Golan Heights (AFP)
The chance discovery of lines carved into the rocks of an ancient tomb in what is now the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights could offer new insight into an enigmatic culture that flourished thousands of years ago.
In a small clearing of the Yehudiya nature reserve, between yellow grasses and shaded by eucalyptus trees, huge rocks and dark basalt slabs form a small covered chamber that opens to the east.
The megalithic structure is one of the thousands of so-called dolmens scattered throughout northern Israel and the wider region, burial tombs erected 4,000 to 4,500 years ago during the Intermediate Bronze Age.
Today, on the plateau captured in Syria in 1967, with Israeli soldiers securing the border just 23 kilometers (14 miles) away, scientists seek to shed light on the region’s distant past.
The identity and beliefs of those who built the monuments remain largely unknown. But a recent chance discovery of rock art could change that.
About two years ago, “when one of the rangers here in the park was taking her daily walk, she looked inside and saw something carved into the walls,” recalls Uri Berger, archaeologist at the ‘Israel Antiquities Authority.
The ranger contacted the IAA, and “when we looked inside we saw that it’s not just carved lines or spots on the wall, it’s rock art,” he said. declared Berger.
The lines form the shapes of six horned animals of different sizes, three facing east and three facing west, with two of them – probably a male and a female – facing each other directly.
Another horned animal is carved inside a panel, facing the other six.
The zoomorphic representations, hidden in plain sight since the study of dolmens began 200 years ago, were the first finds in the region and a major development for Berger and his research partner, Gonen Sharon.
– ‘Strange shapes’ –
Sharon, an archeology professor at Tel-Hai College in northern Israel, is responsible for an earlier historical discovery.
Just north of the nature reserve, outside of Kibbutz Shamir, in the north of the Galilee, Sharon was hiking with her children in 2012 on a field with some 400 dolmens spread across.
Crawling in the shade of the tallest monument, Sharon sat down, looked up at the huge slab roof of the dome and said he had noticed “strange shapes” that did not look like natural formations.
“It looked like someone had made them,” he remembers.
The marks turned out to be a series of artificial sculptures resembling tridents.
“It turned out to be the first work of art made in the context of dolmens in the Middle East,” said Sharon.
Shamir’s sculptures, unnoticed by generations of researchers, have invigorated archaeological study in the region.
One of the revisited sites was inside an industrial area near Kiryat Shmona, a town northwest of Shamir, where three small megalithic structures that survived the development of the area decades ago are surrounded. of stone circles.
On the relatively rounded cornerstone of the larger dolmen, two sets of short parallel lines are carved on either side of the rock, with a longer line carved underneath creating the image of closed eyes and a grimacing mouth facing the sky.
“The grooves don’t appear to be functional,” said Sharon. “To us, they look like a face. ”
– “Letter from the past” –
The stone monuments have “changed the landscape” of northern Israel, Berger said.
But their importance has also made them targets of antiquity theft, which have largely stripped the remains that may provide clues to their creators.
Small pieces of ceramics, metal spear heads and daggers, pieces of jewelry and pearls and a few bones are found at the sites from time to time, Sharon said. “But it is very rare to find” anything, and such finds are widely scattered.
“We know very little about the current culture of the people who built them. ”
With the discovery of the art engraved in stones, “we can say something that is much more than what we have known for 200 years,” said Berger.
The rock art discoveries – published in a recent article by Sharon and Berger in the journal Asian Archeology – present for the first time the drawings of animals from this ancient culture and present the broader model of visual presentation of the region.
Berger said the designs raise new questions about the people who created them.
“Why these animals? Why in these dolmens and not in others? What made this one special? ”
The slow but steady accumulation of artistic discoveries brings researchers “more and more” to the subjects of their research, “to the civilization you seek to know,” said Berger.
For Sharon, “it’s like a letter from the past beginning to suggest what the world of culture and symbolism was like beyond building and erecting really big stones.”
© 2020 AFP