DEAD SEA LEVELS DURING THE BRONZE AND IRON AGES
Elisa Joy Kagan1 • Dafna Langgut2 • Elisabetta Boaretto3 • Frank Harald Neumann4 •
ABSTRACT. The history of lake-level changes at the Dead Sea during the Holocene was determined mainly by radiocarbon
dating of terrestrial organic debris. This article reviews the various studies that have been devoted over the past 2 decades to
dening the Dead Sea levels during the Bronze and Iron Ages (~5.5 to 2.5 ka cal BP) and adds new data and interpretation. In
particular, we focus on research efforts devoted to rening the chronology of the sedimentary sequence in the Ze’elim Gully,
a key site of paleoclimate investigation in the European Research Council project titled Reconstructing Ancient Israel. The
Bronze and Iron Ages are characterized by signicant changes in human culture, reected in archaeological records in which
sharp settlement oscillations over relatively short periods of time are evident. During the Early Bronze, Intermediate Bronze,
Middle Bronze, and Late Bronze Ages, the Dead Sea saw signicant level uctuations, reaching in the Middle Bronze an
elevation of ~370 m below mean sea level (bmsl), and declining in the Late Bronze to below 414 m bmsl. At the end of the
Late Bronze Age and upon the transition to the Iron Age, the lake recovered slightly and rose to ~408 m bmsl. This recovery
reected the resumption of freshwater activity in the Judean Hills, which was likely accompanied by more favorable hydro-
logical-environmental conditions that seem to have facilitated the wave of Iron Age settlement in the region.
The Dead Sea, a hypersaline (currently 340 g TDS/L) terminal lake located at the lowest elevation
on Earth [water level at 427 m below mean sea level (bmsl) in 2014], is the modern remnant of a
series of lakes that lled the tectonic depressions situated along the Dead Sea transform during the
late Quaternary (Neev and Emery 1995; Stein 2001, 2014a,b). The watershed of the lakes that lled
the Dead Sea Basin (Figure 1) is located between the desert belt and the Mediterranean climate zone
and receives water and sediments from both regions. Thus, the Dead Sea, which is considered a
“terminal trap” of these waters and sediment uxes, is regarded as a regional gauge that records in
its sedimentary archives the late Quaternary climate-hydrological history of these regions [e.g. Stein
2001, 2014a,b; Bookman (Ken-Tor) et al. 2004; Migowski et al. 2006; Kushnir and Stein 2010;
Haliva-Cohen et al. 2012; Langgut et al. 2014; Neugebauer et al. 2014].
In this review, we focus on the lake-level history of the Dead Sea during the Bronze and Iron Ages
(~5.5 to 2.5 ka cal BP). This period saw dramatic changes in the regional climate and in the devel-
opment of human cultures. During the Early Bronze Age, cities such as Jericho, Bab edh-Dhra’,
and Arad prospered and olive horticulture spread in the Samaria and Judean highlands (Neev and
Emery 1995; Rosen 2007). Numerous settlements ourished in the Judean Hills and in the north-
ern Negev Desert as well as in the entire circum-Mediterranean (Finkelstein and Gophna 1993;
Finkelstein 1995; Offer and Goossens 2004; Issar and Zohar 2007). In general, the climate was
signicantly more humid than in modern times (Litt et al. 2012). The Intermediate Bronze Age is
described as a nonurban interlude, with low settlement activity, between the urban civilizations of
the Early Bronze and the Middle Bronze Ages (Dever 1980). At that time, moderate climate con-
ditions prevailed (Langgut et al. 2015). This low settlement scenario continued into the beginning
of the Middle Bronze Age I. Settlement activity increased in the Middle Bronze Age II–III, with
re-expansion to more southern areas (Gophna and Portugali 1988; Finkelstein and Langgut 2014).
1. Geological Survey of Israel, 30 Malkhe Israel St., Jerusalem 95501, Israel. Corresponding author.
2. Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University, P.O. Box 39040, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel.
3. Weizmann Institute-Max Planck Center for Integrative Archaeology, D-REAMS Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory,
The Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot 76100, Israel.
4. Forschungsstelle für Paläobotanik, Heisenbergstrasse 2, 48149 Münster, Germany.
5. Institute of Earth Sciences, The Hebrew University, Givat Ram 91904, Jerusalem, Israel; Geological Survey of Israel,
30 Malkhe Israel St., Jerusalem 95501, Israel.
Radiocarbon, Vol 57, Nr 2, 2015, p 237–252 DOI: 10.2458/azu_rc.57.18560
© 2015 by the Arizona Board of Regents on behalf of the University of Arizona
The Iron Age in Israel: The Exact and Life Sciences Perspective
Edited by Israel Finkelstein, Steve Weiner, and Elisabetta Boaretto
238 E J Kagan et al.
The Late Bronze Age is characterized by low settlement activity with a collapse of the entire set-
tlement system towards the end of the period, when many sites were abandoned altogether. This
collapse is largely contemporaneous with a drop in Dead Sea level and increasing aridity (Litt et
al. 2012; Langgut et al. 2014). This period features a decrease in olive cultivation in the Samaria
and Judean highlands (Litt et al. 2012). Aridity also affected the northern regions of the Dead Sea
watershed (Schwab et al. 2004; Langgut et al. 2013, 2014, 2015), as well as other large regions
all over the eastern Mediterranean, where prominent civilizations had previously thrived, e.g. the
Hittite Empire in Anatolia, Cyprus, the Syrian coast, and Egypt (Ward and Joukowsky 1992; Drews
1993; Kaniewski et al. 2010, 2013). Immigrants from the Aegean Basin—the Sea Peoples—settled
along the coastal regions of the Levant at the time of transition to the Iron Age (Stager 1995). A
contemporary wave of settlement, representing the (proto)-Israelites, characterizes the Samaria and
Judean Hills (Finkelstein 1995). This time period saw an increase in humidity in the Dead Sea area
(Neumann et al. 2007; Litt et al. 2012; Langgut et al. 2014) as well as in northern Israel (Schwab et
al. 2004; Langgut et al. 2013).
The focus of this review is the reconstruction of the Dead Sea level during the Middle Bronze to Iron
Ages. In particular, we focus on research efforts devoted to rening the chronology of the sedimen-
tary sequence in the Ze’elim Gully, a key site of paleoclimate investigation in the ERC Reconstruct-
ing Ancient Israel project. We compile the chronological data, mainly radiocarbon ages along with
FIGURE 1 – KAGAN
Sea of Galilee
Figure 1 The catchment area of the Dead Sea (~40,000 km2)
(brown line), the maximum extent of the Pleistocene paleo-
Dead Sea (blue shading), and main sites on the western shores
of the Dead Sea mentioned in the paper. Note that the Sea of
Galilee is also referred to as Lake Kinneret. The Hula Lake is
depicted as it was before its desiccation in the 1950s (due to
Dead Sea Levels during the Bronze and Iron Ages
the information on shoreline elevations, and link it with the cultural history in the southern Levant.
The sedimentological and chronological data were derived from wadi (ephemeral stream) exposures
and boreholes at several sites along the retreating western shores of the modern Dead Sea: mainly at
the Ze’elim, Ein Gedi, and Ein Feshkha shores (Figure 1).
LIMNOLOGICAL SETTING OF THE HOLOCENE DEAD SEA
The Holocene Dead Sea evolved from Lake Lisan, its Pleistocene precursor, which lled the tecton-
ic depressions along the central Dead Sea transform during the last glacial period ~70–14 ka cal BP
(Haase-Schramm et al. 2004; Torfstein et al. 2013a,b). At its maximum elevation of ~160 m bmsl,
Lake Lisan extended over the entire Dead Sea–Jordan–Kinnarot Basins from Hazeva in the south
to the Bethsaida (Beteicha) Valley in the north, converging with the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinner-
et; freshwater) (Bartov et al. 2003; Hazan et al. 2005; Stein 2014b). At ~14–13 ka cal BP, Lake
Lisan declined from its high stand to below 450 m bmsl, rose back during the Younger Dryas,
then declined again at ~11–10 ka cal BP (depositing a thick sequence of salts), and recovered in
the Neolithic period (Stein et al. 2010). During the Holocene, the lake evolved through a complex
limnological history with surface levels uctuating between ~430 and 370 m bmsl [Bookman (Ken-
Tor) et al. 2004; Migowski et al. 2006; Kushnir and Stein 2010]. The surface levels reect the net
freshwater inux (precipitation minus evaporation) into the lake that in turn mainly reects the
precipitation over the larger watershed regions. At the beginning of the 20th century, the lake stood
at ~390 m bmsl and covered the southern shallow basin of the Dead Sea. Yet, during signicant
parts of the Holocene the southern Dead Sea was dry or precipitated salts (Neev and Emery 1995).
A topographic sill at ~402–403 m bmsl separates the relatively deep northern basin and the shallow
southern basin of the Dead Sea. When the lake level is high enough for the water to cross the sill,
additional water is subjected to evaporation (similar to the current situation at the evaporation ponds
of the Dead Sea Works potash plant). Thus, a signicant increase in the water supply to the lake is
required for the lake to rise above the sill and additional evaporation at the southern basin buffers
lake-level rise (Bookman [Ken-Tor] et al. 2004).
It is noteworthy that during the past few hundred years the Dead Sea was characterized by salinity-
driven stratication and only in 1977 did the lake overturn and attain its current conguration. The
layered conguration reects enhanced freshwater input to the lake. This is accompanied by supply
of bicarbonate and sulfate ions that result in the precipitation of primary carbonate and gypsum in
the lake (Stein et al. 1997; Barkan et al. 2001). When the supply of freshwater loaded with carbonate
is limited, almost no aragonite precipitates into the lake (e.g. Waldmann et al. 2007; Stein 2014a).
RECONSTRUCTION OF DEAD SEA WATER LEVELS – BACKGROUND
The reconstruction of water-level curves of the ancient lakes that occupied the Dead Sea Basin in
the past hundreds of thousands of years has been a major objective of Dead Sea researchers over
the past decades, reecting the potential of this curve to serve as a regional hydrological gauge [e.g.
Bowman 1971; Neev and Emery 1995; Machlus et al. 2000; Frumkin et al. 2001; Bartov et al. 2002;
Bookman (Ken-Tor) et al. 2004; Torfstein et al. 2009, 2013a; Waldmann et al. 2009]. The changes
in the supply of water and sediments to the lake reect the hydroclimate history of the watershed
during Quaternary times and in turn are reected in the lakes’ limnology (composition and water
levels) and sedimentology (sedimentary facies, Figures 2a,b) (Stein et al. 2001; Stein 2014a,b and
references therein). A positive correlation exists between precipitation from 1870 until 1964—just
before human intervention in the ow of the Jordan River—and recorded Dead Sea levels (Klein
and Flohn 1987; Enzel et al. 2003). This is so despite all potential complexities that are involved in
240 E J Kagan et al.
the “transfer” of the hydroclimate conguration of the watershed into the lakes’ limnological and
sedimentological properties. The lake rose when annual precipitation in Jerusalem exceeded ~650 ±
100 mm and receded when the annual precipitation dropped to ~450 ± 100 mm (Enzel et al. 2003).
The most signicant lake rise of the past decades (since the beginning of human intervention in the
regional water balance) occurred in the winter of 1991/2, when anomalous amounts of rain fell in
the watershed (e.g. ~1500 mm in Jerusalem compared to the annual mean of 550 mm). That winter
the Degania Dam, which prevents the ow of the Jordan River out of the Sea of Galilee, was opened
and the Dead Sea level rose by more than 1.5 m.
At the turn of the 20th century, the British Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) expedition began a
14-yr program to measure the level of the Dead Sea. A baseline level was established on a rock
located above the modern road (No. 90) on the western coast near the Ein Feshkha Nature Reserve
(Figure 2c). The marker is ~31 m above the current (2014) level—a difference that reects the
human intervention in the watershed. Yet, the high stand at the end of the 19th century was at a
uniquely high level, since the lake stood at lower levels during most of the previous 400 yr.
The reconstruction of earlier lake levels requires identication and dating of ancient shorelines. His-
torical features such as piers or harbors can also be used for this purpose. At the Dead Sea, classic
FIGURE 2 - KAGAN
Figure 2 (a) Fragments of aragonite crusts in the Late Bronze Age beach ridge at the Ze’elim Gully outcrop; (b)
transition from lacustrine ne clastics and aragonite laminae (star marking the Middle Bronze Age) to beach depo-
sition (triangle marks the Late Bronze Age); (c) the PEF (British Palestine Exploration Fund) rock that marked
the levels of the Dead Sea at the turn of the 20th century (~390 m bmsl); (d) Rujm el-Bahr Late Hellenistic–Early
Roman anchorage site on the northern Dead Sea shore (in the inset: reconstruction of the anchorage and tower by
Dead Sea Levels during the Bronze and Iron Ages
examples are the Late Hellenistic–Early Roman anchorage piers at Rujm el-Bahr (Figure 2d) (at
393.1 m bmsl, placing the lake level of that time at ~394 m bm) and at Khirbet Mazin (390–394 m
bmsl) (Hirschfeld 2006). A pioneering investigation into Dead Sea levels was attempted by mea-
suring and dating wide versus narrow cave passages in the Mt. Sedom salt diapir (Frumkin et al.
1991, 2001; Frumkin 1997). Precise lake-level elevation reconstruction using salt cave data was
hampered by uncertain rates of diapir rise (Frumkin et al. 2001). Beyond the historical data and
cave evidence, the lake-level reconstruction is based on sedimentological features such as shore-
line markers or near-shore sediments (Figures 2a,b). Comprehensive descriptions and reviews of
methods of identication of the shoreline deposits characteristic of the Dead Sea Basin are given by
Machlus et al. (2000), Bookman (Ken-Tor) et al. (2004), and Bookman et al. (2006). For the purpose
of this review, we use the following criteria: (1) laminated detritus, laminated primary aragonite
and detritus, indicating a few meters or more water depth; (2) silty-sandy detritus, indicating very
shallow near-shore depths; and (3) sand, small pebbles, aragonite crusts, and wave-related structures
(e.g. beach ridges, ripple marks), indicating former shorelines. Note that primary aragonite laminae
precipitation, whether as lacustrine aragonite laminae or encrusted aragonite at the shore, require
continuous supply of freshwater loaded with bicarbonate to the lake (Stein et al. 1997; Barkan et al.
2001; Torfstein et al. 2013a).
The dating of the shoreline markers is accomplished by several methods such as 14C (discussed in
the following sections) or the U-Th dating method, which is applicable for the primary aragonites
deposited from the lake waters or encrusting pebbles and organic debris (Figure 2a). Based on these
principles, level curves were reconstructed for the lakes that occupied the Dead Sea and Kinnarot
basins during the past ~140 ka. These reconstructions included works by Neev and Emery (1995),
Machlus et al. (2000), Frumkin et al. (1991, 2001), Bartov et al. (2002, 2003), Bookman (Ken-Tor)
et al. (2004), Hazan et al. (2005), Waldmann et al. (2007, 2009), Stern (2010), and Torfstein et al.
(2013a). Over this time interval, which encompasses the last interglacial period (Lake Amora–
Samra), the last glacial (Lake Lisan), the post-glacial, and the Holocene (the Dead Sea), lake level
uctuated between 160 m bmsl and lower than 450 m bmsl. Recent studies of a core drilled in the
deep basin of the Dead Sea suggest a possible extreme low stand of the last interglacial Lake Samra
(the ICDP drilling project, Stein et al. 2011; Torfstein et al. 2015). Here, we focus on the chronology
of the mid- to late-Holocene Dead Sea levels, when the Bronze and Iron Age cultures, which feature
processes of settlement expansion and collapse, developed in the region.
RADIOCARBON DATING OF THE HOLOCENE DEAD SEA
The sediments comprising the Holocene sections deposited from the Dead Sea are termed the Ze’elim
Formation [Yechieli et al. 1993; Bookman (Ken-Tor) et al. 2004]. The formation comprises sequenc-
es of laminated detritus (transported to the lake by seasonal oods) and primary aragonite, gypsum,
and salt (details in Migowski et al. 2004, 2006; Haliva-Cohen et al. 2012; Neugebauer et al. 2014).
The chronology of the Ze’elim Formation is essential for the reconstruction of the Dead Sea level
curve. Paleoclimate, paleoseismology, and palynology studies have been carried out using these in-
dispensable outcrops (e.g. Enzel et al. 2000; Ken-Tor et al. 2001a,b; Neumann et al. 2007; Kagan et
al. 2011; Langgut et al. 2014). The sediment exposures are rich in organic debris of seeds and wood
that were transported from the surrounding mountains or the close marginal terraces by runoff and
winter oods [Ken-Tor et al. 2001a,b; Bookman (Ken-Tor) et al. 2004; Migowski et al. 2006]. Ear-
ly 14C dating of Holocene sediments from cores drilled at the southern (shallow) basin of the Dead
Sea was undertaken by D Neev and W C Broecker (published in Neev and Emery 1995). Yechieli
et al. (1993) dated organic debris from a core (DSIF) drilled at the western side of the Ze’elim Plain
(Figure 1), and reported several 14C ages of post-glacial to early Holocene times. These researchers
242 E J Kagan et al.
also dated driftwood from the Ze’elim Gully oor near the Dead Sea shores in order to examine the
residence time of wood at the shore environment and to estimate any delay between time of organ-
ic matter demise and incorporation into the sediment. All ve driftwood samples yielded percent
modern carbon (pMC) between 102 and 155, signifying that modern shore driftwood is post-bomb
(younger than 40 yr old at time of sampling) and that transport time is insignicant for dating of
geological and paleolimnological events (Yechieli et al. 1993). Ken-Tor et al. (2001b) also demon-
strated a short lag period between the beginning of 14C decay and the deposition of the organic debris
(usually less than a few decades, and no more than 2 centuries). In most of the chronological studies,
researchers aimed to date “short-lived” organic debris (seeds, twigs) where equilibrium with the
atmosphere and short transport time to the shoreline sediments can be assumed. We suggest that
lacustrine sediments incorporate organic fragments recently washed off-shore, while near-shore
lithologies, such as beach ridges, tend to also accumulate recycled organic remains.
The Ze’elim Gully has been a major site of study of the limnological and sedimentological history
of the mid- to late-Holocene Dead Sea. This stems from its location at the Ze’elim Plain on the
fringe of the fan delta of Nahal Ze’elim, a major wadi (ephemeral stream) that drains the southwest
regions of the Dead Sea watershed, and from its rapid incision into the Ze’elim Plain (the previ-
ously submerged part of the fan delta), which comprises lacustrine and uvial sedimentary facies.
In the 1990s, the exposed gully walls were only 4 m deep beneath the plain surface. Ken-Tor et al.
(2001a,b) and Bookman (Ken-Tor) et al. (2004) provided a detailed chronology of the sedimentary
sections in two of the southern gullies that dissect the Ze’elim Plain. In their reconstruction of the
paleoseismic history from these sections, through identifying and 14C dating of the seismites, Ken-
Tor et al. (2001a) produced an age-depth model based on 24 14C ages of short-lived plant remains.
Remarkable correlation of all historically documented earthquakes to either sediment deformations
or to depositional hiatuses supports Ken-Tor et al.’s (2001b) argument for a short (<50 yr) interval
between plant death and burial in the sediment. Bookman (Ken-Tor) et al. (2004) used the chrono-
logical information from the Ze’elim Gully and from Nahal David outcrop (near Kibbutz Ein Gedi)
(Figure 1), as well as identication and measuring of elevation of shoreline indicators, to produce a
lake-level curve for the late Holocene (past 3000 yr) Dead Sea.
In December 1997, a joint team from the GFZ-Institute in Potsdam, Germany, and the Hebrew Uni-
versity, Israel, carried out a drilling campaign along the Dead Sea shores, with the aim of recovering
the entire Holocene sedimentary record. Migowski (2001) and Migowski et al. (2004) present-
ed a detailed sedimentary description and 14C chronology of the 20-m-long core recovered at the
Ein Gedi spa shore, covering the past 10,000 yr. Migowski et al. (2006) combined the lithological
and 14C-chronological information from three cores—Ein Gedi (DSEn), Ein Feshkha (DSF), and
Ze’elim (DSZ)—to produce a lake-level curve for the entire Holocene Dead Sea. The DSEn core
was dated by 20 14C ages and by laminae counting of ~1500 yr, from 200 to 1300 CE. Migowski
et al. (2004) reported the appearance of various types of seismites along this core and a laminae-
counted oating chronology of the seismites was matched with the historic earthquake catalog. The
best-t gave model ages younger than their calibrated 14C ages, and thus in the time interval of ~3.0
to 0.2 ka BP the authors shifted the age-depth curve by 50–200 yr. At the interval discussed herein,
there is only a small 50-yr shift. Other studies found no signicant reworking time of the organic
debris in the Ze’elim Formation (Ken-Tor et al. 2001a,b; Kagan et al. 2011; Langgut et al. 2014;
Neugebauer et al., in press).
Ongoing gully incision at Ze’elim and Ein Feshkha alluvial fan plains, responding to the continuous
anthropogenic drop of the Dead Sea, exposed new outcrops (Figure 3) previously only observed in
cores. Neumann et al. (2007) and Kagan et al. (2011) took advantage of these new outcrops and
Dead Sea Levels during the Bronze and Iron Ages
provided additional insight into the chronology, palynology, paleoclimate, and paleoseismology of
the Late Holocene.
14C dating of the more lake-ward Ze’elim Gully outcrop (ZA2) was established down to 10.5 m
below the plain surface (12 ages) in the palynological study of Neumann et al. (2007) and the paleo-
seismic study of Kagan et al. (2011). The ZA2 section is a few hundred meters east of the Ze’elim A
section (ZA1) [Bookman (Ken-Tor) et al. 2004], making it more lacustrine, but interngering with
shore facies. The section showed mostly continuous deposition, with perhaps minor hiatuses not
identied by dating and one long hiatus (~7–4 ka BP). This hiatus is, at least in part, only local
since at the nearby ZA3 section part of this time interval is represented. At the Ein Feshkha Gully,
Neumann et al. (2007) and Kagan et al. (2011) dated nine horizons along an almost 6-m section
(from about 3300 to 550 yr cal BP), showing essentially continuous lacustrine deposition. In an
effort to improve the chronology of the Ze’elim and Ein Feshkha sections, Kagan et al. (2010, 2011)
produced Bayesian age-depth deposition models using the OxCal P_sequence model (see Bronk
Ramsey 2008). In this manner, the Bayesian package provides a model age for every depth in the
section, such as the earthquake marker depths, with a narrow uncertainty envelope. The application
of this model allowed correlation of seismites to tens of historic earthquakes and an intrabasin cor-
relation and comparison of seismite occurrence and characteristics at three sites. In a palynological-
sedimentological study carried out as part of the Reconstructing Ancient Israel project, more than
10 ages were reported covering the Bronze and Iron Ages time interval in the Ze’elim Gully (ZA3
section) (Langgut et al. 2014).
LAKE LEVELS DURING THE BRONZE AND IRON AGE INTERVAL
This section summarizes the chronological and shoreline information established for the Bronze to
Iron Age time interval in the Ze’elim Gully. The sedimentary sections were also studied for palyno-
logical investigation as reported by Langgut et al. (2014), and reviewed in this issue by Langgut et
FIGURE 3 - KAGAN
Late Bronze Beach Ridge
Babylonian to Middle Ages
Figure 3 ZA3 outcrop section, with main archaeological periods and elevations
244 E J Kagan et al.
al. (2015). A stratigraphic, mineralogical, and isotopic study of this interval is given by Kagan and
colleagues in a forthcoming publication.
For the purpose of establishing a lake-level curve, the shoreline elevations and their ages obtained
from the Ze’elim gullies were integrated with 14C ages from other lacustrine and off-shore exposures
from various sites: the Ein Gedi core (Migowski et al. 2006), the Ein Qedem outcrop (Stern 2010),
the Ein Feshkha core (Migowski et al. 2006), the Ein Feshkha outcrop (Neumann et al. 2007; Kagan
et al. 2011), the Arugot outcrop (Bartov et al. 2007), and the Darga outcrop (Kadan 1997; Enzel et
al. 2000; Bartov et al. 2007). 14C ages relevant to this discussion are listed in Table 1.
Late Chalcolithic Period and Early Bronze Age (~6000–2500 BCE; ~8 to 4.45 ka cal BP)
The time interval of the Chalcolithic period through the Early Bronze Age (Table 2) is not exposed
in the Ze’elim Gully, where deposition was discontinuous at that time. Lake level was therefore esti-
mated from drilled cores in the Ze’elim Plain, Ein Gedi spa shore, and Ein Feshkha (Migowski et al.
2004, 2006; Litt et al. 2012). Migowski et al. (2006) reconstructed an “approximate” level curve for
the time intervals that lack direct shoreline evidence (Figure 4). Integrated with the evidence from
the Nahal Darga exposure (Bartov et al. 2007) it appears that the Dead Sea rose from its early Holo-
cene low stand (~8–6.5 ka cal BP) to its mid-Holocene high stand at ~6.3 ka cal BP. The low-stand
period is characterized by gypsum and sand layers in the cores and supported by evidence from a
salt tongue revealed in a core from the southern Dead Sea Basin (Neev and Emery 1995). At ~6.3 ka
cal BP, laminated lake sediments exposed at the Darga and Arugot terraces mark a signicant lake
transgression to ~370 m bmsl (Bartov et al. 2007). Neev and Emery (1995) report on a lacustrine
transgression at ~6.3 to 6.0 ka BP that interrupted the salty south basin of the Dead Sea. The transi-
tion to the Early Bronze Age is marked in the Ein Gedi core by deposition of laminated aragonite,
indicating the onset of a signicant lake rise at ~5.2 ka cal BP (Migowski et al. 2006). This rise was
sufcient to cause the lake to cross the sill at ~4.9 ka cal BP (Neev and Emery 1995). This rise is
corroborated by data of wide and high cave passages at Mt. Sedom, dated by wood fragments em-
bedded in ood deposits from the caves (Frumkin et al. 1991; Frumkin 1997) and by pollen archives
indicating especially high arboreal pollen percentages (Litt et al. 2012; Langgut et al. 2014). The
humid period was characterized by the rise of large urban centers in the southern Levant (de Miro-
schedji 1999; Greenberg et al. 2011).
Intermediate Bronze Age (~2500–1950 BCE; ~4.45 to 3.9 ka cal BP)
At ~4.4 ka cal BP, the lake dropped sharply based on gypsum deposition in the Ein Gedi core
(Migowski et al. 2006) and microconglomerate, pebbles, and abundant gypsum precipitation at
~415–416 m bmsl at the Ein Qedem spring system outcrop (Stern 2010). This low stand is also
indicated by narrower cave passage morphology at Mt. Sedom (Frumkin et al. 1991).
At the Ze’elim Gully (ZA3 section), in the middle of this time period, there is a 40-cm sequence
of lacustrine detrital sediment representing a short lake rise. This event is also reected in the Ein
Gedi core lithology (at 5.8 m depth; Migowski et al. 2006), but was not noted in previous lake-level
curves. A signicant increase in olive pollen in the Ein Gedi core (Litt et al. 2012) and the Ze’elim
Gully (Langgut et al. 2014) corroborates this event. Then, at ~4.1 ka cal BP, the lake level dropped,
depositing gypsum and pebbles at the Ein Qedem site (415.5 m bmsl; Stern 2010) and shore sed-
iments at the Ze’elim Gully section. A drought of more than 100 yr at the end of the Intermediate
Bronze Age is also recorded in the isotopic composition of tamarisk wood from the Mt. Sedom
Cave (southern Dead Sea) (Frumkin 2009). Carbon isotopes measured in speleothems from the
Soreq Cave (Judean Hills) indicate a sharp rise in desert vegetation at this time (Bar-Matthews and
Dead Sea Levels during the Bronze and Iron Ages
Table 1 14C age data for eight outcrop and core sites reviewed in this paper. Organic debris, e.g. leaves,
twigs, and thin branches, were used for 14C dating. 14C ages are reported in conventional 14C yr (before pres-
ent = 1950), in accordance with international convention (Stuiver and Polach 1977).
14C age yr
BP ± 1σ
ence Sampling location
RTT 5188 ZA-20 ZA2 409 2345 ± 40 2503–2289 BP* K11 lacustrine, above BR
RTT 5189 ZA-18 ZA2 410 2820 ± 40 2935–2775 BP* K11 lacustrine, above BR
RTT 5688 ZA-1071 ZA2 411 3320 ± 55 3690–3415 BP this study within BR
ZA871 ZA-871 ZA2 411 3175 ± 30 3453–3352 BP N07,K11 within BR
RT 5191 ZA-51 ZA2 411 3500 ± 75 3974–3584 BP N07,K11 silt & ac, within BR
RTT 5192 ZA-5 ZA2 412 3540 ± 45 3965–3695 BP N07,K11 lacustrine, below BR
RTT 5193 ZA-10 ZA2 413 3475 ± 45 3863–3636 BP N07,K11 sandy, ac, beach sedi-
ments, below BR
RTK 6325-1 FDd I(230) ZA3 411 2895 ± 50 3210–2881 BP LG14 lacustrine, above BR
RTK 6325-2 FDd II(230) ZA3 411 2935 ± 50 3320–2963 BP LG14 lacustrine, above BR
RTK 6324 FDd (164) ZA3 411 3070 ± 50 3394–3084 BP LG14 lacustrine, above BR
RTK 6323 FDa I (-5) ZA3 413 3780 ± 50 4383–3985 BP LG14 lacustrine, below BR
RTK 6323-2 FDa II (-5) ZA3 413 3800 ± 50 4410–4000 BP LG14 lacustrine, below BR
RTK 6459-2 FDa (-22) ZA3 413 3790 ± 50 4410–3990 BP LG14 silty lacustrine, below
AA42807 Ze’elim 27 ZA1 408.5 2775 ± 37 2960–2790 BP BM04 above BR
AA42809 Ze’elim 28 ZA1 410 3130 ± 44 3470–3240 BP BM04 youngest within BR
AA42806 Ze’elim 29 ZA1 410 3220 ± 36 3550–3360 BP BM04 lacustrine, directly
AA42810 Ze’elim 30 ZA1 410 3703 ± 37 4150–3920 BP BM04 lacustrine, below BR
AA43160 Ze’elim B 8 ZB 408 2977 ± 48 3330–2990 BP BM04 youngest within BR
RT5183 EFW-530 EFE 418 2850 ± 65 3065–2789 BP* K11 lacustrine, 40 cm
above gypsum domes
R.I.C.H.B. Eh2 AR 374 5630 ± 40 6310–6450 BP BT04 shore marker
R.I.C.H.B. Eh3 AR 372 3330 ± 50 3630–3480 BP BT04 shore marker
KIA32726 DS-F-B6o-73 EFC 418 2873 ± 88 3211–2862 BP* K11 above sand and arago-
KIA11629 DS-En A5o-7 EGC 419 3065 ± 40 3377–3084 BP M06 lacustrine, above sand
KIA9123 DS-En B4-78 EGC 419 3545 ± 35 3956–3701 BP M06 sand in core
982G Mi-15 MSd 3100 ± 55 3446–3172 BP F91 wide cave passages
AA75250 N-2-240 EQ 415 3188 ± 35 3562–3435 BP OS10 conglomerate
Mi12 982E MSd 3030 ± 50 3442–3077 BP F91 wide cave passages
810D SN5 MSd 3580 ± 80 4141–3646 BP F91 narrow cave passages
886C MM2 MSd 4250 ± 95 5214–4451 BP F91 wide cave passages
886F Me3 MSd 4350 ± 75 5286–4745 BP F91 wide cave passages
810E Qo1 MSd 4360 ± 140 5440–4570 BP F91 wide cave passages
848D MS1 MSd 4440 ± 120 5465–4823 BP F91 wide cave passages
Notes: All dates from wood pieces and plant fragments. BP = before present, calculated as AD 1950, as customary. BR =
Late Bronze Beach Ridge at Ze’elim Gully. ZA2 = Ze’elim Gully A, south side, lakeward; ZA3 = Ze’elim Gully A, north
side, lakeward; ZA1 = Ze’elim Gully A, south side, landward; ZB = Ze’elim Gully B, south side; EFE = Ein Feshkha
Nature Reserve Gully; AR = Arugot River; EFC = Ein Feshkha core; EGC = Ein Gedi core; EQ = Ein Qedem; MSd =
Mount Sedom salt caves. References: LG14 = Langgut et al. 2014; BT04 = Bartov 2004; BM = Bookman (Ken-Tor) et
al. 2004; M06 = Migowski et al. 2006; N07 = Neumann et al. 2007; K11 = Kagan et al. 2011; F91 = Frumkin et al. 1991;
OS = Stern 2010. Calibration of ZA2 previously published ages, as in K11. Ages marked with * are model ages (Bayesian
age-depth modeling, see Kagan et al. 2011). ‡ Absolute elevation m below main sea level, rounded to 1 m. The elevations
of the MDd (Mt Sedom salt caves) samples are not given since they were measured upstream from the relict cave outlets
and due to uncertainties in diaper uplift corrections (Frumkin et al. 1991; Frumkin 1997).
246 E J Kagan et al.
During the Intermediate Bronze Age, large settlements were abandoned and the population moved
towards a more rural way of life (Dever 1980). Increased settlement in the Negev Desert with possi-
ble transhumance links with the highlands in the Dead Sea catchment area is discussed by Langgut
et al. (2014).
Middle Bronze Age (~1950–1550 BCE; ~3.9 to 3.5 ka cal BP)
Establishing the history of the Dead Sea watershed hydrology during the Middle to Late Bronze
time interval is crucial for understanding the environmental background of the Late Bronze archaeo-
logically attested settlement uctuations. Thus, we devoted efforts to establishing in great detail the
lake-level structure during this period. Data, however, as the discussion below shows, are limited.
The low lake levels of the Intermediate Bronze Age continued for a short time into the Middle
Bronze Age, but then the Dead Sea rose, reaching the high stand of ~370 m bmsl (Figure 4). The
shoreline that marks this elevation was documented in both the Arugot and Darga valleys; however,
it was dated only at the former, to 3630–3480 yr cal BP (Table 1; Bartov et al. 2007). This high
stand is consistent with evidence for a relatively high lake stand from subaqueous deposition at the
Ze’elim Plain (Neumann et al. 2007; Kagan et al. 2011), Ein Qedem (Stern 2010), Ein Gedi and
Ze’elim cores (Migowski et al. 2006), deep Dead Sea cores (Neugebauer et al., in press), and the
southern subbasin cores (Neev and Emery 1995). Mt. Sedom Cave data indicate a high lake level
at 3446–3172 cal BP (Frumkin et al. 2001). Since the age and identication of the high shoreline is
essential for reconstructing the level uctuations at this time, in this study we revisited the Arugot
and Darga exposures, documented them in detail, and veried the existence of the pebbly shore
marker at ~370 m bmsl, dated by Bartov et al. (2007).
According to pollen archives, these wetter conditions are indicated by a signicant increase in Med-
iterranean trees; they have been attributed to the expansion of Mediterranean forest into the Judean
Highlands (Litt et al. 2012; Langgut et al. 2014, 2015). Archaeology presents a picture of low set-
tlement activity in the Intermediate Bronze Age, continuing into the Middle Bronze Age I, and then
increased settlement activity in the Middle Bronze Age II–III, with re-expansion to more southern
areas (Gophna and Portugali 1988; Finkelstein and Langgut 2014).
Dead Sea level [m bmsl]
2 4 5 6
Age [cal ka BP]
Figure 4 Dead Sea levels during the Bronze and
Iron Ages. Lake levels are based on previous
works by Bookman (Ken-Tor) et al. (2004)
[Ze’elim and Nahal David (Ein Gedi) outcrops],
Bartov (2004) [Arugot and Darga outcrops],
Migowski et al. (2006) [DS cores], Stern (2010)
[Ein Qedem outcrop], Kushnir and Stein (2010)’s
interpretation, and on new data (Ze’elim outcrops)
and interpretations from this study. References
for some specic parts of the curve: I - Bartov
et al. 2007; II - Frumkin et al. 1991; Migowski
et al. 2006; III - Stern 2010; IV- this study; V -
Bartov 2004; VI - Stern 2010; VII - beach ridge,
this study and Bookman (Ken-Tor) et al. 2004;
VIII - Bookman (Ken-Tor) et al. 2004. For ages,
see Table 1. Dashed part of the curve is based on
relative lake-level uctuations.
Dead Sea Levels during the Bronze and Iron Ages
Table 2 Summary of archaeological periods, Ze’elim Gully sedimentary environment, and
Environment at Ze’elim
Gully site Comments regarding lake level
Iron Age 1150–586 BC
lacustrine Rise in LL to moderate/low level
lacustrine Slight LL recovery
shore (beach ridge)
probably short hiatus Drastic drop in lake level
MB II–III, 1750–1550
BC (~3700–3500 BP)
lacustrine Very high lake level
MB I, 1950–1750 BC
shore Low lake level
shore, lacustrine, shore Low lake level, with short lake rise
in the middle of the period
hiatus/truncated High lake level
Notes: Lake-level interpretation from this study and from Frumkin et al. (1991), Bartov (2004), Bookman (Ken-Tor) et
al. (2004), and Migowski et al. (2006). The dating of the archaeological periods follows, as far as possible, 14C results
of Levantine archaeological sites from the last decade [Regev et al. (2012) for Early Bronze and Intermediate Bronze
Ages; Bietak (2002) for beginning of Middle Bronze Age; the transition from the Middle to the Late Bronze Age, now
broadly xed in the mid-16th century BCE, is yet to be veried; Finkelstein and Piasetzky (2010) and Toffolo et al.
(2014) for the Iron Age].
Late Bronze Age (~1550–1150 BCE; ~3.5 to 3.1 ka cal BP)
The Late Bronze Age begins with a severe lake drop, well documented in many geological ar-
chives: the Ze’elim Plain, Ein Qedem, Ein Feshka Gully, and Ein Gedi cores. The lowest stand
was identied at the Ein Qedem shore (415 m bmsl) and was 14C dated to 3562–3435 yr cal BP by
Stern (2010). The uncharacteristic lithology of this period in the Ein Gedi core (Migowski et al.
2006; Neugebauer et al., in press), displaying sand and gypsum, also indicates a very low stand (at
~3.5–3.3 ka cal BP). Within the uncertainties in the 14C calibration (Reimer et al. 2009), the ages of
the Nahal Arugot high stand (3630–3480 yr cal BP) and the Ein Qedem low stand (3562–3435 yr
cal BP) seem very close. We suggest that the high stand occurred towards the beginning of that
range (late Middle Bronze Age) and the low stand towards the end of it (Late Bronze Age). The
Ze’elim Gully displays a thick (>1 m) beach ridge during the Late Bronze Age. The lower constraint
for this low stand is given by an age of 3550–3360 cal BP (Bookman [Ken-Tor] et al. 2004) taken
from lacustrine sediment directly below the beach ridge. Organic matter from lacustrine sediment
~80 cm below the beach ridge in the ZA-2 section yields an age of 3965–3695 cal BP, which, based
on approximate sedimentation rate, would give an age of ~3.7–3.4 ka cal BP directly below the
beach ridge (Kagan et al. 2011). There is possibly a short sedimentary hiatus between this lacustrine
sediment and the beach ridge.
The pollen data from the Late Bronze Age interval recovered from the Sea of Galilee and Ein Fesh-
kha sedimentary sections is characterized by extremely low arboreal vegetation percentages (Langgut
et al. 2014, 2015), in agreement with the arid conditions inferred from the Ze’elim Gully sediments.
The recovery of the Dead Sea began towards the end of the Late Bronze Age, with evidence seen
248 E J Kagan et al.
in the existence of aragonite crusts in the beach ridge. The beach ridge is a prominent sedimen-
tary feature of a sequence of recycled aragonite crusts comprising a foresets-backsets structure
(Figures 2a,b). The aragonite crusts, at various stratigraphic levels in the Ze’elim Formation, were
formed along the shoreline marking enhanced supply of freshwater rich with bicarbonate (e.g.
Bookman [Ken- Tor] et al. 2004); on the shoreline they were subjected to wave action, which
constructed the foresets and backsets. Thus, the beach ridge structure marks the time of resumption
of freshwater activity in the Judean Hills (after the extreme dry event of the Late Bronze Age) and
the elevation of the shoreline where the structure was formed. Along with the aragonite crusts,
the waves collected and amalgamated wood fragments that were incorporated within the aragonite
crust layers of the beach ridge. 14C dating of the youngest group of wood remains in the beach ridge
yielded ages that lie in the interval of ~3.4 to 3.2 ka cal BP (Table 1). The youngest of these dates
(3470–3240 cal BP; Bookman [Ken-Tor] et al. 2004) marks the approximate time of formation of
the beach ridge structure, slightly preceding the end of the Late Bronze Age. Lacustrine subaqueous
sediments indicating further lake rise were deposited above the beach ridge. They include organic
matter dated to 3394–3084 yr cal (Table 1; chronology from Langgut et al. 2014). The younger part
of this calibration range is at the transition to the Iron Age.
At the Ein Feshkha site, the Ze’elim beach ridge structure is correlated with a layer containing
gypsum domes that were probably deposited in shallow waters (Neumann et al. 2007). 14C ages of
organic debris recovered from a laminated section ~40 cm above the gypsum dome horizon yielded
an age of 3258–2788 BP (Neumann et al. 2007; Kagan et al. 2011), indicating lake-level recovery
earlier than that. The Ein Feshkha sediments support the scenario described above, with the lowest
stand being represented by the gypsum domes and resumption of lacustrine deposition above that,
but still within the Late Bronze Age.
Continuous speleothem growth at the Soreq Cave in the Judean Hills throughout the Holocene
(Bar-Matthews and Ayalon 2004) indicates that rainfall there was always >300–350 mm/yr (Vaks
et al. 2010); nonetheless, slower speleothem growth during the Late Bronze Age (Bar-Matthews and
Ayalon 2004; Vaks et al. 2010) may signify drier conditions. Sampling resolution is uncharacteris-
tically low in this interval of the Soreq Cave stable isotope record, where each data point represents
~102 yr, meaning that rapid events may not be apparent (Bar-Matthews and Ayalon 2004).
Severe, long-term droughts may be the main reason for the sociopolitical collapse in the eastern
Mediterranean area during the “Crisis Years” (Carpenter 1966; Weiss 1982; Neumann and Parpola
1987; Alpert and Neumann 1989; Ward and Joukowsky 1992; Issar 1998). In the Levant, the Crisis
Years are represented by destruction of urban centers, decline of village life, and changes in settle-
ment patterns. Textual evidence from several places in the Ancient Near East attest to drought and
famine starting in the mid-13th century BCE and continuing until the second half of the 12th century
BCE (see in this issue, Langgut et al. 2015 and references therein).
Our reconstruction of the Dead Sea levels indicate that the recovery of the hydrological system oc-
curred at ~3.2 ka cal BP, slightly before the time indicated by the palynological, archaeological, and
historical ndings. Possibly the conditions leading to the recovery of the hydrological system of the
Dead Sea watershed heralded the recovery of the regional settlement system.
The global climatic reasons for this catastrophic drop of the Late Bronze Dead Sea and its recovery
during the end of the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age are complex and beyond the scope of
this paper. Other similar abrupt lake drops occurred throughout the Holocene and were correlated
by Kushnir and Stein (2010) with times of global abrupt climate events referred to as the Holocene
Dead Sea Levels during the Bronze and Iron Ages
Rapid Climate Change (RCC, Mayewski et al. 2004). Kushnir and Stein (2010) argued that these
abrupt events were the result of extreme cold temperatures in the North Atlantic and extreme cold
air outbreaks over the Mediterranean that caused cooling of the deep seawater layers, resulting in
cold summer sea temperatures and weakening of the winter Mediterranean cyclones.
Iron Age (1150–586 BCE; ~3.1–2.5 ka cal BP)
By ~3.1 ka cal BP, the Dead Sea had somewhat recovered, rising from its low stand of below 414 to
~408 m bmsl. Although the lake recovered from its extreme minima, low lake-level deposition con-
tinued at the Ze’elim site, with silty detritus and some aragonite laminae. The Ein Gedi core shows
enhanced primary aragonite precipitation, indicating more stable lake conditions (Migowski et al.
2004; Waldmann et al. 2007). Deeper lacustrine conditions returned to the Ze’elim site only about a
millennium later, at the end of the Hellenistic period to beginning of the Roman period, when lake
levels rose signicantly [Bookman (Ken-Tor) et al. 2004; Migowski et al. 2006].
The resumption of hydrological activity in the Dead Sea watershed that led to the recovery of lake
level is expressed in the development of Iron Age settlements in the Judean Hills. This required
not only freshwater supply but also soil development, which was perhaps made possible by the
transport of desert dust from the Sahara Desert and leaching of the carbonates to the Dead Sea when
more precipitation and vegetation were available (Haliva-Cohen et al. 2012; Belmaker et al. 2014;
Stein 2014a). While the movement of the Sea Peoples over the Mediterranean possibly reects
environmental stress such as severe droughts in their source regions during the Late Bronze circum-
Mediterranean crisis, the Iron Age settlement recovery was most likely supported by the resumption
of freshwater activity, recovery of the vegetation, and formation of mountain soils.
The terminal and hypersaline Dead Sea stores in its sedimentary archives the climate-hydrological
history of its large watershed. The reconstruction of level curves for the lakes that occupied the
Dead Sea Basin during the late Quaternary requires information on the shoreline elevations and
their ages. This information is obtained by sedimentological and geological means and by radiomet-
ric dating methods. Here, we reviewed the studies that established the lake-level curve of the late
Holocene Dead Sea, including new data. In particular, we focused on the time interval of the Early
Bronze to the beginning of the Iron Age that is characterized by dramatic changes in the regional
climate and human culture history. In the mid-Holocene, the lake rose several times to its highest
Holocene stand of ~370 m bmsl, but also displayed abrupt declines. The most dramatic decline
occurred in the Late Bronze Age when the lake level dropped by more ~50 m to below 414 m bmsl.
This was shortly followed by a rapid but limited rise to ~408 m bmsl, close to the transition to the
Iron Age. The resumption of freshwater activity was likely accompanied by vegetation recovery and
soil production in the Judean Hills terrain. These hydrological-environmental developments made
the Iron Age settlement and demographic growth in the region possible.
The research leading to these results received funding from the European Research Council under
the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013)/ERC grant agree-
ment n°229418. S Ben-Dor Evian is thanked for her technical help regarding this program. The
authors are grateful to two anonymous reviewers and to the volume editors for helpful comments
that led to the improvement of the manuscript.
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