4,000-year-old structure with mysterious engravings discovered in Galilee

"This is the first art ever documented in a dolmen in the Middle East," says archeologist.

The 4,000-year-old dolmen (photo credit: GONEN SHARON / TEL HAI COLLEGE)
The 4,000-year-old dolmen
A 4,000-year-old table-like stone structure, known as a dolmen, inscribed with unprecedented mysterious art, was recently discovered next to Kibbutz Shamir in the Upper Galilee.
According to the Antiquities Authority, the structure from the Bronze Age was initially found by Prof. Gonen Sharon of Tel Hai College’s Galilee Studies Program.
“What makes this dolmen so unique is its huge dimensions, the structure surrounding it, and most importantly, the artistic decorations engraved in its ceiling,” the Antiquities Authority said on Sunday.
Archeologists from Tel Hai College, the authority, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published a study on the find last weekend in the scientific journal PLOS One.
A dolmen is a millennia-old megalithic structure built of huge stones. The basic shape of the dolmen resembles a table and most of them are surrounded by a heap of stones.
Dolmens have been found elsewhere in the world, from Ireland to Korea. Thousands of dolmens are scattered across the Middle East, from Turkey to Yemen. On the Golan Heights, thousands of types, scattered in concentrations known as “dolmens fields,” have been identified.
Although they are very common and stand out quite prominently in the landscape of ancient Israel, the mystery surrounding the dolmens’ age and their purpose have still not been resolved.
“It is just one of more than 400 huge stone structures dating to the Intermediate Bronze Age (over 4,000 years ago) that are located in the dolmen field around Kibbutz Shamir,” the Antiquities Authority said. “When Prof. Sharon entered the chamber built beneath the largest dolmen, he was surprised to discover rock drawings engraved in its ceiling.”
The discovery of the engravings led to a joint research project of the dolmen and its environs, which produced new revelations concerning the dolmen phenomenon in Israel.
“This is the first art ever documented in a dolmen in the Middle East,” said Uri Berger, an archeologist with the Antiquities Authority and partner in the study.
“The engraved shapes depict a straight line going to the center of an arc. About 15 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.”
The panel depicting the art was scanned in the field by the Computerized Archaeology Laboratory of the Hebrew University, which created an innovative three-dimensional model of the engraving.
“The three-dimensional scan enabled us to identify engravings that otherwise could not be seen with the naked eye,” said Prof. Lior Grossman, the laboratory director. “The chamber inside the dolmen, where the engravings were found on its ceiling, is large, measuring two by three meters, and the stone covering it is also huge, weighing an estimated 50 tons at least. This is one of the largest stones ever used in the construction of dolmens in the Middle East.”
Grossman said the dolmen was enclosed within a large stone heap (tumulus) 20 meters in diameter, with stones estimated to weigh 400 tons.
“At least four smaller dolmens that were positioned at the foot of the decorated dolmen were identified inside the stone heap,” he said. “In other words, what we have here is a huge monumental structure built hierarchically [with a main cell and secondary cells]. This is the first time such a hierarchical dolmen has been identified in the Middle East.”
The large dolmen found at Kibbutz Shamir is just one of hundreds of enormous densely scattered structures in this region, he said.
“It bears witness to the existence of a significant and established governmental system in the region during the ‘Middle Ages’ of the Bronze Age,” Grossman said. “Archeologists tend to interpret the past based on material finds. The absence of cities, large settlements and monumental buildings attests to the collapse of the governmental and economic systems during a dark period in history.
“The dolmens tell a different story about the period – a story about a society that had a complex governmental and economic system that executed monumental engineering projects, but did not leave behind any other archeologist evidence.”
Sharon, who first discovered the structure, noted that the dolmen is undoubtedly an indication of public construction.
“[This] required a significant amount of manpower over a considerable period of time,” he said. “During that time, all of those people had to be housed and fed.
The building of such a huge construction necessitated knowledge of engineering and architecture that small nomadic groups did not usually possess.
“And even more importantly, a strong system of government was required here that could assemble a large amount of manpower, provide for the personnel and above all, direct the implementation and control of a large and lengthy project.”
Despite all this, the circumstances surrounding the construction of the dolmens, the technology involved in it and the culture of the people who built them, are still among the great mysteries of the archeology of Israel.
The dolmen field at Kibbutz Shamir was first surveyed by the late Moshe Kagan in the 1950s. More than 400 huge structures overlooking the Hula Valley have been identified in the field.