Spring/Summer 00

An Exploration in Early Pastoral Nomadism
by Steven A. Rosen

Excavations at the Camel site explore the potentials for an archaeology of pastoralism and make a substantive contribution to understanding its nature

For archaeologists, pastoral nomadism often seems to be like the weather. Everyone talks about it, but no one seems to do anything about it. We know that nomads are there in the past because the texts tell us so. In fact, we have attributed the rise and fall of civilizations to their depredations. However, as archaeologists, we have little explored the ancient pastoral nomadic societies.

An excavated room on the east side

The reasons for our collective avoidance lie in the structure of our discipline. Pastoral nomadism is primarily a post–Neolithic phenomenon. Thus, prehistorians, whose methods are appropriate for the discovery and investigation of the less–than–monumental remains associated with ancient pastoral societies, are little interested. Archaeologists working in the later periods have developed methods that have uncovered the great civilizations of ancient times, but these methods are designed for an archaeology of towns and cities, not for pastoral encampments. Even the archaeological questions asked of the historical periods hardly apply to an archaeology of pastoral nomads, essentially an exercise in the anthropology of small–scale societies.

The Camel site is a typical example of an Early Bronze Age site in the Central Negev, an arid hilly region in southern Israel. Excavations were conducted from 1992 to 1996 as part of a long–term project both to explore the potential for an archaeology of pastoralism and to make a substantive contribution to our understanding of the phenomenon. The site is a small encampment, 700 m2 in area, showing two irregular central pens or courtyards, with small rooms attached around the periphery, and several tumuli and other features present as well.

Pink quartz crystals imported from Sinai

Although site sediments were shallow, never more than around 50 cm in depth, the Camel site (named after the local observation point) proved surprisingly rich in material culture, with well over twenty thousand lithic artifacts, some fifteen hundred potsherds, and a wide range of other types of artifacts. It is the wide range that is so surprising and important. The lithic assemblage, while typologically and technologically typical of the region and period, showed several important features. A concentration of more than eighty microlithic drills and fragments, clustering in one room, along with beads of ostrich eggshell and marine shell, provide the first direct evidence for Early Bronze Age bead manufacture and apparent export. Urban sites farther north, like Arad, contained beads but no evidence for their production. The Camel site has a complete set of the production sequence, including incomplete drills, new drills, used drills, and broken fragments. Similarly, the set of beads shows unmodified ostrich eggshell fragments, rounded pieces, holed shells, complete beads, and decorated beads. It is important to note further that the seashells derive both from the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, reflecting the site location in the Negev, between the two. The presence of freshwater mother–of–pearl hints at the possibility of Nile connections as well.

In addition to the bead industry, the site contained evidence for the manufacture and export of milling stones made of ferruginous sandstone. As with the beads, there is good evidence, based on petrography, that the milling stones were exported to the urban north. Production waste shows that the actual manufacture was carried out a few meters south of the architecture, an apparently distinct activity area. Recent pilot surveys have shown that the quarries for the sandstone are located 5 to 10 km away, in the Ramon Crater (Makhtesh) just south of the site.

Small rooms attached to a central pen

The discovery of some twelve microlithic lunates adds hunting to the list of activities practiced by the inhabitants. The lunates, barely a centimeter in length, were hafted onto shafts as transverse arrowheads, as documented by contemporary Egyptian finds.

Copper smelting at the site can be inferred from the presence of prills, the small pills of copper that represent the preliminary stages of the smelting process. Two copper awls were also recovered. Interestingly, metallurgical analysis has shown that one awl was of pure copper and the second of arsenical copper, suggesting either two different sources or intentional alloying. Three locales are known to have been mined for copper in the Early Bronze Age in the southern Levant, Feinan, Timna, and South Sinai; the Camel site lies on the general route from the latter two to the north.

The drill locus

Although the bone assemblage is virtually absent, apparently because of the shallow nature of the deposits, pastoralism can be inferred from three lines of evidence. First, other similar Early Bronze Age sites, especially in South Sinai and the southern Negev, show the presence of domestic sheep/goat. Second, the region is inappropriate for agriculture, and no sickle blades were recovered (in spite of the presence of these tools in relatively high numbers in adjacent regions where agriculture was indeed practiced). Finally, the interior courtyards show organic horizons that are not found either outside the site or in the attached rooms. This suggests the possibility that they functioned as animal pens, the organics being the remains of a dung layer. Given this background, the Camel site represents far more than the presence of pastoralists in the desert periphery in the Early Bronze Age. Beyond pastoralism, the wide range of crafts represented on the site suggests that pastoral nomadism was a complex market–oriented phenomenon, much like its modern Bedouin counterparts. That is, we can indeed strive for an archaeology of pastoral nomadism, and we can go considerably farther than the mere documentation of nomads in the archaeological record. We can begin to understand how these cultures survived in the desert and, indeed, thrived.

Steven A. Rosen is the Cotsen Visiting Scholar for the academic year 1999-2000. He comes to the Cotsen Institute from Ben Gurion University in Israel, where he is an Associate Professor.