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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Chalcolithic Age

The periodization of history—its division into various eras, and the nomenclature given to those eras—is misleading. It implies sudden change, caused by migration, invasion, variations in climate, or other punctual events. But what is more apparent from the archaeological record is continuity, both through time and across a wide geographical area. Change occurs, of course, but it is almost always gradual and the process is observable.

In the mid-fifth millennium BCE there begins the so-called Chalcolithic Age, a name derived from the Greek words for copper and stone. This period (ca. 4500–3300 BCE) was so named because metallurgy becomes widespread, although stone tools also abound. The Chalcolithic is followed, in archaeological nomenclature, by the Bronze Age (subdivided into Early, Middle, and Late) and then by the Iron Age. But this terminology, based on technology, conveys the wrong impression. Stone artifacts continued to be used throughout the Bronze Age and beyond; some agricultural villages in the Middle East today still use stone blades in harvesting and threshing tools, and stone mortars and pestles have been commonplace in daily life up to modern times. Moreover, iron objects appeared before the beginning of the Iron Age, and well into it bronze remained the most widely used metal.

Once recorded history begins, periodization is based on political events in Egypt and elsewhere. This is the case with the subdivision of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age. Subsequent periods are delineated by shifts in imperial control—the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman periods, for example.

The culture of the Chalcolithic in many respects evolved from the preceding Neolithic Age. Ceramic forms developed in the earlier period continued to be used in the later, as did stone (usually flint) tools. The process of domestication continued, with olives, dates, and flax added to the repertoire of cultivated flora. Chalcolithic settlements, like those of the Neolithic, were unfortified. In Palestine the number of known sites is much larger for the Chalcolithic, and they are often found in previously unsettled regions. In part because of the expanding repertoire of food supplies, diet improved and population increased. Given the demonstrable continuities with the preceding period, earlier theories that posited migration as the source of innovations now seem unlikely.

Yet there were innovations in this period as well, some of short duration and others longer-lasting. New ceramic forms developed, often ornately painted or incised. Some are ossuaries, small receptacles for the secondary interment of bones after the flesh has decomposed. In the Neolithic, apparently only skulls were given this secondary treatment; now the entire skeletal remains of adults were gathered together, deposited in the ossuaries, and placed in burial caves. The ossuaries are usually large boxes, averaging 70 centimeters (2 feet 3 inches) long, 60 centimeters (2 feet) high, and 30 centimeters (1 foot) wide. Some are elaborately decorated, giving them the appearance of a house, with openings for doors and sometimes windows. Although not all Chalcolithic burials are of this type, secondary burial was at least widely practiced, and continued for millennia.

Since the Chalcolithic period is still prehistoric in the sense that we have no texts to help us interpret the material culture, we know nothing about the ideas underlying secondary burial in ossuaries. Is this an attempt to give the dead a home, if only on a reduced scale? Why are architectural details of the ossuaries inconsistent with ordinary houses of the period? Why are some ossuaries shaped like animals, and some elaborately decorated with disembodied eyes? Why are some interment sites distant from settlements, and why are some corpses not given secondary burial? Our inability to answer such questions reveals how little we know of ancient peoples in this and prior and even subsequent ages. What archaeologists excavate at a site of any size is only a small fraction of what was there when it was a vibrant, flourishing entity. Moreover, much excavated material from all periods is prehistoric in precisely this sense, coming from sites and individuals that will forever remain anonymous. Even after writing was developed, the overwhelming majority of texts were produced by and for a small elite. Their social attitudes and religious beliefs and practices can only partially, and even then with difficulty, be projected to nonelite, nonurban, ordinary folk, whose social history and thinking must largely be inferred from the fragmentary survivals of their material culture.

The same sort of questions arise about another type of artifact of the Chalcolithic Age, the zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figurines. Usually ceramic, but sometimes carved in ivory or stone, these figurines are carefully executed artistic expressions whose function and interpretation are unclear. The stone exemplars are carefully executed, portraying what seems to be a woman in an abstract violin-like shape. In the media of pottery and ivory, both males and females are portrayed more realistically, with their sexual organs rendered in explicit, sometimes exaggerated, detail. Plausibly this suggests some association with fertility ritual. The same theme is also apparent in two complete ceramic examples. One is a nude seated woman who holds on her head a large churn, a well-attested ceramic form from the period generally. The other is a ram, on whose back are three tapered cups, or cornets, another common Chalcolithic form. The torsos of both the woman and the ram are churnlike in shape. Human and animal reproduction and milk production thus seem to have been understandable preoccupations of Chalcolithic people, although the rituals in which these needs were expressed are unknowable.

Chalcolithic settlement is found throughout Palestine, from upper Galilee and the Golan Heights to the Negeb. The best-known large sites are a cluster of three in the Beer-sheba region, the source of most of the ivory figurines, and Teleilat Ghassul, just northeast of the Dead Sea. Approximately midway between them lie the sites of two major discoveries. During the systematic exploration of caves in the Judean wilderness to the west of the Dead Sea that followed the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, a large cache of copper objects was recovered from a cave on the Nahal Mishmar. Dubbed the “Cave of the Treasure,” it contained hundreds of ivory and copper objects, along with pottery, textiles, stone tools, basketry, and several burials. The large number of copper objects and their technical and artistic sophistication is unparalleled elsewhere in the same period and for centuries to come. The hoard included ten crowns, some intricately decorated with animal heads and horns, birds, and knobs. There were also more than 100 standards, many decorated with the same elements as the crowns. Copper jars and baskets, chisels and a hammer, and more than 240 mace heads were also found. Since the lost-wax process was used in casting the objects, there are no exact duplicates among the more than 400 in the cache.

The origin and function of this trove are a mystery. There was no nearby contemporary settlement of any size. Some 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) to the north-northeast, on a terrace overlooking the Dead Sea near the prolific spring at En-gedi, are the remains of a complex of structures that has plausibly been interpreted as a Chalcolithic shrine. A screening or temenos wall separated the shrine from its immediate environment, enclosing an area of about 375 square meters (4,000 square feet). Two gates in the wall gave access to an open courtyard, and projecting inward from the wall were two large rectangular buildings of what is known as the “broadroom” type, with their entrances on the long side. The larger of the two measures 5.5 meters (18 feet) by 20 meters (65 feet), and has opposite its entrance a raised platform, flanked, as was the doorway, by benches. The isolation of the complex, the finds found within it (for example, nearly 70 percent of the pottery was cornets), and parallels to its design at other sites suggest that this was a religious center, probably used by several communities. The trove from the Cave of the Treasure may have originally belonged to this sanctuary.

Together with burial practices and figurines, the complex at En-gedi is evidence for an organized system of communal practices based on the shared belief, or hope, of a reality greater than the human, perhaps even a life after life. There is a similar complex at the important site of Megiddo (Tell el-Mutesellim), also with a temenos wall and two broadroom structures, each with a platform, or altar, opposite its entrance. The date of the original construction of this complex is disputed, whether in the Chalcolithic or the immediately succeeding Early Bronze I Age, but the interpretation of its function as religious is supported by the presence of temples in the same area at Megiddo in uninterrupted succession for over two thousand years, until the beginning of the Iron Age.

The Chalcolithic Age, then, was a brief era of both relatively peaceful existence and extraordinary artistic expression. The construction and maintenance of the public architecture and the manufacture of the copper, ivory, and ceramic artifacts must have been the primary occupation of specialized groups. The movement toward complex social organization thus continued. This was apparently an internal development, rather than the result of massive invasions from outside the region. The Chalcolithic ended mysteriously, with some of its principal sites simply abandoned and never resettled. But many of the elements of its culture continued to be used in the succeeding Early Bronze Age, suggesting continuity rather than disruption.

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