and tortoise (45.4%)
Vulpes vulpes 54
Vormela peregusna 2 dominate the assemblage. The faunas from other
Martes foina 11 Late Natufian assemblages in the Mediterranean
Meles meles 1
CARNIVORE SUBTOTAL 119 zone, such as Hayonim Terrace and Hayonim Cave,

have similar compositions (Munro 2004). Early
Testudo graeca 1536 Natufian assemblages in the Mediterranean region
Pices 22
Lepus capensis 93 (ie, el-Wad Cave, Hayonim Cave), however, contain
Medium Aves 42 substantially higher relative proportions of hare and
Large Aves 13
Huge Aves 3 partridge. Abundant tortoises indicate that hunting
Falconiformes 25 pressure was not sufficient to deplete local tortoise
Accipiter nisus 1
Buteo buteo 6 populations, despite the low rate of population turno-
Alectoris chukar 87
Coturnix coturnix 1
ver for this species (Stiner et al 1999, 2000). Clearly,
Strigidae 1 occupation at Hilazon Tachtit was not intensive. The
Anas platyrhynchos 1
Fulica atra 1 abundance of gazelles at Hilazon Tachtit supports a
Columbia livia 7 much broader long-term trend toward the use of small
ungulates at the expense of medium and large ungu-
BROAD TAXONOMIC GROUPS late that begins in the Upper Palaeolithic. This pat-
Large Mammal 6
Medium Mammal 205 tern likely reflects long-term human population growth
Small Mammal 127
and the gradual depletion of large mammal
populations on a regional scale over thousands of
years in the Mediterranean Levant rather than local

10 Before Farming 2007/4 article 4

The sacred and the mundane: domestic activities at a Late Natufian burial site: Grosman & Munro

hunting pressures (Stiner 2005; Stiner et al 1999). 68% of distal metapodial; and 78% of distal femur epi-
physes). The high number of older juvenile gazelles is
5.3 Gazelle mortality data
in line with those recovered from the Early and Late
Gazelle mortality data indicates the preferential culling
Natufian deposits at Hayonim Cave (Munro 2004) and
of both young adult and adult individuals at Hilazon
from other Natufian sites in the Mediterranean zone
Tachtit. Unfortunately gazelle teeth are too few to pro-
(Bar-Oz 2004; Davis 2005). The hunters at Hilazon
vide statistically meaningful age profiles. Neverthe-
Tachtit, however, were more selective than those from
less, the teeth do indicate that gazelles from a full spec-
Hayonim Cave who also hunted high proportions of
trum of ages were culled, including fawns, older juve-
fawns under the age of 6 months. The proportion of
niles and young and prime-aged adults. The wide
juveniles in a living population increases with human
range of juvenile ages represented, suggest a year-
hunting pressure, since heightened mortality raises
round rather than a seasonal culling practice. More
the rate of population turnover (Caughley 1977). The
detailed gazelle mortality data can be constructed us-
high proportion of juvenile gazelles at Hilazon Tachtit
ing epiphyseal bone fusion data. Although all elements
and Natufian sites in general, thus likely reflects in-
are represented by at least a few foetal or newborn
creased hunting pressure, again at a regional scale,
specimens, unfused epiphyses from bones that fuse
rather than local imbalances between human popula-
before gazelles reach 10 months of age are relatively
tion size and resource availability across the Mediterra-
uncommon in the assemblage (20% of first phalanx,
nean Levant (Munro 2004). The occupants at Hilazon
and 0% of distal tibia and calcaneum are unfused). In
Tachtit only occasionally hunted fawns, however, indi-
contrast, more than half of the epiphyses of elements
cating that although regional hunting efforts were suffi-
that fuse between 12–18 months of age when gazelle
ciently substantial to impact prey populations, preda-
near full body size, are unfused (50% of distal radius;
tion was sustainable.

5.4 Tortoise taphonomy

A minimum of 23 tortoises (NISP = 1536) are repre-
sented in the Hilazon Tachtit assemblage. The tor-
toise shell is comprised of a number of interlocking
bone elements that usually separate into individual
segments following decomposition, even if the shell
was deposited intact. Nearly all of the tortoise frag-
ments recovered from Hilazon Tachtit were disarticu-
lated when recovered, although a few pieces re-
mained in articulation and many could be refitted. Most
segments are broken (73%). Repeated medio-lateral
spiral fractures across articulated segments of the
anterior plastron provide strong evidence for repeti-
tive processing (figure 6). Several anterior plastrons
with the same characteristic break were recovered in
articulation, while others had disarticulated following
deposition, but revealed the same pattern when refit-
ted. Breakage of the anterior plastron allows the re-
moval of the meat from the tortoise shell while leav-
ing the carapace intact. The carapace could then be
curated for other uses – including deposition in hu-
man graves. Routine breakage of the tortoise plastron
provides good evidence for human consumption of
tortoises, although compaction and trampling after
deposition was likely a major cause of breakage in
most other elements.
Figure 6 Examples of repeated human-inflicted breaks across the
anterior segments of the tortoise plastron The body-part representation of tortoise body parts

Before Farming 2007/4 article 4 11

The sacred and the mundane: domestic activities at a Late Natufian burial site: Grosman & Munro

at Hilazon Tachtit (carapace =65.5%, plastron = 17.1%, indicate that these animal were hunted locally and
limb bones = 17.4%) closely matches the natural dis- transported as complete carcasses back to the site.
tribution of body-parts within a complete skeleton Taphonomic damage such as breakage patterns,
(carapace = 60.8%, plastron= 12.2%; and limb bones cutmarks and other surface damage indicate that
= 27%). The pattern indicates that complete tortoises Natufian faunas were both butchered and consumed
were brought to the site and discarded there. The by humans (Munro 2004). Finally, mortality analysis
presence of complete articulated tortoise shells and taxonomic abundance say more about the inten-
(n=10) in one human grave suggests that complete sity of local site use and regional hunting pressure
tortoises or tortoise shells may have also played a than they do about special activities and ritual prac-
role in burial practices (see below). The interment of tice. In summary, the flint and faunal assemblages
complete tortoises in human graves may contribute clearly indicate that human visitors to Hilazon Tachtit
to the representation of the full spectrum of body parts engaged in the same types of every day activities that
at Hilazon Tachtit. characterise larger Natufian occupation sites albeit
on a more restricted scale. These people thus made
6 Discussion use of local environments to collect the raw materials
The flint and faunal assemblages from Hilazon Tachtit required for sustenance at the site while engaging in
are typically Natufian and represent a broad spec- special ritual activities there.
trum of every day activities, albeit on a smaller scale Despite the strong evidence for domestic activi-
than the larger Natufian occupation sites in the Medi- ties at Hilazon Tachtit, elements of the faunal and flint
terranean zone. The absolute date and attributes of records also support the interpretation that Hilazon
the microlithic tools indicate that the assemblage is Tachtit served first and foremost as a special location
Late Natufian in age, though the average length of the designated for human burial. In particular, the tortoise
lunates is at the high end of the Late Natufian range. assemblage from Locus 1 indicates that in addition
Every day activities are reflected in several aspects of to basic subsistence functions, animals played two
the lithic assemblage. First, all tool categories are additional roles directly related to sacred ritual events.
represented in frequencies typical of other larger The recovery of both anterior tortoise plastrons with
Natufian sites (Salibiya I, Belfer-Cohen & Grosman repeated human breaks (figure 6) and intact
1997; Nahal-Oren, Grosman et al 2006, etc), indicat- carapaces from the grave in Structure A suggests that
ing that a variety of tasks was carried out on site. Also, tortoises were consumed immediately before they
minimal effort was invested in modifying the were deposited in the graves, likely as part of the burial
macrolithic blank as indicated by the high proportion ritual. This point is supported by the recovery of the
of a posteriori tools (eg, retouched tools and notches). remains of other types of ‘special garbage’ from the
Second, the raw materials used for tool manufacture graves in Structures A and B during the 2005 and 2006
were collected from the wadi below the cave—con- excavation seasons. By ‘special garbage’ we mean
firming that the Natufians were using local environ- the broken remnants of rare animals and artefact
ments rather than visiting the area only for specific classes (eg, groundstone). For example, at least 30
burial activities. Finally, burins have long been thought broken cattle bones are associated with the grave
to be a special group of tools (Barton et al 1996); in buried in Locus 1. The cattle remains are distributed
particular, it has been argued that they appear in high throughout the fill immediately surrounding the burial,
frequencies at sites with special functions. At Hayonim both at the same depth as the human skeleton and
Cave, where graves are numerous, burins are present immediately below it. Cattle appear only very sporadi-
in unusually high frequencies (22%). At Hilazon Tachtit, cally in all other contexts at the site (n = 8). The clus-
however, burins are present in smaller numbers and tering of the cattle remains, their spatial association
do not reflect the special status of the site. with the human grave and the strong evidence for
The majority of the fauna from Hilazon Tachtit ex- human bone breakage suggest that this animal(s)
hibit multiple lines of evidence for food use. Most im- was either consumed in an event potentially associ-
portantly, the vast majority of skeletal parts are disar- ated with the human burial or that these rare animal
ticulated and highly fragmented, in particular those bones were curated after earlier use and intentionally
areas that encompass large stores of bone fat. The buried. Second, animals were intentionally interred
full representation of the body-parts of common taxa in human graves as associated objects. The com-

12 Before Farming 2007/4 article 4

The sacred and the mundane: domestic activities at a Late Natufian burial site: Grosman & Munro

plete tortoise carapaces (n=10) associated with the practices (ie, garbage was probably disposed where
grave in Structure A clearly fit this scenario. it was produced). Higher rates of secondary garbage
The dichotomous nature of the flint and faunal disposal begin only in the Pre- Pottery Neolithic A
assemblages from Hilazon Tachtit combined with period, as one of long- term responses to sedentary
the special role of the site attest to the clear integra- living (Hardy-Smith & Edwards 2004). Nevertheless,
tion of sacred and mundane activities in everyday even in later periods, the duality between sacred and
Natufian life. On the mundane level the evidence mundane is maintained in sedentary societies. Peo-
speaks of the ordinary activities of the people who ple travelling to sacred places still utilised their eve-
visited the site, namely hunting and gathering, the ryday support system even when they were far from
butchery and consumption of animals and the manu- home (Carmichael et al 1994).
facture of tools. On a sacred level, it was a place
where special rituals took place, in particular the Acknowledgements
burial of the dead. The primary burial pits which were We would like to thank Yael Gilboa and Shira Buchwald
later reopened for the removal of human bones sug- for assisting with the analysis of the Hilazon Tachtit
gest that funeral events may have been scheduled lithics. Thanks to Peter Grosman for drawing the site
at a pre-arranged time. The disposal of waste pro- plan depicted in figure 2 and Yulia Skidel-Rymar for
duced by the everyday activities that must have ac- illustrating the lithics presented in figures 3–5. We
companied special burial events resulted in the mix- wish to thank Ofer Bar-Yosef, Anna Belfer-Cohen and
ture of both mundane and sacred garbage in the Mary Stiner for their support and fruitful conversations.
archaeological deposits. Clearly, the making of a We also wish to thank the many volunteers who exca-
sacred place involves exchange between the sacred vated at Hilazon Tachtit over several excavation sea-
and the mundane. The sacred, if it is culturally em- sons, in particular Laure Dubreuil, Hila Ashkenazi,
bedded, must always make use of materials that Arik Buller and Michal Birkenfeld. This research was
can otherwise be used for mundane purposes. In supported by grants to LG from the Care Levi Sala
addition, we suspect that different forms of spiritual Foundation, the National Geographic Society and the
practice seek to include the everyday and the ordi- Israel Science Foundation (Grant #202/05) and grants
nary, such as eating near a new burial often as part to NDM from the National Science Foundation (SBR-
of the ritual practice itself. Moreover, the duality in the 9815083; BCS-0618937) and the University of Con-
burial area likely partially exists because the necticut Research Foundation.
Natufians had not yet formalised their waste disposal

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