Wheel of Giants: Prehistoric Rujm el-Hiri Puzzles Archaeologists
Sitting in plain sight but unnoticed for centuries, Rujm el-Hiri - an unusual megalith near the Sea of Galilee - has stumped experts. An ancient monument comprised of enormous stone circles dating to the Early Bronze Age remains a mystery to this day. No one knows who created the stone rings in the form of a wheel, nor why.
Livestock grazing nearby reveals scale of enormous stone rings on the plains of the Golan Heights. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Pattern Within Giant Stone Circles Revealed From the Air
The impressive ancient ruins, located in the Golan Heights (a contested region claimed by both Israel and Syria) are a wheel-like design of enormous piled rocks—an estimated 40,000 tons of black basalt—stacked into at least five concentric rings, with a central burial cairn at its center, according to news website Haaretz.
Red marks indicate location of Rujm el-Hiri, "stone heap of the wild cat". ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
In Arabic it is called Rujm el-Hiri, meaning the "stone heap of the wild cat”. In Hebrew it is named Gilgal Refaim, or the “wheel of giants”. The reference to a race of giants in the Bible , the Rephaites, alludes to only one of the many theories as to who built the complex monument, or the purposes behind it. Considering the great size of Rujm el-Hiri, it’s no wonder it might be considered the work of giant beings.
Referred to as “ Stonehenge of the Levant”, it is estimated to be approximately 5,000 years old. Dated to the Early Bronze Age II period (3000 to 2700 BC), it is believed contemporary with the prehistoric Stonehenge monument in the UK.
According to Reuters, at ground level it appears to be heaps of crumbling stone walls. Hundreds of dolmens, or rock formations, are scattered across the expansive field at the site, and so it was only the aerial archaeological surveys in the late 1960’s that finally allowed the whole of the pattern to be revealed from the air, which was unrecognized from the ground—that of a massive bull’s-eye.
Now drones are also used to demonstrate the impressiveness of the megalith. There are also talks of building a 20-meter-high (65.62-ft.-high) observation tower or to set up a hot air balloon at the site to make it more attractive to tourists.
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A view of the site at ground level. (Flickr/ CC BY 2.0 )
Excavations found it to be one of the biggest and oldest structures in the region.
No Bodies to be Found at the Large Burial Site
Between five and nine massive circular rings surround a central burial chamber, the largest ring measuring more than 500 feet (152 meters) wide, and reaching three to eight feet (one to 2.5 meters) high, reports About Education . The rings are not all complete, and some of them are connected with short walls, making ‘spokes’ in the giant wheel. The walls were formed in a consistent thickness, between 10.5 and 10.8 feet (3.2 and 3.3 meters).
There is debate as to whether the burial cairn at the center of this prehistoric megalith was made at the time original creation of the rings. The central heap of stone is approximately 15 to 16 feet (five meters) high, and 65 to 80 (20 to 25 meters) feet in diameter.
Precious few artifacts have been uncovered at Rujm el-Hiri due to its age and an unfortunate history of looting at the site. A single Chalcolithic pin was seemingly dropped by looters at the site.
It is thought the central cairn may have once held jewelry and weapons. Excavations of walled chambers did not find any artifacts, indicating the spaces were not used for storage or living spaces. No radiocarbon dating timelines could be established as no prehistoric organic material was ever recovered from the site.
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The dark entrance to the burial chamber found at the center of the megalithic site. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Trying to Explain the Prehistoric Mystery
Uri Berger, an expert on megalithic tombs with the Israel Antiquities Authority said, “It's an enigmatic site. We have bits of information, but not the whole picture. Scientists come and are amazed by the site and think up their own theories.”
View inside the burial chamber. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Archaeologists believe the site was not used as dwellings or a defensive structure, but other than that there’s no consensus on its function. No other structure like it has been found in the Near East.
One theory explaining the purpose of the site is that of an astrological calendar. On the June and December solstices the sunrise aligns with openings on the rocks, says Uri Berger. Some researchers believe the site was used as a place of ritual astrological observance or sun worship until the central burial site was installed, blocking the sun’s rays on the special days.
Although a tomb is located at the center of the wheel, no human remains have ever been found within Rujm el-Hiri. According to Popular Archaeology , Dr. Rami Arav, Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, proposes that this may be because the funerals involved “ excarnation” or the de-fleshing of bones by birds and wildlife. The remains would later be collected by local inhabitants and placed in bone boxes.
Further complicating the issue of who built Rujm el-Hiri is the obvious construction work involved. It’s estimated to have required more than 25,000 working days to build up the massive monument. That, combined with the collection and transportation of stone, seems to have required an enormous support network that a nomadic civilization or itinerants may not have had, notes Reuters.
Explanations for one of the region’s most unique and puzzling sites continues to elude archaeologists.
Top Image: The prehistoric megalith Rujm el-Hiri. Source: CC BY-SA 2.0
By: Liz Leafloor