A gigantic dolmen over 4,000 years old with unique artistic carvings in its ceiling has been found in the Golan Heights. The sheer size and complexity of the table-like burial structure, and the fact that it is just part of a monumental complex structure, suggest that civilization in the Levant did not collapse in the mid-Bronze Age quite as had been thought, Prof. Gonen Sharon of Tel Hai College told Haaretz.
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The dolmen was bigger than the other 400-plus dolmens around it, which dot the fields by Kibbutz Shamir in the Upper Galilee, on the western slopes of the Golan Heights. In fact the dolmen is absolutely huge, multi-chambered inside, and the basalt capstone covering it, which was carved on the inside, weighs about 50 tons, say the archaeologists. One interior chamber was two by three meters in area.
Investigation of the huge dolmen revealed a secondary multi-burial of both adults and children (the practice of allowing bodies to decompose in one place, then collecting the bones and interring them in another place).
The huge dolmen also differed from all the others found in the Middle East, in having the art in its ceiling, report Israeli archaeologists in Plos One. Dolmens with art had been found in Europe and Asia, notably in South Korea, but not locally.
The megalithic dolmen itself was enclosed within an enormous tumulus, or heap of stones, about 20 meters in diameter. Four smaller dolmens positioned at the foot of the decorated dolmen have been identified in the stone heap so far: there may be more.
In other words, what we have here is a huge monumental structure built hierarchically, with a main cell and secondary cells, explains the Israel Antiquities Authority, adding that it is the first hierarchical dolmen identified in the region.
Also: “The engraved shapes depict a straight line going to the center of an arc. About fifteen such engravings were documented on the ceiling of the dolmen, spread out in a kind of arc along the ceiling. No parallels exist for these shapes in the engraved rock drawings of the Middle East, and their significance remains a mystery," says Uri Berger of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Dark falls on the Middle East
The Galilee dolmens date from roughly the same time as other mysterious, monumental structures discovered nearby in the Golan, most notably the extraordinary circular megalithic monument called Rujm el-Hiri, in the middle of a large plateau also covered with hundreds of dolmen.
Actually, 5,600 dolmens have been documented in the Golan on top of roughly 400 in the Galilee, Sharon, who was first to notice the carvings on the big dolmen's ceiling, told Haaretz.
Jordan is also full of dolmens, though in Israel, there are none south of the Sea of Galilee (though there's no basalt south of the lake, mainly chalk, which could be one explanation; or that culture hadn't been there).
"There had been some sort of culture in Golan and Galilee that built megalithic monuments from basalt. We don't know who they were," Sharon says. But their failure to leave behind archaeological remnants of cities, for instance, means nothing at all about the complexity of their society, he stresses.
The archaeologists also note in their paper that the primary evidence left behind by Levantine societies in the intermediate Bronze Age is burial grounds; and among those, which took various form, the use of megalithic dolmens stands out as the "most prominent, yet poorly understood, feature of this enigmatic period".
The period in which these dolmens and the other local monumental structures were erected is known as the "dark ages," following the collapse of Early Bronze Age urban society. The big Bronze Age cities were abandoned (some believe the resultant political void enabled the rise of the Philistines). Complex socio-economies based on large-scale agriculture, industry, and trade disintegrated. This Dark Ages (also termed Early Bronze IV and Middle Bronze I) of pastoral nomadism lasted from ca. 2350 until 2000 BCE, when it was replaced by the urban renaissance of the Middle Bronze Age.
As no significant settlements and monumental building had been found for these "dark ages," civilization had been thought to have reverted to that of nomadic, tribal society inhabiting rural villages, with no central governmental system.
Or not. "The fact that we do not see cities and big settlements and monumental building doesn't mean nothing existed at that time," Sharon points out. "The largest empire in history of the world is the Mongol Empire and it left no traces in archaeology. They were like Bedouin, nomadic. For the dolmens to have been built, they needed enough people to do it, needed to feed them, needed architectural mastery and technological knowledge, and planning. The dolmen is monumental and attests to a more significant culture than we had thought." Nomadic groups wouldn't have been able to pull it off.
The dolmens are being studied by archaeologists from Tel Hai College, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.