Millennia-Old Rock Art in Israel Offers Window Into Lost Culture

The carvings depict animals, geometric designs and what may be a human face

Rock art in Israel
Archaeologists discovered rock art engraved inside this 4,000-year-old stone monument in northern Israel. Illustrations highlight the herd of horned animal figures etched into the boulder. Illustration: Hagit Tahan, Israel Antiquities Authority / Photo: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Archaeologists in northern Israel have discovered 4,000-year-old rock art engraved on the walls of three stone burial monuments, or dolmens, reports Ruth Schuster for Haaretz.

An analysis of the rock carvings, which depict animals, geometric shapes and what may be a human face, was published last month in the journal Asian Archaeology.

To date, researchers have excavated hundreds of dolmens in Israel, Jordan and Syria. Unlike those found in Europe and elsewhere, dolmens in this part of the world—known as the Levant—are largely undecorated.

The structures represent the most conspicuous traces of a largely unknown culture that populated the region between 4,500 and 4,000 years ago, according to a statement from the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA).

Enormous Structures Expose the Rock Art of an Ancient Mysterious Culture

“[W]e knew almost nothing about the civilization of these super-builders beyond the remains of the enormous structures they left behind as evidence of their existence in the region,” study co-author Uri Berger, Upper Galilee archaeologist at the IAA, tells James Rogers of Fox News. “The engravings in the rock open a window, for the first time, to the culture behind the construction of these dolmens.”

In 2012, archaeologists found a panel of rock art engravings on the ceiling of a huge dolmen in a field near the settlement of Shamir. The 14 trident-like shapes represented the first documented instance of rock art on dolmens in the Middle East, says co-author Gonen Sharon, an archaeologist at Tel-Hai College, in a statement quoted by Rossella Tercatin of the Jerusalem Post.

Following the historic find, Sharon initiated a survey of dozens of dolmens in Galilee and the Golan. The project resulted in the discovery of the decorated dolmens at the center of the new research.

One of the burial monuments featured in the study has seven horned animal figures carved into its slabs of basalt. According to the Jerusalem Post, the artwork—located in the Yehudiya Nature Reserve—appears to depict antelopes, mountain goats and cows. Another wall in the dolmen’s interior displays three crosses enclosed by rectangles, reports Amanda Borschel-Dan for the Times of Israel. Archaeologists found a small bronze knife made of arsenic copper while excavating the site; the implement may have been used to create the rock art.

Ancient rock art Israel
The capstone of a dolmen at Kiryat Shemona features three straight lines carved in an approximation of a human face. Gonen Sharon, Tel Hai College

Another newly described dolmen is located in the city of Kiryat Shemona. Per the study, three lines carved on the surface of the tomb’s capstone “resemble a humanlike face: [T]he two pairs of short lines mark the eyes and the long line represents the mouth of the figure.” The authors note, however, that this interpretation is just “one of many possible explanations.”

Sharon tells Haaretz that researchers have long viewed dolmens as crude monuments created by rural nomads. But he sees the structures—some made of individual stones weighing as much as 50 tons—as indicative of a significant capacity for coordinated efforts by at least 100 people.

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

Speaking with the Times of Israel, Sharon notes that the dolmens and the newly described engravings offer glimpses into the lives of ancient people formerly known only through their stone monuments.

“This art opened a window, a world beyond the stones,” he adds. “What were their thoughts? Their religion? It allows us to have a look into their beliefs and culture.”

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