She must have been somebody special, this woman who lived some 7,000 years ago, during what we have typically called the Middle Chalcolithic period (a fancy way of saying “during the Stone Age”).
Her home was in a mudbrick village in a fertile area near the Jordan River about 20 miles south of the Sea of Galilee. It’s called Tel Tsaf today, though we don’t know what its inhabitants called it, or what they called the woman who was special.
We know she was special because of the way she was buried, sometime between 5200 and 4600 BCE, according to the archaeologists who’ve been excavating the site for many years. She was about 40 years old when she died, but must have achieved some prominence, because she was buried in a small tomb sealed with heavy stones at the bottom of a silo large enough to store an estimated 15-30 tons of grain — evidence of an amazing surplus and community efforts. Perhaps her neighbors thought her spirit would protect the grain, or ensure good crops in coming years. We can’t know for sure — but why bury her there if not for some purpose?
Some precious possessions were buried with her, including a six-strand belt or necklace made of 1,668 beads carved from ostrich shells — that couldn’t have been easy to make. What has caused the most excitement in recent days is that she also went to the grave with a small awl made of copper — about 500 years before anthropologists had conjectured that metallurgy had begun. This pushes back the clock on when cast metal objects first appeared in the Middle East.
It also illustrates how widespread trade and communication were during that period: an analysis of the awl’s chemical composition suggests that it originated in the Caucasus mountains, some 600 miles away. We don’t normally think of Stone Age people traveling such distances, not even in a foot-powered Fred Flintstone car.
The awl is just one example of such trade: other finds at the site include obsidian artifacts from Anatolia or Armenia, a shell from Egypt, and Ubaid pottery from northern Syria or Mesopotamia.
When reading of such things, I have to be impressed. Can you imagine the resourcefulness and courage needed to travel hundreds of miles on foot with neither roads nor road signs to mark the way? Can you envision the innovative intelligence needed to first figure out how to smelt metal from ore, and then how to shape it without burning your fingers off?
These were people who lived 3,000 years before Abraham, and they were already farming the land, building solid houses and storage facilities, making pottery, and shaping all sorts of useful tools from stone. They lived in an organized, cooperative community, and had trading relations with other people from distant lands.
The copper awl found with the woman of Tsaf must have been rare indeed, and yet they buried her with it rather than keep it for others to use. Did they fear what she might do to them from beyond the grave, or simply want to honor her?
In either case, she must have been an admirable woman, indeed.
[For the fascinating academic article announcing the find, see the digital journal PLoS One at this link: