Sha`ar Hagolan - Neolithic Art in Context.

1. Introduction

The Neolithic village of Sha`ar Hagolan (ca. 8000-7500 years before present) is the largest and most important prehistoric art center in Israel.

Over 150 art objects were collected from its surface over the years. However, it was not possible to conduct large scale excavations there since the site was covered by fish-ponds and olive trees. In the years 1989-90 Y. Garfinkel conducted pilot excavations between the fish-ponds and the olives. Only some 100 sq.m. were available for excavation, yet one complete domestic unit (with a small figurine in it) and a corner of a monumental public building (with a large figurine nearby) were exposed.

Lately, for economic reasons, the fish-ponds and the olives groves have fellen into disuse, making it possible to enlarge the old excavation area on a large scale, to unearth the monumental public building as well as a few more domestic units.

2. Significance of Research

a. Now, for the first time, it is possible to conduct excavations at the largest prehistoric art center in Israel.

b. Pilot excavations clarified the existence of domestic as well as public buildings.

c. Unearthing Neolithic art in domestic and public contexts will enable us a better understanding of the use and function of symbolic expression in the Neolithic period.

d. The excavations are unearthing a monumental Neolithic building, the only one known to date from 6th millennium b.c. in the southern Levant.

e. It is important that excavations be carried now. If not, the land will be used for other agricultural purposes, such as banana or avocado plantations, again depriving archaeologists of access to the site.

3. The Art Objects

a. Clay Human Figurines - Some of the most remarkable finds from Sha`ar Hagolan are the clay figurines which depict seated women, and sometimes men. The figurines are modelled as highly stylized anthropomorphic figures. The figurines have fired the imagination of many scholars, and have been given a wide variety of names: fertility figurines, seated figurines wearing a soutane and mask, "mere terrible" - terrible mother figurines, grotesque figurines and broad type figurines (see discussion Garfinkel 1993)

b. Pebble Human Figurines - About a hundred figurines incised on limestone pebbles have been found in Sha`ar Hagolan. They range between 4 to 32 cm in size, and weigh between 30 gm and 6 kg.

c. Incised Pebbles - About thirty basalt pebbles incised with geometric patterns have been found at Sha`ar Hagolan. The patterns may be divided into three main groups: parallel lines, chequered patterns and intersecting lines. Similar geometric patterns appear on contemporany stamp seals in the northern Levant and Mesopotamia.

Various hypotheses have been suggested concerning the function of these items in the Yarmukian context as part of a fertility cult, as utensils for textile dying, as part of a rain cult, as objects used in initiation rites or as brands used to mark ownership of animals (see discussion Garfinkel 1993).

4. Research Objectives

The rich and unique collection of art objects from Sha`ar Hagolan raises many questions about their meaning, function and use in the Neolithic community. For instance, why have so many been discovered at one site? However, given the current state of research, and the fact that most of the items were gathered from the site surface without any information on their archaeological context, it is impossible to answer these questions. Furthermore, the old excavations at Yarmukian sites yielded mainly pits, in which pottery sherds, flint items and art objects were found. No clear traces of architecture were reported. These create the general impression that the Yarmukian population was semi-nomadic and pastoral, occupying the sites for only part of the year. It was suggested that they lived in subterranean pits and round huts made of perishable materials.

Why would a nomadic population manufacture such a unique art assemblage?

In order to understand this exceptional phenomenon better, I started a pilot project at Sha`ar Hagolan, which concentrated on the following aspects:

a. Beliefs - Are there any other indications of symbolic behavior in this community, such as pottery decoration or burial customs?

b. Spatial distribution - Where are the art objects found? In houses? Graves? Shrines?

c. Material culture - The art objects should be examined with the other aspects of material culture, such as pottery, stone vessels and flint tools in mind.

d. Economic subsistence - In order to improve our understanding of the setting of the art objects and the people who made them, the economic subsistence of the village should be investigated.

e. Relationship with other communities - Was the site of Sha`ar Hagolan the cultic center of a large territory in the northern part of Israel?

In the new excavations at Sha`ar Hagolan, a domestic structure and a corner of a massive public building were exposed. The domestic structure consists of one rectangular room (1.6 by 3 m).

The floor was made of beaten earth, on which several flat basalt slabs were found. An open area abutting the room from the north served as the house's courtyard. Two big mortars and one pebble figurine were found in the courtyard of this unit. It is thus possible that each household kept one figurine for worship and adoration. Such phenomena have been described for the Chalcolithic period in the Golan Heights (Epstein 1988). In order to test this possibility, more domestic units will have to be excavated.

Near this house the corner of a massive building was unearthed; it was formed by two walls that met at a right angle. The walls are 1 meter thick and they extend beyond the excavated area. So far they have been traced for a length of some 8 m. This corner is a part of a monumental building of a type never before found at a Yarmukian site. The largest pebble figurine ever found at Sha`ar Hagolan was collected from the site surface in this vicinity. It is thus possible that this massive public construction had a cultic function. If this is so, it would be the earliest temple ever excavated in Israel.


Y. Garfinkel, The Yarmukian Culture in Israel. Paleorient 19/1 (1993) 115-134.

C. Epstein, 1988. Basalt Pillar Figures from the Golan and the Huleh Region. Israel Exploration Journal 38:205-223.

M. Stekelis, 1951. A New Neolithic Industry: The Yarmukian of Palestine. Israel Exploration Journal 1:1-19.

M. Stekelis, 1972. The Yarmukian Culture of the Neolithic Period. Jerusalem: Magness Press.


 This page was last updated: 03/09/00

Produced by: Nachum Applbaum, Institute of Archaeology Hebrew University, Jerusalem Israel