Archaeologists at the Tel Shimron Excavations in the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel have uncovered an exquisitely preserved vaulted passageway from approximately 3,800 years ago. The remarkable find represents the first use of a corbelled (supported) mudbrick vault in a passageway in the southern Levant, providing a key missing link in the history of the arch in the region.
The corbelled vault, an architectural technique where layered bricks are progressively stepped inward to create a gradually narrowing roof, was commonly used at sites in Mesopotamia, and this is the first time such mudbrick construction has been found in a passageway in the southern Levant.
Archaeologists at Tel Shimron excavated a tower composed of more than a thousand well-preserved mudbricks standing over five meters high on the southern side of the acropolis of the ancient city. The center of the structure contains a narrow corridor leading to the vaulted mudbrick passageway. The passageway, more than two meters long, leads down into the city via mudbrick stairs and features a corbelled roof made of unfired brick adorned with white chalk stripes.
Co-Director of the Tel Shimron Excavations Mario A.S. Martin said: “Corbelling is used on small tomb cysts at various sites in the Middle Bronze Age, both in Canaan and the Egyptian Delta. Yet, a fully preserved mudbrick-built passageway with this type of corbelled vault is without parallel. Such structures, made of unfired mudbrick, rarely survive.”
The project’s other co-director, Daniel M. Master, said: “The Tel Shimron passageway with a corbelled vault fills an important gap in the history of architecture in this region. The vault is an ancestor to the mudbrick radial arch in the gate at Tel Dan and is an extraordinary example of Mesopotamian mudbrick technology.”
Archaeologists found an intact Middle Bronze Age vessel lying among ashy debris at the entrance to the passageway. The complete artifact, known as a “Nahariya Bowl,” is a seven-cupped offering vessel that gets its name from the site in northern Israel where it was first discovered in a cultic context. This find helps to date the tower complex to the Middle Bronze Age. This is roughly the same period when the kingdom of Tel Shimron (ancient Sham-anu) was powerful enough to reach the attention of the Egyptians.
The tower complex was part of the royal acropolis of the large Middle Bronze Age city-state centered at Tel Shimron. The tower itself, with its extensive use of complex brickwork, exemplifies the massive fortifications and elite buildings typical of the large cities of the Bronze Age, as seen in structures uncovered in elite areas from this period at Mesopotamian cities such as Mari and Ur. The excavators have uncovered roughly 500 square meters of the acropolis, with stone foundations and mudbrick constructions artificially elevating the entire precinct by more than four meters.
The Tel Shimron passageway was intentionally filled in antiquity soon after it was constructed. The ancient fill preserved the vault and mudbrick stairs of the passage in almost perfect condition. The entire vaulted passageway is intact, but beyond the edge of the brick tower, the way is blocked by large stones. With the end of the 2023 Tel Shimron summer excavation season, the passage has been backfilled to preserve the delicate mudbrick from environmental damage. In future excavation seasons, archaeologists are planning to clear the passageway from the other side to see where it ultimately leads.
Israel Nature and Parks Authority Northern Region Archaeologist Dr. Dror Ben Yosef said: “Tel Shimron National Park is a time capsule capturing 5,000 years of captivating history in the heart of the Jezreel Valley, renowned as one of the most significant tels in Israel. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority supports and assists the ongoing expedition in their archaeological excavations at the site. The Authority remains closely engaged with the research findings, which yield surprises year after year. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority is interested in preserving Tel Shimron as a site open to the public, with its values of heritage, nature, and landscapes.”