Ancient Canaanite Arch Used by Cult

Archaeologists have uncovered a 3,800-year-old vaulted stairwell and Canaanite archway in the Jezebel Valley, Israel. The team was excavating a corridor at the Tel Shimron acropolis site when they came across the incredible structures. They believe that ancient cults used the buildings.

Both the stairwell and the archway were inside a mud brick building that is 3,800 years old. The walls of the building were four meters thick and contained no rooms. The one corridor that led through was only wide enough for one person at a time.

The stairs and arch are incredibly well preserved, especially when you consider that the mud brick building is unfired; the materials rarely last this long. The arch and stairway are over 15m high and contain approximately 9,000 bricks.

An aerial view of the excavation site.

The excavation site. Photo: Eyecon


A pleasant surprise

The Middle Bronze Age structures were a completely unexpected discovery. “Of course, you never know what you [will] find at a site that has never been excavated, but I can say with confidence that nobody expected to find what we did,” excavation co-director, Mario Martin told Live Science.

The arch supports the roof of the corridor and the stairway looks like it led further underground. Archeologists categorize the archway as a false arch because of the building method. Rather than using wedge-shaped stone, it was corbelled. The builders used offset bricks more akin to the construction of an inverted staircase.

Ancient Mesopotamians often used this construction method, but this is the first time researchers have found evidence of it in this region. What makes the stairs and archway mysterious is that just a few generations after construction, they were sealed off. For archaeologists, this is incredibly useful. “The quick backfill is the lucky piece of the whole story since it is the only reason the feature is so incredibly well preserved almost 4,000 years later,” Martin said.

The ancient stairway.

The stairway seems to lead underground. Photo: Eyecon


Cults and rituals

The purpose of the archway intrigued the research team. During this period, the Canaanites lived in the southern Levant. Canaanites is a catch-all term that includes all indigenous people and populations and does not denote a specific ethnic group. This means the archeological site was once home to a melting pot of different cultures.

The archeologists think that the arch was part of a cultic ceremony or practice. Just before the archway, they uncovered a Nahariya bowl. This bowl is a seven-cupped piece of pottery used to make offerings to the gods. Another mud brick structure at the site contains 30,000 animal bones. The archeologists believe the bones are from sacrifices during the Middle Bronze Age.

The Nahariya bowl.

The Nahariya bowl. Photo: Ariel David


The team wants to continue excavating the stairway to discover more information about the purpose of the site. For now, they have reburied the corridor and archway to protect it until they can return.

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.