In the 1950s, archaeologists in Israel identified an ancient settlement along the country’s northern coast. Over the following decades, small-scale digs continued there. Experts could tell the find was significant, but they were not sure of the site’s “size or magnitude,” Yitzhak Paz, a director of excavation with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), tells Amanda Borschel-Dan of the Times of Israel.
It was only in 2017, when the IAA launched a large excavation ahead of planned road construction in the area, that archaeologists realized just how big, and how important, the site is. Known as En Esur, the 5,000-year-old settlement is the region’s “largest and oldest” early Bronze Age city, per the BBC.
En Esur was carefully planned, with residential and public areas, silos for food storage and a network of streets that had been covered with stone and plaster for protection during the rainy season, reports Ariel David of Haaretz. The city was protected by a fortification wall, and a cemetery sat outside the city boundaries. Pottery found at the site came from as far afield as Egypt and the Jordan Valley, indicating the En Esur was involved in trade.
“You really have the complete package of early urbanized settlements,” IAA archaeologist Itai Elad tells David.
Among the most impressive discoveries made at the site was a monumental structure that may have functioned as a temple. Outside the building, archaeologists found two huge basins, made from stones that weighed as much as 15 tons. The nearest quarry is located half a mile away, demonstrating the effort that was expended in building the city.
An estimated 6,000 people lived in En Esur, which spanned some 160 acres. That is not particularly large compared to the cities that were forming in Egypt and Mesopotamia at the time, but it is unusually big for the Southern Levant. En Esur, for instance, was more than 10 times larger than Jericho, one of the region’s famed ancient cities, Paz tells David.
“There is no doubt that this site dramatically changes what we know about the character of the period and the beginning of urbanization in Israel,” the IAA said in a statement, per the BBC, also noting that En Esur was “the Early Bronze Age New York of our region: a cosmopolitan and planned city where thousands of inhabitants lived.”
The city is also compelling to archaeologists because it sits atop an even older settlement, one that dates back 7,000 years to the Chalcolithic period, which came between the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Experts are reluctant to label this early settlement a city, but it did show signs of advanced development: monumental buildings, public and private spaces, and a burial site with graves of varying size and quality—suggesting social stratification.
“The rise of urbanization is an issue that must constantly be re-discussed,” Paz tells David. “We used to think that urbanization starts somewhere in the late fourth millennium but maybe it started earlier.”
En Esur will be open for public tours on October 15 and 16, but officials intend to proceed with the planned road construction; as Borschel-Dan explains, “This area of the country suffers from a marked lack of modern transportation infrastructure.” According to Gwen Ackerman of Bloomberg, the new interchange will be built high over the ruins, but the site will have to be re-covered.
“The country is small and crowded,” IAA archaeologist Dina Shalem tells Borschel-Dan. “We have many archaeological sites and also a growing population. We need to find balance.”
The artifacts and architectural structures at En Esur have been photographed and converted to 3D images using specialized computer software, which will allow archaeologists to continue studying the site and the context in which its relics were discovered.
“[E]ven years later,” Elad says in an interview with Borschel-Dan, “we can look at how things were when we found them.”