8,000-year-old fertility stone works found in Israel linked to ancestor cult
About 8,000 years ago, Stone Age people built a large number of what seem to be ancestor and fertility cult sites in the Negev Desert in Israel. A new archaeological survey of 95 sites has turned up stones arranged to represent death, while vulva- and penis-shaped rocks and stone arrangements suggest fertility.
In combination these death and sex arrangements relate to ancestor cults, the lead researcher said. Little is known of the spiritual and religious activities of the people of this region from the Neolithic.
“The main essence of the cult in these sites was for the ancestors,” archaeologist Uzi Avner told Ancient Origins in e-mail. “However, ‘regular’ standing stones found in the sites, individual ones, pairs, triads and groups of seven, indicate invocation to a complex pantheon with several ‘organic’ groups of deities which are later known from Near Eastern art, dedication inscriptions and mythological texts. Since the sites are dated long before invention of writing, we have no way to know deities’ names, we only know which type of groups the standing stones represent, for example, a god and a goddess, a goddess and two young gods etc.”
Avner and his colleagues also found stone bowls, chipped-stone blades and tools, stone worked into anthropomorphic images and monoliths or standing stones as tall as 31.5 inches (80 cm).
Archaeologists don’t know much about what went on at these sites, but Avner told Ancient Origins they found animal bones washed away by rain at one site, indicating sacrifice.
Avner and his team are trying to determine what meaning there is in the sites’ structures and artifacts.
Some of the rocks are arranged in oblong shapes that point toward stones arranged in circular shapes, suggesting the phallus-and-vulva arrangement of a fertility cult.
The authors speculate the arrangement of these stone installations suggests male and female human genitalia. (Uzi Avner photo)
“Based on ample examples in both large stone monuments and small rock engravings,” Avner wrote in the e-mail, “I do believe that the elongated cell represents the male power and the circle represents the female. In the past I wrote an article about these symbols and now I’m rewriting it with more materials. Since the present paper is only technical, interpretation is minimal. Deeper and broader interpretation will be published pretty soon.”
Preliminary interpretation suggests two symbolic possibilities.
“One is fertility, represented by the stones with elongated perforation (vulva-shape) and by the very combination of the elongated cell and the circle,” the authors wrote in the paper. “The second is death, signified by the burial of stone objects and by setting them upside-down. Combinations of both are actually well-known in anthropological studies as relating to ancestral cult. A broader interpretative study for these aspects is now under preparation.”
Avner is with the Arava Dead Sea Science Center and the Arava Institute. He has been studying Neolithic sites in Israel for decades and had found similar cult sites in the low-lying Eilat Mountains in the 1990s, which prompted his recent archaeological expedition there.
Archaeologist Uri Avner told Ancient Origins the area had 20 to 40 percent more rain 8,000 years ago, but it was still a desert then. (Uri Avnery photo)
The first people who settled the region continuously were from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B Period, which lasted from 7300 to 5900 B.C. Neolithic means “New Stone Age” and is the end period of the Stone Age. After it came the Bronze Age and subsequent ages.
The archaeological team found just two stone habitations and a campsite among the many cult sites in the Eilat Mountains, so they conclude people came from elsewhere to worship or perform rites there. Two habitations were structures that could have been hunter-gatherer seasonal sites and one may have been a satellite hunting camp visited by people from Trans-Jordanian settlements. The people hunted wild ibexes and gazelles.
“The many cult sites stand in contrast to the small number of Neolithic habitations known in the Negev and they offer a new insight into the spiritual culture of the desert Neolithic societies,” the authors wrote in the paper “A Survey of Neolithic Cult Sites in the Eilat Mountains, Israel.”
Today, the rugged Eilat region is hyper-arid with vegetation only in the wadi bed. Annual average precipitation is about .78 of an inch per year. There is a spring 1.2 miles (2 km) west of the area the scholars surveyed.
“While utilitarian activities of the PPNB in the southern Negev is generally comprehended, very little is known as to their cultic and ritual world. The lack of information on the desert spiritual domain stands in contrast to ample evidence from the PPNB in the Mediterranean fertile zone,” the paper says.
The paper can be downloaded from http://www.academia.edu.
Featured image: Stone worked in the shape of vulvas (top) and penises from neolithic cult sites in the Eilat Mountains (Uzi Avner photos)
By Mark Miller