A new chapter has been added to the history of women’s leadership in Israel — or to be precise, prehistory. A Hebrew University archaeological expedition this week reported its surprising discovery in a cave on the bank of the Hilazon River in the Western Galilee.
They found a woman’s corpse set on a bed of gazelle horn cores, fragments of chalk, fresh clay, limestone blocks, and sediment.
Eighty-six tortoise shells were placed under and around her body, while seashells, an eagle’s wing, a leopard’s pelvis, a wild boar’s leg, and a human foot were placed atop the woman. A large stone was added to seal the site.
The archaeologists believe the woman may have been a shaman during the Natufian period, 15,000 to 11,500 years ago. She was about 45 years old — an old age for that time, at the very beginning of agriculture.
According to the archaeologists’ reconstruction, her funeral began with the excavation of an oval pit in the cave floor. A layer of objects was cached between large stones, including seashells, a broken basalt palette, red ochre, chalk, and several tortoise shells. These were covered by a layer of sediment containing ashes, flint, and animal bones.
About halfway through the ritual, the woman was laid inside the pit in a child-bearing position, and special items, including many more tortoise shells, were placed on top of and around her. Next, another layer of filling and limestones of various sizes was placed directly on the body. The ritual concluded with the sealing of the grave.
The archeologists speculate that the collection of materials and the capture and preparation of animals for the feast, particularly the 86 tortoises, must have been time-consuming.
“The significant pre-planning implies that there was a defined to-do list, and a working plan of ritual actions and their order,” archaeologist Leore Grosman said.