Jaffa, Israel. December 30, 2020. Archaeologists excavating at a site in Jaffa, Israel recently stumbled upon an extraordinary discovery: a 3,800-year-old jar containing the skeleton of a baby. Researchers told Haaretz that the Israeli Antiquity Authorities (IAA) uncovered the remains, which were buried about ten feet below street level, while surveying the ruins of the 4,000-year-old city, the older part of Tel Aviv.
The ritual of burying children in jars dates back to the Bronze Age and continued until as recently as the last century, IAA archaeologist Yoav Arbel explained to Live Science. However, despite evidence of these burials exists in the archaeological record, scholars remain undecided about the purpose of the practice.
Arbel says, “You might go to the practical thing and say that the bodies were so fragile, they felt the need to protect them from the environment, even though they were dead. But there’s always the interpretation that the jar is almost like a womb, so basically the idea is to return the baby into Mother Earth, or into the symbolic protection of his mother.”
Alfredo Mederos Martin, of the Autonomous University of Madrid, comments [WHERE?] that people in all corners of the ancient world, since as early as 4500 B.C., entombed children to reflect their cultural conceptions of death and the afterlife. In a 2019 Biblical Archaeology Review article, Arizona Center for Judaic Studies associate professor Beith Alpert Nakhai suggested that a jar’s location, most likely beneath the family’s home, connotes “a desire on the part of the dead infant’s mother to care for her child in death, as she would have cared for that child in life.”
Nakhai also points out how these burial sites signify a shift in how ancient cultures viewed the significance of children, seeing as previously children were viewed as inferior and only adults buried in jars.
Since 2000, archaeologists have undertaken excavation at five locations across Jaffa, and now they flaunt their impressive findings in IAA’s journal Atiqot. Because Jaffa is the earliest port city and has been continuously occupied for four millennia, the other findings span from the Hellenistic to the Crusader to the Ottoman periods. At another site, for instance, Arbel’s team found a massive pit brimming with pieces of 2,300-year-old ceramic vessels that were used to hold wine and hand-crafted on islands like Rhodes and Kos off the coast of Greece. This pit alone proves that there was a strong trade route between Jaffa and Greece long ago.
Some other archaeological highlights include 30 coins dating to the Hellenistic, Crusader, Ottoman, and British periods, the remains of pottery pieces and several horses dating to the Ottoman period, 95 glass vessel fragments from the Roman and Crusader eras, 14 15th-century B.C. rock-carved burials featuring lamps, jumps, and other funerary offerings, and 232 Mediterranean seashells, land snails, and mother-of-pearl buttons.
There was also an ancient Greek mosaic located near a fifth-century A.D. necropolis, which reads, “Be of good courage, all who are buried here. This is it!” Essentially, the ancient Greeks were exclaiming “c’est la vie” hundreds of years before the saying caught on. They recognized that death is everyone’s shared destiny and merely another stepping stone of life.
Jaffa has a colorful history of three major expansions. Arbel tells Haaretz, “From the mid-19th century to the end of the Ottoman era, there was huge population growth. Jaffa grew exponentially and became a cosmopolitan city.” Now, it is the second-most populated metropolis in Israel. Experts had not grasped the full extent of the archaeological and historical richness of the city until the past two decades.
Archeological discoveries, such as all those made in December, are of utmost importance to our grasp of history, how it unfolded, and why it crystallized the way it did. Through them, we unveil evolutionary patterns, cultural traditions, and monumental events such as the advancement of agriculture, the emergence of metropolises, the collapse of civilizations, the practices of different prehistoric peoples, and so much more. The objective, at the end of the day, is to learn from bygone days and, with this newfound knowledge in mind, both predict how societies will mature and also build a better future for ourselves.
Archaeology is the only study that opens doors in such an unabridged and powerful way. Today, we document noteworthy occurrences with books, newspapers, films, social media, and the Internet. Unfortunately, there is oftentimes a disparity between what actually occurs and what is said to have occurred. Our account of modern history, as it materializes before our eyes, is nothing more than a game of telephone. Modern media is constituted of hearsay, opinions, narratives, and biases. There’s always a “spin” on the story. So while a written record is resourceful, it is fashioned by error-prone, prejudiced humans.
Archaeology is a raw, unsullied archive of artifacts that elucidate our history as people. Our decisions about the future are molded by those who came before us, those Neolithic hunter-gatherers, Egyptian kings, ancient Greek artisans, Italian glacier hikers, Anglo-Saxon sailors, and 19th-century coal miners. Entire generations of our predecessors, entire centuries of our past, can be reconstructed from the artifacts our ancestors left behind.
The discovery and study of these artifacts are the beauty of archaeology. It’s exciting that explorers like Arbel are out there unearthing our roots. Last month, he triumphantly proclaimed, “There were those who told us there was no point to excavate around the mound, but look at us now!”