Wednesday , 17 January 2018
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Rujm el Hiri Revisited *

Take a look at Rujm el Hiri stone circle in Israel’s Golan Heights (not far from my daughter’s home in Yonatan) near the Sea of Galilee. This place is an archaeological mystery. In Arabic it is called Rujm el Hiri (رجم الهري), which mean the “stone heap of the wild cat”. In Hebrew it is named Gilgal Refaim (גִּלְגַּל רְפָאִים‬ ), or the “wheel of giants”. Perhaps this refers to giant Rephaites (giants) mentioned in the Bible. The Golan Trail, a marked 130-kilometer walking trail that stretches along the whole length of the Golan Heights, passes Gilgal Refa’im.

Discovery

Rujm el Hiri was first discovered during an archaeological survey carried out by Shmarya Gutman and Claire Epstein in 1967-1968 after the Six-Day War. Full-scale archaeological excavations were carried out from 1989 to 1992 by Moshe Kochavi and Yonathan Mizrachi of Tel Aviv University. The site was excavated later by Yosef Garfinkel and Michael Freikman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2007.

Structure

This mysterious archeological site consists of five enormous, concentric, piled-up stone circles of  40,000 metric tons of partially worked black basalt stone, in the form of a ring or a wheel, surrounding a central cairn that was once a tomb. The central stack stands around 15 feet (4.6 meters) high and 65 feet (20 meters) in diameter. The surrounding rings which are around 8 feet (2.5 meters) tall. The  entire site has a 520 feet (158 meters) diameter.

Burial Chamber

At the core of the tumulus (an ancient burial mound) is a buried dolmen (a single-chamber megalithic tomb consisting of two or more vertical megaliths supporting a large flat horizontal capstone) consisting of two 5-foot-tall standing stones that support a large horizontal stone.  Under the dolmen is a chamber, connected to a 10-foot-long access corridor.  No human remains – for radiocarbon dating – were found within the tomb. Tomb robbers looted the remains.

Entrance to the burial chamber - Rujm_el_Hiri Photo: Ani Nimi
Entrance to the burial chamber – Rujm_el_Hiri
Photo: Ani Nimi

Chronological Dating

Unfortunately no organic material survived to be sampled. The actual age of the construction is impossible to determine. Many scholars estimate possible dates of the erection of the site:-

  • Chalcolithic Period (4500 B.C.E. – 3500 B.C.E.) This would predate the arrival of the Israelites by as much as three millennia.
  • Early Bronze Age II period (3000 to 2700 B.C.E.) –  at least 5,000 years old which would make it a contemporary of Stonehenge. That is why it is called the “Stonehenge of the Levant”.

There is also no agreement that the dolmen and stone circles were built in the same period. The dolmen in the center was originally thought to have been built in the Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 B.C.E.) which is 1500 years earlier than the stacks. However, Michael Freikman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem suggests that the dolmen was was built at the same time as the rings.

Purpose

Since excavations did not produce material remains, Israeli archeologists  that the site was not a defensive position or a residential quarter. They theorize that it was most likely a ritual center. However, there is no consensus regarding its function. So what was the function of Rujm el-Hiri?

  • Burial site : The tomb an important leader
  • Worship: An ancient place of worship to megalithic gods or a place to celebrate ceremonies were during the longest and shortest days of the year.
  • Astronomical observations: Yonathan Mizrachi and Anthony Aveni claim that the site is for primitive astronomical observations for a celestial calendar that measures the summer solstice the spring and fall equinoxes.
  • Calendar: A calendar for agricultural purposes or ceremonies were during the longest and shortest days of the year.
  • Dakhma : Dr. Rami Arav of the University of Nebraska, proposed that the site was built for both funerary purposes, for “excarnation” by the ancient Chalcolithic inhabitants of the area. Excarnation is the removal of flesh from the bones for placement in ossuaries, bone boxes (Dakhma). The flesh of the bodies of the deceased was permitted to be consumed by birds of prey.  Then they would free the bones of their flesh and placed in ossuaries, houses or miniature granaries. See the words of young David:

This day the LORD will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel.  1 Samuel 17:46

Chalcolithic burial box Photo: Hanay
Chalcolithic burial box
Photo: Hanay

Bibliography

  • Yonathan Mizrachi and Anthony Aveni, “Excarnation: Food for Vultures”, November/December issue of Biblical Archaeology Review/
  • Aveni, Anthony and Yonathan Mizrachi 1998 The Geometry and Astronomy of Rujm el-Hiri, a Megalithic Site in the Southern Levant. Journal of Field Archaeology25(4):475-496.
  • Neumann F, Schölzel C, Litt T, Hense A, and Stein M. 2007. Holocene vegetation and climate history of the northern Golan heights (Near East). Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 16(4):329-346.

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