Giant mortars may have been used in ancient funerary rites
A number of giant mortars, dating back 11,000 years, have been found in Rakefet Cave, on Mount Carmel, Israel, and may have been used in ancient funerary rituals according to archaeologists. The mortars were used in such a way as to produce a pounding noise that served as a signal to others to attend the funeral, archaeologists told Haaretz Magazine. The mortars were carved out of chalk rock boulders, and are so large – some of them standing at over a metre in height and weighing 100 kilograms – that a culinary function is unlikely. Most of them were discovered in Natufian burial sites.
View from Raqefet Cave, Mount Carmel, Israel, where the giant mortars were found (Wikimedia Commons)
The Natufian culture was a prehistoric community living in the Levant during the time of the late Stone Age (13,000 to 11,000 BC). It was a society that maintained elaborate burial and commemoration rites within or close to their settlements in belts of woodland characterized predominantly by oak and pistachia. The underbrush in these areas largely consisted of grassland with a high frequency of grain. The settlements themselves were semi-subterranean with a dry-stone foundation. Mortars and cupmarks are associated with the society from its very beginnings, found at sites on Mt Carmel and Jericho in the Lower Jordan Valley.
The Natufians were also the first people in the region to practise agriculture, primarily in the form of the cultivation of cereals such as rye at Tell Abu Hureyra. They also hunted small animals such as gazelles and they were the first people to use the sickle to harvest and cut grass.
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A reconstruction of a Natufian burial at the "El-Wad Terrace" archaeological site in the "Nahal Me'arot" Nature Reserve, Israel. (Wikimedia Commons)
Dr. Danny Rosenberg and Prof. Danny Nadel, of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, believe that the pounding of the mortars would have been audible over a wide area. This probably functioned as a kind of signal to summon mourners to the ceremony. The mortars also may have been used in a conventional manner – to prepare food for those attending.
The mortars are the largest stone items to be found dating from the prehistoric era. They take the form of large rocks within which a large space has been carved out. They have mostly been discovered at burial sites, sometimes located within a grave.
“The shaft could be, for example, 70 centimetres in depth and only 10 to 20 centimetres in diameter” said Professor Nadel. “They were narrow and deep.”
Nadel added that the shafts are narrower as they get deeper.
Not much is known about the type of pestle that would have been used with such a tool, but the Natufians are known to have made basalt pestles for other, smaller, mortars. The archaeologists presume that wooden pestles would have been used for the large mortars.
Giant mortars from Natufian Culture (Wikimedia Commons)
Burial rites are known to have been practised by human communities for tens of thousands of years with some offerings in prehistoric graves dated to over 100,000 years ago. The Natufians are the first people to have used proper graveyards to bury their dead and they were also the first society to have used the same locations repeatedly. They were also the first community in the Levant to abandon nomadism, preferring to settle in one particular place. This may have been why they started burying their dead in graveyards.
Featured image: Giant mortar found in Natufian burial site in Rakefet Cave, Mt. Carmel. (Haaretz Facebook page)