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Rock art found in a dolmen in the Golan Heights.

Rare Rock Art in Mysterious Dolmen Discovered in the Golan

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A megalithic tomb in the Golan Heights has been discovered to contain unique rock carvings. The rock art on the dolmen may provide insight into the mysterious culture that inhabited the area and built numerous dolmens between 4,000-4,500 years ago.

Zoomorphic Depictions Hidden in Plain Sight

The rock art was discovered in the dolmen about two years ago by a park ranger during one of her daily walks, according to archaeologist Uri Berger, who works with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). When the IAA arrived to examine her discovery, Berger says they “looked inside we saw this is not just lines carved or some stains on the wall, this is rock art.” The carvings have been hidden in plain sight, overlooked by researchers since people first began to really study the site 200 years ago.

The ancient rock art depicts seven horned animals. France 24 reports that one group of three of the animals is facing east, another group of three faces west, and one from each of those groups, which archaeologists believe are representations of a male and female, are facing each other. The last of the horned animals is carved into another panel, but faces those other six. The zoomorphic designs are the first ones discovered in the region.

The recent rock art study has been published in the journal Asian Archaeology .

A Significant Tomb in the Golan Heights

But that dolmen is certainly not the first interesting discovery at the site in the Golan Heights . In 2017 another Bronze Age tomb, built some 4000 years ago, made international news. That tomb is the sign of early farmers that left their mark all over the fertile region, archaeologists say. It is one of the largest discovered in the Middle East and the basalt capstone covering it, which also has rock art engraved on it, weighs about 50 tons.

The 4,000-year-old dolmen.

The 4,000-year-old dolmen. Photographic credit: Gonen Sharon, Tel Hai College

The engraved shapes on the 2017 tomb depict a straight line going to the center of an arc. About fifteen such engravings were documented on the ceiling of the dolmen, spread out in a kind of arc along the ceiling. No parallels exist for these shapes in the engraved rock drawings of the Middle East, and their significance remains a mystery," Berger said.

The engravings that were exposed on the inside of the built chamber.

The engravings that were exposed on the inside of the built chamber. Photographic credit: Gonen Sharon, Tel Hai College.

The tomb was covered with an imposing heap of stones and earth, a so-called tumulus, some 20 meters in diameter. One of the interior chambers of the tomb, where the rock art was discovered, was two by three meters in area and the investigation of the single chambered tomb revealed a secondary multi-burial of both adults and children (the practice of allowing bodies to decompose in one place, then collecting the bones and interring them in another place).

Inside the tomb the excavators also discovered colored beads and other personal items of the deceased. This was a lucky find since many of the dolmens have been targets for looting. As Gonen Sharon, an archaeology professor at the Tel-Hai college in Israel, has said , “It's very rare to find anything, and such finds are very scattered.”

Colored beads that were uncovered in the archaeological excavation inside the dolmen.

Colored beads that were uncovered in the archaeological excavation inside the dolmen. Photographic credit: Shmuel Magal, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The imposing monumental tomb with giant basalt slabs that the ancient builders used to construct this memorial to their “special dead” is evidence of a sophisticated society that had a complex governmental and economic system that executed monumental engineering projects but did not leave behind any other archaeological evidence, the archaeologists from the IAA explained.

“The gigantic dolmen at Kibbutz Shamir is without doubt an indication of public construction”, says Professor Sharon, “that required a significant amount of manpower over a considerable period of time. During that time, all of those people had to be housed and fed. The building of such a huge construction necessitated knowledge of engineering and architecture that small nomadic groups did not usually possess. And even more importantly, a strong system of government was required here that could assemble a large amount of manpower, provide for the personnel and above all direct the implementation and control of a large and lengthy project".

The view from inside the dolmen.

The view from inside the dolmen. Photographic credit: Shmuel Magal, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

A Place of Rocks

Rock dominates the landscape in the Upper Galilee and the Golan. In many places, huge pavements of basalt stone dotted with massive boulders stretch as far as the eye can see. The whole Golan area, in fact, is a vast basalt stone deposit. Much of this “mysterious brooding moonscape” has a very mineral rich and fertile soil.

Wind and rain have sculpted the basalt stone pavements or slabs into some wondrous shapes and forms, giving the Golan a dramatic, stark beauty all its own. But it was not the unique beauty of the Golan landscape that first attracted the people who settled here thousands of years ago. They were more interested in the Golan’s remarkable ability to provide year-round grazing for their cattle.

The large expanse of basalt stone acts as a huge storage heater, soaking up warmth in summer and slowly emitting it in winter. The mild winters and fertile and volcanic soil created a very attractive farming environment for those early settlers.

Aerial photograph of a 4,000-year-old megalithic tomb. Photographic credit: Shmuel Magal, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Early Builders in the Golan

Past generations, such as those early farmers , left their mark all over the Golan landscape. There are thousands of dolmens (5,600 dolmens have been documented in the Golan on top of roughly 400 in the Galilee). They bear witness to the existence of a significant and established governmental system in the region during the Middle Bronze Age (2350 until 2000 BC).

As no significant settlements and monumental building had been found for these "dark ages," civilization had been thought to have reverted to that of nomadic, tribal society inhabiting rural villages, with no central governmental system .

The 4,000-year-old dolmen.

The 4,000-year-old dolmen. Photographic credit: Gonen Sharon, Tel Hai College

"The fact that we do not see cities and big settlements and monumental building doesn't mean nothing existed at that time," Sharon points out. "The largest empire in history of the world is the Mongol Empire and it left no traces in archaeology. They were like Bedouin, nomadic. For the dolmens to have been built, they needed enough people to do it, needed to feed them, needed architectural mastery and technological knowledge, and planning. The dolmen is monumental and attests to a more significant culture than we had thought." She concludes.

Great mystery surrounds these ancient peoples. Who exactly were they? What did they believe? Did they construct the enigmatic dolmens as a memorial mark for their dead, or was it set aside as a sacred place for some special religious rituals? No one really knows.

Top image: An illustration depicting the dolmen wall murals in the Yehudiya Nature Reserve in the Golan Heights area, Israel. Source: Illustration: Hagit Tahan/IAA. Photo: Yaniv Berman/IAA

By Sam Bostrom

Comments

reclining antelope has depth and perspective. astonishingly beautiful. but looks out of time with the other five, which are beautiful and artfully simple, but don't seem to have the same visual
sophistication....anyway.....thanks for the article. Loved it.

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