Life & Culture

Ancient barbecues and other tasty morsels of archaeology

This brief and breezy guide to Israel’s ancient sites is an impressive achievement


Treasure trove: Qesem Cave, which is just off just off Highway 5

Here Before Us, by Ran Barkai and Eyal Halfon

Translated by Eylon Levy

Watkins, £16.99

Israelis love a barbecue. If you require evidence, go to any public park on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day, and you’ll find every blade of grass covered with families ranging from Orthodox to secular, all with their disposable barbies (which, unfortunately, few dispose of). The smell of roasting meat is everywhere.

This century, evidence has emerged that the tradition of barbecuing in the region goes back a lot further than 1948 – indeed, it can be traced as far back as 400,000 years ago. The proof came from exploration of the Qesem Cave, just off Highway 5, which runs between greater Tel Aviv and the West Bank.

The cave was discovered while the road was being extended in 2000 and, say Ran Barkai and Eyal Halfon in their informative little book They Were Here Before Us, “was found to contain evidence of the earliest known continued and deliberate use of fire for grilling meat”. The main diet of the Qesem dwellers was fallow deer, supplemented with wild asses, wild pigs and horses, and the occasional tortoise. In previous eras, they feasted on the elephants that roamed the region but when they became extinct, they had to switch to lighter fare.

Qesem Cave is just one of the many extraordinary archeological sites to be found in Israel and the surrounding territory which provide the material for this brief and breezy guide to what the authors describe as “our first million years”.

One such is the El-Wad Cave, on Mount Carmel, in an area pinpointed for quarries for stone for building the new port of Haifa in 1928-9. It turned out to be a treasure trove of relics of early homo sapiens when excavated by the British archaeologist Dorothy Garrod at the head of an all-female team, establishing the caves as the basis of modern prehistoric research. It sounds like a perfect Netflix series.

Archeology can be a dry and dusty discipline to outsiders. I am surely not alone in failing to be excited by the sight of a few ancient foundations and unable to visualise what they were the basis of (with the honourable exception of sites such as Masada). But Israelis have a great knack for making archeology come alive. One of the most stimulating examples I have seen in recent years was the Herod exhibition at the Israel Museum, which used the excavations at his palaces to re-create 3-D images of the buildings. This was a real eye-opener.

Barkai, a professor of prehistoric archeology at Tel Aviv University, and Halfon, a writer and film director, have a similar gift, combining scholarship and media experience to produce a book that can be appreciated by readers of all ages.

They highlight not only the people who lived at Israel’s ancient sites but some of the extraordinary people who excavated them, such as Francis Turville-Petre, a leading archaeologist of Mandate Palestine and a gay opium and alcohol addict who discovered the skull of Galilee Man, the earliest human remains found in the region.

Barkai and Halfon sometimes give the impression that, unlike Hobbes, they do not consider primitive human life to be nasty, brutish and short, but rather that it compares favourably with today’s consumer society. But for all that, to summarise a million years so succinctly is an impressive achievement.

Interestingly, the book was translated into English by Eylon Levy, who recently sprang to global fame as a spokesman for Israel during the Gaza war. His translation into crisp, idiomatic English reads very well although I don’t suppose Sara Netanyahu will be calling on his services to render her memoirs accessible to the English-speaking world should they ever appear.

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