Archaeologists participating in the ongoing Tel Shimron excavations in the Jezreel Valley of northern Israel recently unearthed the first section of an arched, vaulted passageway with steps that they’ve dated to approximately 1,800 BC. This astonishingly well-crafted work of ancient engineering is the earliest passageway or covered stairway made from corbelled mudbrick ever found in the southern Levant , showing that this traditional form of building has a surprisingly long history in the region.
The co-director of the Tel Shimron Excavations , archaeologist Daniel Master from Harvard University, told the Jerusalem Post that this vaulted passage is “an ancestor to the mudbrick radial arch in the gate at Tel Dan and is an extraordinary example of Mesopotamian mudbrick technology.”
In addition to its vast age, the arched stairway is also in remarkably good condition. Its structure is very much intact, allowing archaeologists to analyze some of the construction techniques that were in use in the ancient city of Shimron 3,800 years ago.
An Ancient Acropolis and an Early Architectural Innovation
The mudbrick passageway is ingeniously designed, making use of traditional structural supports known as corbels. A corbel is a piece of stone, wood or metal that extends out of a wall and functions as a type of bracket, holding up any building materials set upon it. In this instance, multiple corbels were used to support layers of bricks lain in a stepped pattern that created a gradually narrowing arched roof.
Many examples of corbelled architecture have been found at sites throughout Mesopotamia. But this is the first time such a mudbrick structure has been found in the southern Levant, and its truly ancient date of origin only makes the discovery more significant. It is notable that Jewish history only officially begins in the 17th century BC, or two hundred years after this arched walkway was constructed.
The site identified as Tel Shimron is where the acropolis of the ancient city of Shimron once stood. During a recent round of excavations, archaeologists dug out around a 16-foot (five-meter) high tower constructed from more than 9,000 mudbricks and placed in the center of a square plaza. Inside the structure there was a narrow corridor that led to the edge of the vaulted passageway, which is 6.5 feet (two meters) long in its accessible section and topped by a corbelled roof constructed from mudbrick decorated with white chalk stripes.
A detail of the decorative chalk striping on the overhanging bricks of the corbelled vault Tel Shimron in northern Israel, during the 2023 dig season. (Courtesy Eyecon)
The passageway slopes downward, and features mudbrick stairs that would have eventually led down to the city below (it is presumed). However, at some point after it was built the arched passageway and its steps were filled in with gravel and large rocks, for reasons that remain obscure. The archaeologists who discovered the passage were able to clean out the debris from the top section, but after digging for a few feet they could progress no further, as the rest of the arch-covered staircase had been filled in and blocked off with large boulders.
The part of the passageway and stairwell that have been dug out are in superb condition, despite their antiquity. The fill kept the passage safe from erosion, and it looks virtually the same today as it would have looked when it was first built in the early second millennium BC.
A Unique Bronze Age Corbelled Passageway
The discovery of this skillfully engineered archway is a most unusual development. Mario Martin, an archaeologist from the University of Innsbruck and the co-director of the Tel Shimron excavations, reports that small, corbelled tombs dating to the Middle Bronze Age (2,000 to 1,550 BC) have been uncovered at several sites in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But the passageway is one of a kind.
“A fully preserved mudbrick-built passageway with this type of corbelled vault is without parallel,” Martin stated. “Such structures, made of unfired mudbrick, almost never survive.”
Dating the Passageway and the Tower Complex
While digging out the top of the passage, the archaeologists unearthed a Middle Bronze Age vessel from the debris. This artifact was identified as a Nahariya Bowl, a type of ceremonial vessel used in religious rituals. This particular bowl features seven cups that would have been filled with an unknown substance during religious ceremonies that took place where the northern coastal city of Nahariya, Israel is now located.
The ‘Nahariya Bowl’ discovered at Tel Shimron during the 2023 dig season. (Christina Carper)
It was this discovery that allowed the archaeologists to date the tower, corridor and arched mudbrick passageway to the Middle Bronze Age. During this time the people of ancient Israel had yet to enter the Biblical Age, but that was destined to change very soon.
As for the greater tower complex, this landmark would have stood in a prominent place in the center of the royal acropolis. It was built as a status symbol of elite wealth and power, and is typical of the kind of thick and massive fortresses that were constructed in the region by Bronze Age rulers.
So far, the Tel Shimron archaeologists have excavated approximately 5,400 square feet (500 square meters) of the acropolis. They’ve found stone foundations and mudbrick platforms that were built to elevate the tower complex and other acropolis structures by more than 13 feet (four meters).
At the end of the current excavation season, the archaeologists filled the passageway back in to make sure it is preserved and protected. Next year they plan to begin digging from the other direction, clearing out the boulders and other fill so they can see where the passage actually led.
Uncovering the True History of the Ancient Southern Levant
In their time the Tel Shimron mound and acropolis would have dominated the landscape of Israel’s northern Jezreel Valley. The ancient city was built at the nexus of trade routes that led from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Desert, which meant it would have been visited by travelers from all over the greater Mediterranean region.
Serious excavations only began at Tel Shimron and in the surrounding area in 2016. During the five excavation seasons they’ve completed, an international alliance of archaeologists from Israel, the United States and Europe have unearthed a fortified Canaanite city from the Late Bronze Age, remains of an Israelite city that was destroyed by Assyrian conquerors in the eighth century BC, ruins from a first century Jewish village, and artifacts from a Hellenistic (third or fourth century BC) farming settlement that would have supplied agricultural goods to the nearby port of Acco.
The goal of the Tel Shimron excavations has been to uncover new information about the societies and cultures that inhabited the lands of the southern Levant more than 2,000 years ago and earlier. In a short time, these excavations have unearthed a wealth of fascinating discoveries, with the promise of much more to come.
Top image: Aerial view of the structure at Tel Shimron supporting the passageway to the corbelled vault. Credit: Eyecon. Source: Eyecon
By Nathan Falde
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