Tlalim (Israel): Enigmatic 2,500-year-old Burials in the Desert

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Dozens of people, possibly all female, were found in an elaborate tomb in the middle of the Negev desert, nowhere near any ancient settlements. Was the goddess of crossroads involved?

51306The two burial chambers found near Kibbutz TlalimCredit: Emil Aladjem / Israel Antiquities Authority

Israeli archaeologists have been left scratching their heads over the discovery of a large tomb containing dozens of skeletons, many of them women, who were buried more than 2,500 years ago in the midst of the Negev desert, at an ancient crossroad far from any known settlements at the time.

The dead were buried with care and were honored ritually by burning incense, the archaeologists deduce. They were left with a “salad” of artifacts originating in distant places ranging from southern Arabia to the Western Mediterranean. Questions remain over whence these people came and why they ended up in a grave in the middle of nowhere.

As often happens with archaeological discoveries in Israel, this one too began with a salvage dig ahead of construction work. In this case a water pipeline was being laid near Tlalim, a kibbutz in the heart of the Negev desert some 30 kilometers south of the city of Be’er Sheva. When two clearly human-made piles of stones emerged along the planned water line in 2021, archaeologists assumed they were tumuli, modest burial mounds often associated with local nomadic tribes and generally dated to the Early and Intermediate Bronze Ages, that is, more than 4,200 years ago.

“As we kept digging we understood that this was not something so common, but something from a later period and much larger,” says Martin David Pasternak, an Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist who led the excavation.

What finally emerged were two carefully constructed burial chambers separated by a courtyard, with ceilings supported by large, rectangular pillars. Inside the largest chamber, the archaeologists have counted at least 50 bodies. Seven more skeletons were found in the smaller chamber.

Pasternak called in Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini, an IAA expert on ancient desert cultures in the Levant, and together they reported their preliminary findings in June in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.

In their paper, the two archaeologists caution that much more research needs to be done to understand the site, but they offer some early data and theories on the nature of this enigmatic burial ground. Because of its apparent importance, the tomb has been preserved and restored for further study, as opposed to being sacrificed for that pipeline.

51313Phoenician multi-faced glass pendantCredit: Davida Eisenberg-Degen / IAA

Radiocarbon dating of the remains is still pending but the many artifacts unearthed in the tomb are typical of the late Iron Age to the early Persian Period, which means around 2,600 to 2,500 years ago.

To put this in context, this is the period during which the Babylonians conquered the Levant – including Jerusalem and Judah in 586 B.C.E. – only to be replaced a few decades later by the Persian Empire.

We don’t know for sure if the Tlalim tombs were used over this entire period, part of it or whether they housed people who died all in a single event, Pasternak says. However, some of the skeletons were found in articulation, while others were crumpled up in piles. This is typical of ancient burials that were periodically reopened to receive more dead, with older bones being pushed to the side to make space for fresh bodies, which suggests that the site may have been used for a prolonged time, he says.

Dark ash patches inside the tomb and in the courtyard outside it may have been caused by ritually burning incense, which also suggests multiple funerary ceremonies.

51320Southern Arabian incense pot with lidCredit: Davida Eisenberg-Degen / IAA

Arabian elements

The initial analysis of the remains indicates that the deceased included many adult women. A full anthropological study is still in the works, so the archaeologists don’t know for sure if this was an all-female grave, but the nature of the artifacts certainly point to a strong female presence.

Weapons, a common find in ancient tombs, were largely absent from the Tlalim burials, with the exception of two arrowheads, Pasternak and Erickson-Gini report. The funerary offerings included rare alabaster vessels and stone incense burners, which appear to have been ritually broken as part of the burial rites, the archaeologists say. (They know this because the objects all seem to have been cracked by a single blow in the middle after use).

Jewelry was also abundant: copper bracelets and numerous beads made from carnelian and polished stones; bone rings made from the metapodials of camels; pendants made from large, fist-sized cowrie shells from the Red Sea, as well as Phoenician and Egyptian scarabs

51315One of the cowrie shells found in the tombCredit: Davida Eisenberg-Degen / IAA

“The finds represent a salad of cultures,” Pasternak tells Haaretz. There was a small cooking pot with a stamped handle typically found in late Iron Age Judah that appears to have also been used to burn incense and a few other small, portable ceramic vessels that point to connections with Edom, Moab and Phoenicia.

Other objects include a faience amulet of the Egyptian god Bes, protector of women and children; a cylinder seal with cobras; a multi-face glass pendant believed to be from Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean, and a copper fibula (brooch) associated with the burial of women in southern Europe, Erickson-Gini notes.

It is a truism in archaeology that “pots don’t always equal people,” meaning in this case that the women didn’t necessarily come from all these places, and may have acquired these objects through trade. Still, the artifacts may provide some clues to the identities of the women and what they might have been doing in the Negev, Erickson-Gini says.

51318Egyptian faience amulet of Bes, Egyptian divine protector of women and childrenCredit: Davida Eisenberg-Degen / IAA

While there are some lonesome Persian forts nearby, they belong to a slightly later period, and there are no known towns nearby from the time of the burials, she notes. The region is sufficiently well surveyed that we would know if there were ruins of an ancient settlement in the vicinity, she says.

It is also unlikely that the burials were made by local nomadic tribes, who usually didn’t invest so much in building graves and wouldn’t leave such a rich assemblage of artifacts, she says.

“There is a strong southern Arabian element here,” the archaeologist says. “We don’t have good parallels for these tombs in our region but there are similar communal tombs near Dubai, in Oman and there are possibly burials of this kind in Yemen, though not much has been excavated or published there due to the current conflict.”

The alabaster vessels and the incense burners are also typical of southern Arabia, as is the incense itself, which was brought to the Levant through the Negev by caravans of Arabian traders traveling through the desert. The discovery of a small set of scales and stone weights, probably used to weigh incense, silver or other precious metals, also links the Tlalim burials to the world of traders in frankincense and myrrh.

The burials may be connected to Qedarite traders who operated in northern Arabia and the Negev in this period or to the Minaeans, a people who hailed from an ancient kingdom in modern-day Yemen, Pasternak and Erickson-Gini suggest.

51312Phonecian scarabCredit: Davida Eisenberg-Degen / IAA

Still, the Negev is a long way away from southern Arabia, so why were the bodies buried here? And why is it mostly (or all) women?

The location and the varied provenance of the artifacts found with the bodies suggests that the women were not from Arabia itself. But they may have been headed there, the archaeologists speculate.

Wives, or sacred prostitutes?

We can’t rule out that they were the victims of a disease outbreak, or of a single ambush on the perilous desert roads. In fact a mass grave linked to such a massacre later in the Hellenistic period was indeed found at Ein Ziq, to the south of Tlalim. But there the bodies included men, women and children, mostly buried haphazardly, while at Tlalim great care and ritual seem to have been taken to send off the dead, plus, as mentioned, the site seems to have been used over a prolonged period of time.

The full anthropological report should provide more data on the age and sex of the bodies, as well as whether there are any signs of a violent death on any of the skeletons. But for now it does seem more likely that these were people who died on the roads at different times and for some reason were buried at this location.

51308Broken clay cuboid incense burnerCredit: Davida Eisenberg-Degen / IAA

As for the identity of the women entombed at Tlalim, Erickson-Gini suggests they may have been enslaved people, bought at different locations on the Levantine coast, who were being brought to Arabia. The trafficking of women from the Levant to Arabia is attested in Minaean inscriptions from Yemen and other ancient texts, she says. This might explain the diverse provenance of their possessions.

“Many of these artifacts may have ended in the hands of women who were indeed coming from Arabia, but we think there is enough historical evidence to suspect these were foreign women who were being taken to Arabia,” she tells Haaretz.

Once there, the women were likely intended to be taken as wives and concubines, or possibly to serve as sacred prostitutes in temples in the area. Ritual prostitution is well attested in ancient times, for example in one of the third century B.C.E. Zenon Papyri, which tells of a woman who was bought in Ammon (today’s northern Jordan) and was being transported to Jaffa to be a temple prostitute there, Erickson-Gini notes. The Bible too claims that ritual prostitution was practiced even in the Temple in Jerusalem, until being banned by King Josiah (2 Kings 23:7) in the seventh century B.C.E., almost at the very end of the First Temple Period.

51307Phonecian-style jugletCredit: Davida Eisenberg-Degen / IAA

The idea that the Tlalim women may have been trafficked as ritual prostitutes is partly supported by the unusual presence of large cowrie shells in the tomb. In antiquity, small cowries were often used by women as fertility talismans, but shells of this size are usually found in cultic contexts, like the Temple of the Winged Lions at Petra, which was known to have been dedicated to a female goddess, and in a temple in the port of Bereniki on the east coast of Egypt, Erickson-Gini says.

The location of the Tlalim burial might also point to female-oriented ritual practices, she adds. While it’s in an isolated area, the tomb is located at an important junction between the ancient trade roads that led south to Arabia and to the Aravah Valley and Edom in the east, the archaeologist notes. Ancient religions often associated crossroads with divine feminine powers and ritual activities, she says. The Bible calls a crossroads em-haderech, mother of roads, and describes it as a spot where pagans conducted divination (Ezekiel 21:26), while, in the classical world, Hecate was the Greek goddess of crossroads and magic.

These are all fascinating theories, but Pasternak and Erickson-Gini acknowledge that it will take much more research to verify them and, hopefully, fully unravel the many secrets of this desert burial.