Located deep in the Negev desert in Israel lies the dwellings of an ancient people who once populated the inhospitable locale. Approximately 6,500 years ago, the Negev received more rainfall than it does today, making it more fertile and livable. Still, the people of the desert built expansive underground living and storage areas prior to above ground dwellings.
In 1951, the underground cities were discovered by Israeli archaeologist David Alon and excavated by French prehistorian Jean Perrot. Perrot uncovered two sites--Tel Abu Matar and Bir es-Safadi along the Nahal Beersheva basin. Along with the underground dwellings, above ground villages were also present. Perrot hypothesized that the underground part preceded the above ground, and that these living areas were created to keep the people cool in the warm environment. Others believed that they were used as storage areas for the above ground villages, existing concurrently. In 1977, a new site, Shiqmim, was discovered by a group of archaeologists. Since that time, they have been excavating this site, revealing large underground tunnel systems and dwellings. The researchers are also finding evidence for new theories as to the purpose of the underground cities.
Using a new technology, the researchers at Shiqmim have mapped out the underground systems of tunnels very accurately without ever breaking ground. The new surveying system, Geophysical Diffraction Tomography (GDT), is a new and powerful tool in the field of archaeology. It has already been used in the areas of paleontology, environmental protection, and military defense. Its use at Shiqmim is the first time archaeologists have used the system.
GDT was developed between 1984 and 1987 at Oak Ridge Lab in Tennessee. The way GDT works is similar to sonar. Sound is created, in this case by banging a metal plate with a sledgehammer, which travels through the ground, causing vibration. The sound waves bounce off any underground features, and are detected by receivers. Computers read in the information gathered from these devices and create three dimensional models of the underground structures. These models allow archaeologists to see structures hidden beneath the surface without any excavation.
At Shiqmim, the archaeological team plans to begin excavation soon, but they have already developed new theories as to the purpose of the underground cities from the GDT data. They now believe that the subterranian tunnels did indeed precede the above ground villages, but they were not made primarily to keep cool. Before c. 4300 B.C., the flood plain of the Beershiva river had not formed. The stream that existed flowed more quickly, which could lead to the washing away of houses built near the river. The inhabitants therefore built their dwellings in the hills by the river. This protected them from the river, as well as other tribes because the underground dwellings provided a better defense against invasion than above ground structures. When the flood plain was formed c. 4300 B.C., the people of Shiqmim left their underground dwellings and moved above ground. Then, it is believed, the underground structures were used to store grains and crops. Researchers at Shiqmim hope believe that excavation will reveal many more details as to the life of the people and the purpose of the tunnels at this site.