Around 4,000 years ago, a man, a woman and a child were laid to rest in a barrow beneath a massive 50-ton slab of basalt on a hillside in the Hula Valley. Offerings in ceramic pots were laid by their sides, and above their heads mysterious symbols were etched into the stone.

This enigmatic discovery, detailed in an academic article published in PLOS ONE on Thursday, upends our understanding of a little-understood dark age in the Levant following the collapse of Early Bronze Age cities.

Their grave of boulders stacked to form a crude table, known by archaeologists as a dolmen, was one of a vast field of tombs recently excavated by archaeologists in what is now northern Israel. The multi-chambered barrow the three skeletons were found in, however, stood out from the rest.

The excavation of the dolmens, near Kibbutz Shamir in the Hula Valley (a stone’s throw from a Roman manor described in a recent Times of Israel article), commenced after Gonen Sharon, a professor at Tel Hai College and lead author of the study, discovered the rock drawings in 2012. The field was first surveyed in the 1950s.

Rock art drawings etched into the dolmen's basalt capstone in the Shamir Dolmen Field. (Gonen Sharon, Tel Hai College)

Rock art drawings etched into the dolmen’s basalt capstone in the Shamir Dolmen Field. (Gonen Sharon, Tel Hai College)

The study, which took several years of excavation, research and 3D scanning of the rock art, was carried out as a joint effort of Tel Hai College, the Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Dolmens lie scattered throughout the Golan Heights, and appear in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. A recent survey of the Golan Heights turned up over 5,200 of the monumental rock tombs; the Shamir Dolmen Field has over 400.

Map of Shamir Dolmen Field (after Kagan 1960). (CC BY Gonen Sharon via PLOS ONE)

Map of Shamir Dolmen Field (after Kagan 1960). (CC BY Gonen Sharon via PLOS ONE)

“The dolmens are problematic,” Sharon told The Times of Israel in a phone interview Sunday. “It’s a problem to date them because they are very obvious on the landscape and people have been using them since they were built 4,000 years ago or a little bit more than that.

“But people have been using them since. We hear about them in the Talmud, they were used by Romans, so when you go in you have a problem to set the date,” he said. “Now we have a kind of consensus that the dolmens of the Galilee and the Golan should be dated to the Intermediate Bronze Age.”

Based on the pottery found inside the grave, and the time period associated with this style of burial, the authors said the tomb dates to a hazy period straddling the end of the Early Bronze and start of the Middle Bronze, around 2350 to 2000 BCE.

As archaeologists understood this period until now, the sophisticated city-state governments of the Early Bronze Age collapsed, the towns emptied out, and large-scale agriculture ceased. Some scholars link rapid climate change — a cooler, drier time — around 4,200 years ago to the collapse of societies across the Near East, including the Levant.

“All these cities disappeared,” Sharon explained. “And then you have a few hundred years of practically nothing” until the emergence of the great cities of the Middle Bronze Age: Megiddo, Hazor, Ashkelon, Lachish.

During that intermediate period, society decentralized into small villages and wandering nomads, and scholars assumed the social conditions weren’t ripe for monumental architecture.

A dolmen in the northern Galilee, with hyraxes on top. (Gonen Sharon, Tel Hai College)

A dolmen in the northern Galilee, with hyraxes on top. (Gonen Sharon, Tel Hai College)

“What we do have is this dolmen,” Sharon said. The gigantic tombs force archaeologists to rework their understanding of that age.

“Hundreds of dolmens are scattered in the Shamir Dolmen Field, yet one dolmen stands out, even among the giants,” the authors of the study wrote. “The largest of the Shamir dolmens and, to our knowledge, one of the largest dolmens ever reported from the Levant, is Dolmen 3.”

The boulder capping the grave is over 13 feet long and nearly as wide, is just shy of four feet thick and weighs over 50 tons, making it “one of the largest stones reported to have been used in the construction of a dolmen in the Levant.” The structure itself is “one of the largest dolmens ever recorded in the Levant,” researchers wrote.

To put it into perspective, the standing stones at Stonehenge, which is slightly older than the Shamir dolmen field, are each around 13 feet high, almost 7 feet wide and weigh 25 tons — half that of the capstone. All the stones of Dolmen 3 together weigh somewhere in the vicinity of 400 tons, the researchers said.

It was also the first complex “multi-dolmen” reported in the Levant, with at least four sub-chambers, indicating some kind of social hierarchy.

3D model of rock art drawings etched into the basalt capstone of Dolmen 3 in the Shamir Dolmen Field in northern Israel. (Courtesy of the digital archaeology laboratory at Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

3D model of rock art drawings etched into the basalt capstone of Dolmen 3 in the Shamir Dolmen Field in northern Israel. (Courtesy of the digital archaeology laboratory at Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

On the underside of Dolmen 3’s titanic slab were 14 etchings hewn into the volcanic rock, all variations on a unique motif: a vertical line with an arc at one end, each around 10 inches long. Three-dimensional scanning of the drawings shed light on the technique used to etch them into the rock.

Each drawing differs slightly in the length and curve of the arc. The cryptic artwork has archaeologists stumped, but they suggest in the paper that they could be “schematic human forms or symbolic representations of the soul of the deceased,” perhaps indicating the path awaiting those buried therein. It’s a rare case, they said, where rock art is discovered in an archaeological context.

The patina inside the carving matches the surrounding rock face, suggesting it’s of the same age as the dolmen tomb, researchers said.

Bones and ceramic remains exposed in central chamber 3a of a dolmen in the Shamir Dolmen Field in northern Israel. (CC BY Gonen Sharon via PLOS ONE)

Bones and ceramic remains exposed in central chamber 3a of a dolmen in the Shamir Dolmen Field in northern Israel. (CC BY Gonen Sharon via PLOS ONE)

Digging below the surface of the tomb chamber, archaeologists found the fragmentary remains of an 8- to 10-year old child, a young adult and a 35- to 45-year-old adult, all buried around the time the dolmen was erected. Their bones were gathered up and interred in a secondary burial.

Interior view of Dolmen 3 from Shamir Dolmen Field in northern Israel (Shmuel Magal, courtesy of the IAA)

Interior view of Dolmen 3 from Shamir Dolmen Field in northern Israel (Shmuel Magal, courtesy of the IAA)

“Despite the heavy fragmentation, the preservation of the bone tissue was surprisingly good and it was possible to identify remains from all parts of the skeleton, from skull to leg bones, in each concentration,” the researchers said. Now they’re trying to nail down their age with radiocarbon dating, “but the poor chemical preservation of the bones is challenging the dating process.”

The presence of beads from a later period suggests that the dolmen was reused again at some point after the three were buried there.

Altogether, the Shamir dolmens’ complex burial customs, hierarchy and symbolic art defies scholars’ conception of society in the region during this period.

As author Bill Bryson pointed out with Stonehenge, “Can you imagine trying to talk six hundred people into helping you drag a fifty-ton stone eighteen miles across the countryside and muscle it into an upright position, and then saying, ‘Right, lads! Another twenty like that, plus some lintels and maybe a couple of dozen nice bluestones from Wales, and we can party!’ Whoever was the person behind Stonehenge was one dickens of a motivator, I’ll tell you that.”

The same goes with the dolmen fields in the Galilee and Golan.

“Even though we don’t have any regular archaeological evidence, like cities and towns and tels, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing here,” said Sharon. The Mongol Empire, the largest land empire in history, was forged by tent-dwellers who left little trace, he argued.

“Dolmens suggest we’re looking at a much more complex governmental system. To build this kind of dolmen you have to gather enough people, you have to feed these people, you have to accommodate these people, you have to have the architectural and construction knowledge, and you must have a boss. Somebody needs to tell them what to do.”

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