Revealing the Israeli Silk Road
Let us take you with us to our excavation site and into our laboratories and archives!
Beautiful Nahal Omer. We have been back in December 2022 for our first excavation - check out the pictures below (Photo: Berit Hildebrandt).
Deciding on where to work when we come back.
Left to right: Guy Bar Oz and Roy Galili (Photo: Berit Hildebrandt)
Looking at ancient textiles makes happy:). Orit Shamir at the storage room for organic finds at the Israel Antiquities Authority, Jerusalem (Photo: Berit Hildebrandt).
The textile finds from Nahal Omer
(Clockwise): Textiles in situ at the excavation site; textile finds prepared for analysis in the laboratory (photo: Nofar Shamir); cotton textile (no. 2020-9303) after cleaning and conservation (photo: Dafna Gazit; conservation: Ilan Naor).
Textiles before and after cleaning
Fashion from afar: Ikat textiles
These textiles from Nahal Omer are made in the so-called warp-ikat technique.
In the ikat technique, the pattern is created by tying the yarns before dyeing (either the warp, the weft, or both), and thus reserving portions of them. In warp ikats, only the warp threads are reserved in this way.
The examples from Nahal Omer are warp-faced, with the weft barely visible. As can be seen in the pictures, the warp ikat threads are colored in blue, brown, cream, reddish-brown, red, cream and tan or a combination of these colors. The yarns are dyed with madder (reddish brown and brown) and indigo (blue). The resulting patterns resemble feathers and/or lozenges. The threads of the Nahal Omer fabrics are Z-spun, with 18-28 threads per cm. 9 cotton fragments with the pattern have been found so far (out of ca. 350 textiles).
This intricate dyeing technique required particular expertise in preparing the warp. The weave, however, was simple and could also be performed by less skilled craftspeople.
Similar fabrics are depicted in cave paintings in Ajanta, India (Caves 1 and 17) that can be dated to the Vakataka Period (late 5th to 6th cent. CE). Also the Nahal Omer ikats were probably made in Yemen or India.
They are rare for this period and, more than that, represent the earliest archaeologically documented ocurrences of this type of textile, together with the ikat textile finds from the sanctuary of Lot in Jordan.
More fashion from afar: silks
These silk fragments are two out of four that were discovered at Nahal Omer. Their origin is not yet clear (we will investigate it), but at least their raw material could have been imported from Asia.
They are very fine fabrics. The first picture shows an example with 36 Z-spun warp threads and 24 Z-spun weft threads per cm, a coral-red main weft and a yellow brocading weft that create a diagonal pattern.
The new excavations yielded a green tabby silk fragment with 35 I-spun (which means no spinning) warp threads and 30 I-spun weft threads per cm.
Of the two other silk fragments (not pictured), one is blue and one is red, Z-spun, with 33 warp threads and 38 weft threads per cm.
Fashion from the Mediterranean: linen
However, the colorful fabrics are among the rarer finds. Also the people at Nahal Omer used a lot of monochrome fabrics. To the left, an example of bleached linen under the dino-lite microscope.
Join us for a quick tour of our excavation campaign in December 2022!
Our first excavation campaign was in December 2022.
We celebrated Channukah and Christmas together in the desert and had the most beautiful Christmas tree.
A big applause to the creative forces behind it!
We even narrowly escaped a heavy rainfall during our excavation that filled the Wadis in and around the site.
In the 2022 campaign, our team excavated parts of two of the trash mounds close to the buildings of Nahal Omer.
Here you see the profile of the larger mound.
We were overwhelmed by the variety and preservation status of the organic finds. Usually, especially in humid climates, mostly or even only non-organic materials like pottery, glass, stone objects or metals have survived. In humid climates, organic materials have mostly decomposed. Nahal Omer is outstanding insofar as its trash mounds comprise excellently preserved organic material, but in contrast very few non-organic finds.
Like our modern trash bins, ancient trash mounds show life from a very personal angle. This is why they are regarded by researchers as “social archives”. They show, for example, how people built their houses, which plants they cultivated, which animals they bred, what they ate, which objects and materials they used, and, of course, what they discarded.
Among our finds were even some small papyrus fragments with Arabic writing. Together with the stylistic characteristics of our other finds, they date the village to the 7th to 9th century CE, i.e. the Early Islamic period.
The most abundant find category belonged to textiles. We found hundreds of excellently preserved fragments. They looked as if someone had just discarded them, not more than 1000 years ago. Many were made of linen, but also cotton, wool and even silk. Some of the numerous feathers we found may have been used for the stuffing of cushions. We are currently working on these finds.
Among the colourful textiles, ikat cottons stand out, like in the previous campaign. To judge from archaeological parallels and depictions, these fabrics were very probably imported, possibly from India or Central Asia.
Other textiles, like silk, were very probably also imported. We found some small silk fragments, but by far not as many as for the other materials.
In contrast, we found a lot of linen fragments. Many of these textiles were stained, as those found in the previous campaign.
We will now ask and analyse where the stains came from: are they blood? Food remains? Something else? What do they tell us about the last use and life cycle of the textiles they adhere to?
Among the organic everyday-objects are also wooden sticks with tips that were wrapped in cotton or fabric. Were they used to clean orifices? If so, by whom? We will try to gather human DNA from them.
Similarly, as in the previous campaign, we found human hair – both longer hair, braids and short, curly locks that look like body hair, as well as a comb. Caring for one’s hair seems to have been important for the persons at Nahal Omer. We will have some samples analyzed for ancient DNA and also look for lice.
Among personal items we found in the trash mounds were leather remains of shoes..
However, in order to avoid cold feet in the desert (which can be quite cool especially during the winter nights), socks seem to have been more efficient, as evidenced by the fragment that you can see on the top of the tray.
To keep warm, people at Nahal Omer also made fires by using a piece of wood.
Furthermore, the trash mounds contained numerous parts of palm trees, from leaves that may have covered the roofs of houses and been used to make ropes and baskets to date seeds. These date palm products may have come from the site of Nahal Omer and point to the importance of date palm cultivation at this time in the Arava.
Next to date palm seeds, people of Nahal Omer threw away seeds from olives, grapes, peaches, walnuts and pomegranates. To judge from other plant remains, their diet seems to have been based to a considerable degree on barley and wheat as well as lentils.
These vegetarian dishes could be completed by parrot fish. We have found some bones and jaws - like the one you see in the photo to the left - of this species that lives in the Red Sea. These remains are also interesting because they give an indication of trade routes along which also other goods like textiles could have travelled to Nahal Omer.
Among the animal remains we found at the site (mostly bones, but also horns like the one on the photo), bones of sheep and goat dominated in numbers, which is typical for nomadic pastoral societies. Nahal Omers inhabitants also had chicken, as bones and eggshells show. For transport, people could rely on camels and donkeys, the bones of which were found in the trash mounds as well. The variety of animals at Nahal Omer is corroborated by the fur and hair finds from the trash mounds that point to sheep, goat and probably camel.
The finds from our excavation campaign surpassed our expectations. What makes them so exciting are the comprehensive insights they give us into the daily life and economy of a small village in the Arava valley at the beginning of the Early Islamic period, while at the same time revealing its connections to the wider world. While the inhabitants of Nahal Omer seem to have relied on local staples for food and building materials, finds like the ikat-cotton and silk fragments show that they also had access to precious fabrics that were very probably imported from far away. These finds locate Nahal Omer at one of the hitherto unknown arteries of the Silk Road in the West.
A huge thank you goes to our excavation team and the numerous helpers who came to support us, and in particular to the Ministry of Science and Culture of Lower Saxony/Germany who, through a grant for the collaboration between Lower Saxony and Israel, made this excavation possible!