When Tel Aviv marked its centennial last year, part of the festivities honoring 100 years since the founding of the first modern Hebrew city included restoration of its oldest buildings.
Now, thanks to a chance archaeological find, the residents of Tel Aviv have discovered that their city dates back millennia earlier.
Two weeks ago, Israeli archaeologists uncovered the 8,000-year-old remains of a prehistoric structure nestled away in the upscale neighborhood of Ramat Aviv. The cornerstone of the ancient building, which lies on a construction site for exclusive apartments, long precedes the time of Abraham and the rest of the Bible's figures.
It marks the earliest structure ever found in Tel Aviv and changes what archaeologists previously believed about the history of Israel's present day financial and cultural capital.
In a land where every shovel might unearth something biblical, Israeli law permits the Israel Antiquities Authority to inspect any building site ahead of construction. That's what led to the dig in Ramat Aviv.
Ayelet Dayan, the archaeologist who led the 12-person excavation team, said she expected to find relics from the Byzantine era, about 1,500 years old. She said she was startled when she stumbled upon remains of the three-room, 8,000-year-old structure, believed to be have been built in the Neolithic period — also known as the New Stone Age — when humans went from a nomadic existence of hunting and gathering to living in permanent settlements, engaging in agriculture and keeping domesticated animals.
"It was very exciting. I knew this was something very ancient," she said.
"For the first time we have encountered evidence of a permanent habitation that existed in the Tel Aviv region 8,000 years ago."
Dayan's team also uncovered pottery shards, flint tools, hippopotamus bones and teeth that probably belonged to sheep or goats from the same era.
Moshe Ajami, director of Antiquities Authority's Tel Aviv district, said the finds helped date the building and indicated how its ancient inhabitants lived and what they ate.
He said the building style was "the height of technology" and the basis for millennia to come — large stone corners filled with smaller stones to support walls of mud or straw. The cut marks on the hippopotamus bones found in the yard indicated the large animal was hunted for its meat.
"We knew there were people here, but we didn't know they knew how to build," Ajami said. "It's the biggest building we have found from that era and the oldest ever in this region."
The remains were found near the Ayalon river, which archeologists say probably influenced the ancient dwellers' decision to settle there.
While ancient finds are nothing new in Jerusalem and Israel's other biblical cities, the contrast to modern-day Tel Aviv is especially striking.
The discovery set off excitement in one of Israel's most upscale neighborhoods.
Within walking distance of Tel Aviv University and the Land of Israel Museum, Ramat Aviv's Pichman Street is home to some of the country's most lucrative real estate. Former Prime Ministers Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres have lived just around the corner.
When digging began two months ago, Aviva Raviv worried about the noise and parking problems the new apartment building would create. Now she has a different perceptive.
The 73-year-old woman moved to the neighborhood 50 years ago, when today's paved parking lot was still a quiet Mediterranean sand dune. She thought she was the ancient one here — before the prehistoric find.
"It appears our homes are on top of a city," she said with a smile. "We live in a historic place. Who knows, maybe in a few thousand years people will be living on top of our homes?"
Despite the rare find, the construction of the apartment complex is expected to continue. Archaeologists say the contractors have guaranteed to protect the ancient foundations.
Amit Dobkin, a spokesman for the Pichman Greens housing complex, said the contractors are considering a display on the find in the lobby of the planned 19-apartment building and may even install a glass floor to open a window into the building's ancient past.
Ajami said it was just another chapter in the fascinating history of this part of the world.
"There are 33,000 antiquity sites in Israel, " Ajami said. "We need to find the balance between preserving the antiquities and developing the land."
On the Net:
Israel Antiquities Authority: http://www.antiquities.org.il/home—eng.asp
Pichman Greens Residential Homes: http://pichman-greens.co.il/english.php
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