Art Discovered on Dolmens in Northern Israel Could Indicate Lost Culture

Panels showing horned animals and non-utile cups carved into the ceiling of the monumental Bronze Age structures could attest to a powerful unknown civilization of nomads, archaeologists suggest

Ruth Schuster
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Shamir dolman with 50-ton capstone
Shamir dolman with 50-ton basalt capstoneCredit: Yaniv Berman, IAA
Ruth Schuster

Horned animals and other depictions have been discovered at three megalithic dolmen sites in northern Israel, eight years after the serendipitous discovery of engravings on the ceiling of a humongous dolmen in the area. The sites seem to date to the so-called intermediate Bronze Age, a time about which little is known.

There are thousands of dolmens in the southern Levant, mainly in Israel, Jordan and Syria, but they are generally undecorated. Rock art from the period is all but unknown in the northern reaches of Israel – though the Negev desert in the south is riddled with ancient rock art (that can’t be dated).

The new report by Prof. Gonen Sharon of Tel-Hai College and Uri Berger of the Israel Antiquities Authority, published recently in Asian Archaeology, describes the three new dolmens, which the team defines as megalithic burial structures made of unmodified large rocks laid on one another, with no cementing between them.

Actually the first decorated dolmen was found at Shamir in 2012, by accident. Sharon was visiting the site with his kids one Shabbat and went inside the main burial chamber there, and simply looked up at the ceiling, he tells Haaretz. It seems nobody had done that before.

Now wall decorations have also been found at a dolmen at Meshushim (aka Hexagonal River, which is actually a stream featuring hexagonal volcanic basalt rock forms). In Kiryat Shmona, a dolmen was found with a uniquely manipulated capstone ׂׂ(the big rock on top) that could – at a stretch – be described as similar to a human face; and totally nonfunctional “cup-marks” were engraved into the ceiling of dolmens at Umm el-Kalha and Shamir.

Elaboration of animal engravings at the Meshushim dolmen
Elaboration of animal engravings at the Meshushim dolmenCredit: Illustration: Hagit Tahan, Israel Antiquities Authority. Photo: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Dating the dolmens is difficult, but Sharon and Berger say the general consensus is that they’re from about 2450 to 2000 B.C.E. – a period dubbed “the dark age of the Bronze Age” (aka the intermediate Bronze Age). And they believe the gigantic stone structures have a story to tell.

A lost culture

Settlement and village life in Israel may have begun as long as 15,000 years ago or more. But the first proper cities in Israel began to arise in the Early Bronze Age, starting about 5,000 years ago – for example, Jericho and Megiddo, Sharon explains.

But then, at the end of the Early Bronze Age, the big cities were abandoned. We don’t know why. “The cities of the early Bronze Age were deserted, and the mega-cities of the middle Bronze Age weren’t established yet,” Sharon says. “We see no significant settlement in the area. What do we find? We find dolmens.”

Until recently, the assumption among scholars was that the dolmens, monumental but crude, were made by rural nomads. But Sharon doesn’t think there was a lawless “dark age” at all. He thinks the mere existence of these fantastic structures, decorated or not, is indicative of organization; of a vast effort possibly not by thousands but at least 100 people coming together and collaborating.

Giant dolmen with wall art at Yehudia Stream
Giant dolmen with wall art at Yehudia StreamCredit: Yaniv Berman, IAA
Gonen Sharon and Uri Berger at the Yehudai Stream dolmen
Gonen Sharon and Uri Berger at the Yehudai Stream dolmenCredit: Yaniv Berman, IAA

The dolmen at Shamir features a central burial chamber and four sub-chambers, all topped by a fantastical capstone that they estimate weighs 50 tons. The rocks comprising the sides would have to weigh 400 tons or so.

“It’s a hierarchical building. By any criteria this is monumental construction, and it’s just one of more than 400 in just the Shamir area,” Sharon says.

Given the need to plan, organize and feed the builders, and need for architectural know-how, taken together the dolmens indicate that some kind of sophisticated or powerful geopolitical entity existed at the time, not mere groups of unrelated nomads, he sums up. And like the greatest of all empires, that of the nomadic Mongols led by the great Genghis Khan, it may well have left behind no archaeological evidence – except for these extraordinary dolmens dotting the land.

Crescent-headed people

The Shamir field on the slopes rising from the Hula Valley contains more than 400 basalt dolmens. The great one with the 50-ton capstone was found to contain four bodies in a subchamber and, as noticed by Sharon that Shabbat morning, it has 14 forms engraved on the ceiling, all along the same motif: arcs with a straight line down their middle, that look rather like chicken footprints or pitchforks. What their significance might be is anybody’s guess.

Art engraved into the ceiling of the Shamir dolmen
Marks that look like pitchforks or prints of chicken feet engraved into the ceiling of the Shamir dolmenCredit: יניב ברמן / רשות ה
Elaboration of the Shamir dolmen ceiling engravings that look like chicken footprints and pitchforks
Elaboration of the Shamir dolmen ceiling engravings that look like chicken footprints and pitchforksCredit: Illustration: Hagit Tahan, Israel Antiquities Authority. Photo: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

“Given the burial context, a possible interpretation of the Shamir engravings is that they are schematic human forms or symbolic representations of the soul of the deceased,” Sharon and Berger suggest.

Another slightly less exalted suggestion, based on rock art in the Negev, is that they represent crescent pommel handles of daggers, which are believed to date to around the same period. Or crescent-headed people, depictions of which are also found in the Negev.

Moving onto Meshushim, the site of the hexagonal basalt, the decorated dolmen is located high up and may be a lonely remnant of a once vast field of dolmens in the area, which were destroyed. Its dating to the Early Bronze Age is based on a bronze knife found on the surface immediately next to the dolmen’s northern wall. The knife’s composition of copper with arsenic is typical of the Early Bronze Age. This dolmen has rock art panels on the inner face of three of the boulders forming the walls of the burial chamber, and in contrast to the chicken feet/crescent heads, these – though crude and worn by time – are clearer in their subjects, at least seen with cutting-edge imaging technology.

One panel shows six horned ungulates; differences in the shapes of their horns indicates they may depict different species. Two of the animals seem to be facing one another: the archaeologists postulate that one is male and that we can see its penis, and the other is female. One has a striped body reminiscent of a kudu, though its horns are nothing like those of that African antelope.

A similar stripey horned ungulate was also engraved on another of the chamber walls.

One has to look hard to see the artistic motifs in the Golan dolmens
One has to look hard to see the artistic motifs in the Golan dolmensCredit: Yaniv Berman, IAA

This is the first known zoomorphic rock art found in northern Israel and in Levantine dolmens in general, though such drawings are common in rock art found throughout the Negev desert, in Israel’s south.

The third rock art panel at Meshushim shows abstract forms: crosses enclosed by rectangles.

Like the face on Mars?

As we said, the dolmens are characterized by monumental construction using unhewn rocks. The capstone at one dolmen in the field of dolmens found at Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel is different.

The dolmens in this part of the country are also made of basalt but are smaller, all consisting of circles of stones surrounding a single chamber, which averaged 1 x 2 meters, with the diameter of the stone circle reaching up to 10 meters (nearly 33 feet). Their dating is unknown, as the chambers of the dolmens discovered to date – and destroyed due to modern construction – were empty, possibly due to looting or vandalism in antiquity. But they apparently date to the intermediate Bronze Age like the other dolmens, Sharon says.

Capstone with grooves, that some feel looks like a face
Capstone with grooves, that some feel looks like a faceCredit: Gonen Sharon, Tel Hai College
The "face" engraved onto a dolmen capstone,Kiryat Shmona, aerial view
The "face" engraved onto a dolmen capstone,Kiryat Shmona, aerial viewCredit: Miki Peleg, Israel Antiquities Authority

The capstone of the dolmen in question measures 2 × 2 meters and is 40 centimeters thick, and it was clearly worked. Several deeply carved straight grooves are still visible and, the archaeologists observe, one could think they resemble a “humanlike face”: the two pairs of short lines mark the eyes and a long line represents the mouth of the figure.

However, like the famed “human face” on Mars, it's all about the eye of the beholder, and Sharon and Berger are not suggesting this capstone was carved to look like a face. There could be any number of reasons why the capstone was carved – including that it was done later, in an abortive attempt to repurpose the capstone for other construction.

“Reuse of dolmen capstones and other large stones in subsequent construction is a well-known phenomenon in southern Levant archaeology,” they observe in their paper.

All that can be said is that the grooved capstone of Kiryat Shmona seems unique in the annals of Levantine dolmens.

But is it art?

View from inside the Shamir dolmen
View from inside the Shamir dolmenCredit: Yaniv Berman, IAA

Speaking of non-utile marks, the archaeologists describe a specimen in the dolmen field of Umm el-Kalha, also apparently dating to the Intermediate Bronze Age.

The dolmen in question also has one chamber, a rectangle in this case – 4 x 1 meters and around 80 centimeters in height. Four cup-like indentations, quite large at 10 to 12 centimeters in diameter, were engraved into the basalt ceiling. Useful, they could not have been.

The Golan has plenty of cup-like depressions carved into basalt rock, but those are interpreted as mortars used to grind grain, extract oil or possibly even to soften meat. There has also been a suggestion that large mortars carved into the bedrock were used as drums to summon the tribe.

It has been postulated that cup-like depressions cut into dolmen surfaces were ritual in purpose and could have been used as receptacles for blood. That revolting notion is contradicted by this discovery, as being upside down, the cup depressions of Umm el-Kalha couldn’t hold anything. Sharon and Berger suggest they were an artistic flourish – a rare thing in these parts, it seems.

Ultimately, the archaeologists found two distinctly artistic panels: that carved capstone reminiscent of an emoji that cannot definitively be described as art, and the non-utile cupmarks, which are common but in other instances tend to be utile. Being on the ceiling of this dolmen, utile they were not. “But they must have had some meaning,” Sharon says. “We suggest it was decorative or symbolic.”

Could it be that more Levantine dolmens were decorated, but we just haven’t noticed yet? Sharon thinks so.

“As Sherlock Holmes said to Dr. Watson, ‘You see, but you do not observe,’” he says. “The rock art at Shamir is in your face: somebody just had to look. I think hundreds of people visited that dolmen before me, but they didn’t look up.”

Sharon and the team have visited many dolmens since the Shamir discovery in 2012, and found no art. Nor does he have anything to say about what the two rock art panels they did find so far might mean: if the ancients engraved horned animals on their burial chambers, evidently the horned animals meant something to them.

“One big problem with rock art is dating – in the Negev it’s very challenging to date the art on open-air rocks. In the context of the dolmens, we can suggest the art is related to the dolmen, not a later artifact,” Sharon sums up. “And that is all we know about the dolmens in the Golan and Galilee to date. They’re big constructs of stone. The art may one day give us more hints to this lost symbolism culture.”

View from the Shamir dolmen
View from the Shamir dolmenCredit: Yaniv Berman, IAA

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