Top Secret: The Ancient Rock Art Hidden All Over the Negev Desert

The Antiquities Authority is afraid of revealing whereabouts. A conference this week will discuss whether the public can be trusted with these treasures.

Moshe Gilad

The curiosity is killing me. After a conversation with Dr. Davida Eisenberg Degen from the Israel Antiquities Authority I conduct a short search on the Internet. Degen explained to me quite clearly the importance of the ancient rock art in the Negev, but emphasized the great danger involved in exposing it to the broader public.

Her fears are based on past experience. She is worried about the fate of the rock art and what curious tourists might do. “These are very vulnerable finds. It is easy to destroy them, easy to move them or to add new paintings, and that is of course enormous damage,” she said.

Because of these fears, Degen prefers to talk to me about the importance of the art and the hesitation over what to do with it; but she never reveals the exact locations of the art. There are thousands of such works all over the Negev. Some, those at Mount Karkom, I have seen before, but Degen knows of thousands of other petroglyphs elsewhere - which are much more accessible than the isolated Mount Karkom.

She admits to constantly debating between the desire to reveal the beautiful artworks, to which she dedicated her doctoral thesis, and between the fears that they will suffer irreparable damage. At the end of our talk, after she did not even divulge to me one single exact location, I decide to search on my own.

My Internet search reveals that some of the rock paintings are located not far from Road 40, near the section that leads south from Sde Boker toward Avdat. I have passed by there hundreds of times and I never knew of the existence of the rock art. The hiding of the rock art in the Negev highlands has been going on for decades. The “underground” of the rock art is in no hurry to share its treasures.

I park my car alongside the Lipa Gal observation point, about a kilometer north of Avdat. I hike toward the stone observation platform and read that here, right by the lookout point, there are ancient rock paintings all around. The text on the sign at the site says: “The rock art on the nearby slope was created in the Roman period some 1,800 years ago. The paintings are of archeological value and are not to be touched.” Parts of the sign have been vandalized. Someone has carved on it with a sharp object and someone else doodled strange markings around it.

A hundred meters from the sign, on a few dark rocks, I find dozens of brownish yellow paintings. Many of them show animals with horns. Alongside, on the ancient paintings, someone has carved the name Roi. It is easy to understand Degen’s fears.

There is something very exciting about finding ancient paintings on a rock in the middle of the desert. I of course have no clue when the rock art by the observation point was created. Even the experts, says Degen, have a hard time dating them accurately. I don’t know who created them and for what purpose, but this demonstration of artistic skill on a mountain in the Negev is enough to make one emotional. The feeling is of finding a rare treasure that is lying without any protection on the top of the hill.

At the end of this week, March 27-29, the First International Conference on Rock Art in the Negev Desert and Beyond is being held in Sde Boker, under the auspices of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. It also marks the inauguration of the university’s new Negev Rock Art Center. The conference also includes field trips to many sites. The conference is “intended to offer a wide view of the Southern Levantine rock art. With rock-art research still in its infancy in many of the countries of the region, we invite scholars, students, conservators, educators and rock-art enthusiasts to present and share their knowledge, research and thoughts on a variety of subjects related to rock art. We hope to bridge geographic and political borders through our common passion for rock art,” state the conference organizers.  

One of the goals of the conference is to find a solution about what to do with the rock art treasure spread all over the Negev, and which has received little attention until now. In fact, it has mostly been hidden from the public out of the fears it would be damaged. The question under discussion is whether to expose it to the public — and if so, how?

Two years ago, Degen and the IAA established the Israel RockArt Forum together with Dr. Uzi Avner from Ben-Gurion and a number of amateur researchers and people from the region, including Razi Yahel, who has been documenting the rock art in the Negev intensively in recent years; Yehuda Rotblum, who has dedicated a great amount of time to studying the rock art; and Yigal Granot from Midreshet Ben-Guriion in Sde Boker. Their goal (as reported in Haaretz in Hebrew by Eli Ashkenazi on September 13, 2012) was to document and map the thousands of rock artworks in the Negev, and in particular in the Avdat region. And their biggest question is to what extent to reveal the art to the public.

Preservation 
versus tourism

During my conversation with Degen, which we held at an archeological rescue excavation site of the IAA near Be’er Sheva, she explained in detail the problems of displaying finds such as rock art to the broad public. “The finds in the Negev have stood in place for thousands of years without having been damaged. The rock art is an ancient tradition and it is possible to see its continuation in the activities of the Bedouin today who live in the area. This is art that has not been documented and almost not studied,” she said.

“The destruction does not always stem from vandalism or a desire to do evil, but often from a lack of knowledge and thought,” she continued. “Many [people] try to carve next to the ancient rock art to see how hard it is. They want to try and examine if they can do something similar. This of course does great damage and harms research. There is damage caused by antiquities sellers. There is damage caused for ideological reasons — as a demonstration of anger against the government. The destruction may come from all the layers of the population and therefore we are debating about the exposure of these sites. Until now we have tried to limit it as much as possible.”

The solutions she proposes sound familiar: Education, explanations and strict protection.

The main debate is between preservation and tourism, notes Degen, and it concerns not only the rock art sites but also lots of other archeological sites, for example those that have mosaics. Should they be left covered, hidden, or should they be turned in to tourist sites, she wonders. Degen cites the example of the archeological site of Khirbet Hanot in the Jerusalem Hills, neat Moshav Mata. There the IAA left a mosaic floor covered with a bit of sand and visitors could sweep away the sand and look at the mosaic.

“Very quickly the mosaic was damaged significantly. It is completely clear that part of the consideration is also financial — is it possible to maintain such a site and protect it? Can the revenues from visitors justify the investment?” she asks.

Another consideration are the neighbors in the area; are they fans of the site? There have been very unpleasant surprises in this way, for example the vandalism at the site in Avdat in 2009 when Bedouin vandalized the national park in revenge for the demolition of their illegally built homes.

“As for the rock art, in my opinion the correct solution is to map all the rock art sites very well, but to open a limited area to the public, specific and defined for this treasure,” she said. We are now at a stage where we must take a single site as a pilot, a test site and monitor it for six months or a year. After that we will be able to see if it was damaged, or our fears are excessive, said Degen.

Razi Yahel, along with Degen and others, is working to turn the area of Mount Mihya between Sde Boker and Avdat — and where the Lipa Gal lookout is located — into the Rock Art Park. The idea is to define an open park area, without fences but with guards and guiding, proper paths between the rock art sites, explanatory signs and basic landscape architecture. “Rock art constitutes a major testimony of early man’s thoughts and beliefs of himself and his world. They were holy messages, a treasure of the past in the form of recorded thoughts, beliefs, myths and the ancient life’s worries. The earliest script is just over 5,000 years old but rock art provides a much earlier record, thousands of years, and encoding them is an exciting journey into the deep past,” the RockArt Forum states.  

“I of course want such a park to arise, but am very worried about the damage we may cause,” said Degen. It is clear the public is interested and there is no end to the questions they are asked about it, but they feel not enough is known about the proper way to turn rock art into a tourism industry, she said.

One participant in the conference who is supposed to know how to do this is Dr. Aron Mazel of Newcastle University in Britain. Mazel is an archaeologist who has specialized for decades in rock art, and will be giving a lecture entitled, “On the Ground and on the Web: Interpreting Northumberland Rock Art for Different Audiences.”

I spoke with him by phone from his home in England. Mazel explained he has absolutely no doubt that the rock art must be displayed for the public. He said such debates have been going on all over the world for years, but it must happen. If rock art is displayed properly, the visitors will understand its importance. If they understand, they will appreciate it, and if they appreciate it they will protect it, said Mazel.

He said his experience proves that the sites will not be damaged. But it must be done professionally, and an example he knows quite well comes from South Africa, where there is a strong emphasis on using guides from the local communities who guide the tourists at the sites and explain what they are seeing. In England there are various methods, he says. There are no explanations there or guiding, but visitors can wander freely. But the emphasis is on clear and high quality information, which is transmitted over a network or on cellular phones, and Mazel says it helps, adding that proper education is the key.

Mazel said he has been fighting for many years for rock to receive the recognition it deserves as important archeological findings. Such recognition would allow the Antiquities Authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, who today, because there is no exact dating of the rock art, hesitate to act in these areas. Mount Karkom has some 40,000 items of rock art and is within a protected nature reserve, but its size and isolation make protecting and preserving the rock art difficult.

Room for optimism

While Mazel says Israel has a vast wealth of rock paintings and establishing such a park is an excellent idea, not everyone in Israel agrees. The IAA and INPA are much more skeptical about opening the sensitive sites up to the public. One example is the burial caves at the Beit Shearim National Park in the north, where some of the caves with particularly delicate antiquities are open only under strict supervision and guiding.

Another, opposite example is at the Statlactite Caves near Beit Shemesh, where the INPA opened up a magnificent cave to the public — even though it knows it is being irreparably damaged. The INPA says it did so to allow it to close off many other, no less beautiful caves and preserve them.

In one of the rock paintings I looked at by the lookout, I saw a horned animal lying on its back with something that looked like a spear stuck in its belly. Next to it was a carving in a different color, lighter, seemingly newer. The ancient artwork is incredibly beautiful, but the question one thinks of when looking at it is whether it will survive exposure to the public, or whether it will be sacrificed and become extinct exactly like the horned animal carved in the rock here thousands of years ago. The birds of prey circling over me are not a good sign.

Moshe Gilad