The Domestication of Water: The Neolithic Well at Sha'ar Hagolan, Jordan Valley, Israel

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A reliable source of drinking water is the most basic requirement for human physical survival. Hence, through the entire history of humankind all temporary encampments or sedentary settlements have been located near or within a short walk of permanent water sources such as springs, rivers and freshwater lakes. The construction of water installations for provisioning humans and livestock such as wells, dams, and channels is commonly documented archaeologically from at least c. 5500 years ago. In recent years, during systematic excavations of early Neolithic sites in the Levant, a series of discoveries has exposed a large number of wells dated to 9500-8000 years ago. This is an additional and unexpected aspect of human activity resulting from the Neolithic revolution. Beside active steps in plant cultivation and tending animals such as goat, sheep, cattle etc. which eventually led to their domestication (Bar-Yosef & Belfer-Cohen 1989; Bar-Yosef & Meadow 1995), and as well as the redesigning of domestic and public spaces (Wilson 1988; Hodder 1990), securing sustainable water sources was an important part of the construction of new settlements. The active digging of wells reaching the underground water table reflects an innovative approach to water provisioning in sedentary communities. It is a testimony to the hydrological knowledge and technological capacities of early Neolithic farmers in the Near East.

The earliest Neolithic wells, dated to c. 8000 BC (Pre-Pottery Neolithic B), have been discovered in two Cypriot sites: Kissonerga-Mylouthkia and Shillourocambous (Figure 1). In Kissonerga-Mylouthkia, near the Mediterranean coast of western Cyprus, two cylindrical shafts dug into the local sandstone were exposed (Peltenburg et al. 2000, 2001). Each well is about 2m in diameter and 7 to 8m deep. However, since erosion and modern quarrying have destroyed the upper part of the wells, the exact original depth is unknown. No additional construction was involved in shaping these simple rock-cut shafts. In Shillourocambous, located inland in southern Cyprus, three wells were discovered (Guilaine & Briois 2001: 41, Structures 2, 66, 114). So far little information has been published on these wells, which were cut into the local rock like the two wells reported from Kissonerga-Mylouthkia (see, for a section of Structure 66, Guilaine et al. 1999: Fig. 1).


Three wells were reported from the underwater Pre-Pottery Neolithic C (c. 7000 BC) site of 'Atlit Yam, near the Mediterranean coast of Israel (Galili & Sharvit 1998; Galili et al. 2002), but only one of them has been described in detail (Galili & Nir 1993). The current location of this well is 12m below sea level. Digging underwater imposed severe limitations on excavation, restricting the work to the inner part of this installation. This well is c. 1.5m in diameter and 5.7m deep, and is lined with stones to a depth of 4.2m. The lowest 1.5m were cut directly into the local sandstone. In the infill were numerous animal bones, flint artefacts and plant remains (Galili & Nir 1993).

The new discovery of a well at Sha'ar Hagolan, a Pottery Neolithic site in the central Jordan Valley, adds another phase to the history of the domestication of water. Sha'ar Hagolan contains the cultural remains of the Yarmukian culture, geographically distributed in the Mediterranean belt in Israel, Jordan and Lebanon (Garfinkel 1993). The Yarmukian culture is generally dated to 6400-5800 BC. This date is based on 13 published radiometric readings, seven of which derive from Sha'ar Hagolan (Garfinkel 1999; Garfinkel & Miller 2002: 30). The well itself is radiometrically dated to c. 6400-6200 BC (see below).

In the course of eleven excavation seasons at Sha'ar Hagolan the size of the site was established as c. 20 hectares (Figure 2). The most common domestic structures were courtyard houses built abutting each other on both sides of streets, giving the impression of a well-organised settlement. …