In B or Not in B: A Reappraisal of the Natufian Burials at Shukbah Cave, Judaea, Palestine. (Research)

Article excerpt

Shukbah cave and its context

The Natufian (ca. 13 000-10 500 BP) is a transitional culture between the Palaeolithic and Neolithic ways of life and economic subsistence in the Levant. Archaeological manifestations typical of the Natufian include large settlements, durable architectural remains, prolific microlithic stone and bone industries, ornamented objects and large cemeteries. Some 500 burials are known, which vary in composition (multiple or single, age and gender), burial position (flexed, extended) and mode of inhumation (primary or secondary; inclusion of stones or grave goods). Decorated burials are a characteristic feature of the Early Natufian while skull removal is a custom that appears in the later Natufian and continues into the Neolithic.

Shukbah Cave was the first Natufian site to be discovered in the Levant. Excavated by Dorothy Garrod in 1928 (1928, 1942), it included a number of burials and an assemblage of artefacts which first defined the Natufian period. But unlike most other Natufian sites (e.g. el-Wad; Garrod and Bate 1937; Valla et al. 1986; Weinstein-Evron 1998), it has not subsequently been re-excavated. Our information about the "classic" site and cemetery of Shukbah remains dependent on the findings and interpretations that Garrod left us in her reports. In the light of this, the recent recovery of her hand-written field notebooks (Smith et al. 1997) presents us with a welcome opportunity to revisit the archaeological evidence and place it in the context of more recent studies. What follows is a re-appraisal of the Shukbah burials, arguing from the field notes as well as the published data.


The Shukbah Cave is located on the northern bank of Wadi en-Natuf, on the western flanks of the Judaean Hills, some 30 km inland from the Mediterranean (Figure 1). It contains a central chamber (Chamber I; Figure 2a) and two side chambers (II and III). There are two chimneys in the ceiling of the main chamber and a swallow hole in its rock floor, descending to an unknown depth. As a result of repeated subsidence episodes, erosion of the archaeological layers is apparent in various stages of the sedimentary fill, complicating the interpretation of the stratigraphic and cultural sequence. Garrod spent about two months investigating the site during which she excavated more than a half of the central chamber and carried out a sounding in Chamber III (Figure 2a). The archaeological sequence uncovered contained the following layers (Garrod 1942), from top to bottom (Figure 2b): Layer A, Early Bronze to Recent; Layer B, Upper Natufian; Layer C, containing abraded, re-deposited material eroded from Layer D; Layer D, made up mostly of breccia containing Upper Levallois-Mousterian implements, had suffered intense erosion, and its surface "scoured into deep hollows separated by hummocks of harder material which had resisted erosion to a greater or less extent" (Garrod 1942:3). Two of these mounds of breccia were preserved to a depth of 2.5-3.0 m (Garrod 1928); others were much smaller and, in places, Layer D had been eroded right down to bedrock (Figure 2b).


Of these, Layer B, which was restricted to the main chamber, turned out to be the most important of the sequence. It was 0.50-3.50 m thick, and yielded a microlithic chipped stone industry, previously unknown in the area, dominated by microlithic lunates and sickle-blades. This was found in association with bone implements and several human burials. An engraved bone, depicting " ... a rough zig-zag design, made of groups of five incisions along both edges" (Garrod 1942:8), constitutes the first prehistoric art object ever discovered in the Levant. After Garrod had started excavating at el-Wad Cave in Mount Carmel where she was able to bring similar assemblages to light, she realised that the "Mesolithic" (or late Epi-Palaeolithic) cultural assemblage she had found at Shukbah had its own distinctive character and significance, in recognition of which she named it Natufian, after the wadi in which the cave is located. …