The Early Bronze Age of the Levant

Introduction

The Early Bronze Age in the Levant is most frequently characterised as the first great period of urbanism in the Near East, the material culture of the region reflecting a general trend towards living in urban settlements and social organisation along city lines. Scholars have therefore entitled this period variously as “the Emergence of Cities” [Mazar 1990:91ff]….

Social and cultural developments in the Levant at this time cannot be understood without appreciating their wider context in the regions as a whole; developments in both Egypt and Mesopotamia serve to frame those in the Levant. Thus, the second half of the fourth millennium BCE witnessed the rise of truly complex civilisations in both river valleys, characterised by hierarchical government and administration, by the appearance of writing and literate societies, by irrigation and by large-scale public works.

Positioned centrally between them and serving as a land bridge, the Levant benefitted from the influence of both cradles of civilisation. Thus, the southern Levant (Palestine, Lebanon and southern Syria) developed clear connections with the Nile Delta region, later also with the Nile Valley; some limited Mesopotamian and Anatolian influence also filtered through via northern Syria. Northern Syria itself, of course, was positioned in close juxtaposition with the Upper Euphrates and Tigris river valleys, these serving to channel direct Mesopotamian influence into that region. Although lacking the riverine basis for urban civilisation present in both Egypt and Mesopotamia, being forced to rely on seasonal precipitation for agricultural water supply, the Levant was nonetheless able to follow their general trajectory by developing localised forms of urban culture in entirely different landscapes.

The EBA in the Levant corresponds in Egypt to the late Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods (EBI-II) and the Old Kingdom, extending across Dynasties 3-6 (EBIII). The latest urban phase of the EBA is therefore a contemporary of the so-called “Age of the Pyramids”.

Periodisation and Terminology

The use of the term “Early Bronze” to describe the period is favoured by most scholars; several exceptions exist(ed) amongst the Israeli archaeological community, some of whom prefer(red) an designation of “Early Canaanite” [cf. M. Dothan 1985:136-141]. This alternative has provoked much debate, on the grounds that utilising ethnically-oriented terminology must necessarily be doubtful, given that we do not know the ethnic composition of the Levant at the time in the absence of epigraphic remains or other clear indicators.

Southern Levant West Syria Amuq Sequence North Syria and SE Anatolia [cf. Rothman 2001] Approximate Dates (Cal BCE)
Chalcolithic (Ghassulian) Local Ubaid / Chaff-Faced Horizon E/F Terminal Ubaid / Late Chalcolithic (LC) 1-2 mid 5th – mid 4th millennia
EBI (early) Chaff-Faced Horizon F LC3 3600 – 3400/3350
EBI (late) Chaff-Faced Horizon F-G LC4 3400/3350 – 3100/3000
EBII EBI/II G-H LC5 / post-Uruk 3100-3000 – 2800/2700
EBIII EBIII H-I Multiple competing terminologies 2800/2700 – 2400/2300
EBIV EBIV I-J Multiple competing terminologies 2400/2300 – 2000

Comparative calibrated radiocarbon chronology for the 4th and 3rd millennia BCE in the Levant [adapted from Chesson & Philip 2003:4 (Table 1); adapted in turn from Philip 2002: Table 1 and Rothman 2001: Tables 1.1 & 1.2].

Transition to Early Bronze from the Chalcolithic

Several sites in the southern Levant were abandoned permanently at the end of the Chalcolithic period, and were not subject to resettlement with the advent of the EBI period. Amongst these are such significant Chalcolithic settlements as Teleilat Ghassul and Abu Hamid, both in the Jordan Valley.

A large number of sites possess EBIa settlement remains above earlier Late Chalcolithic layers however, revealing a tendency amongst EBIa settlers towards the resettlement of sites previously occupied in the Chalcolithic period or even earlier. Amongst these are such sites as Tel Teo, Meser, Palmahim and Tel Halif, all eminently suitable for ongoing settlement with abundant water resources and land already prepared for crop cultivation.

Even so, a number of significant sites in the southern Levant were founded at the start of the EB period with no connection whatsoever to the preceding Chalcolithic settlement process. Examples include Bab edh-Dhra, Yiftahel and Site H.

Early Bronze I

Vessel, Khirbet Kerak Ware, Beth Shean(at right) Khirbet Kerak Ware Ceramic Vessel
Beth Shean, Stratum XII, Early Bronze III 2700-23000 BCE
University of Pennsylvania Museum 34-20-362

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NB: Journal, serial and monograph abbreviations may be consulted on the Abbreviations page.

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