Saturday, May 26, 2012

AP ENTERPRISE: Grisly theory for Holy Land mystery

A reconstruction
This undated aerial photo shows Rujm al-Hiri

RUJM AL-HIRI, Golan Heights (AP) — A newly proposed solution to an ancient enigma is reviving debate about the nature of a mysterious prehistoric site that some call the Holy Land's answer to Stonehenge.

Some scholars believe the structure of concentric stone circles known as Rujm al-Hiri was an astrological temple or observatory, others a burial complex. The new theory proposed by archaeologist Rami Arav of the University of Nebraska links the structure to an ancient method of disposing of the dead.

The site's name means "stone heap of the wild cats" in Arabic. In Hebrew it is known as Galgal Refaim, or the "wheel of ghosts." It was first noticed by scholars in 1968, a year after Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria, and despite its intriguing nature it has attracted few visitors.

Unmarked, it lies an hour's hike from the nearest road, near old minefields, an abandoned military bunker and a few grazing cattle.

Rujm al-Hiri's unremarkable appearance from the ground belies its striking form when seen from the air: It consists of four circles — the outermost more than 500 feet across — made up of an estimated 42,000 tons of basalt stone, the remains of massive walls that experts believe once rose as much as high as 30 feet. It is an enormous feat of construction carried out 6000 years ago by a society about which little is known.

It seems likely that Rujm al-Hiri served residents of excavated villages nearby that were part of the same agrarian civilization that existed in the Holy Land in the Chalcolithic period, between 4500 and 3500 B.C. This predates the arrival of the Israelites as described in the Bible by as much as three millennia.

But nothing is known about why they went to such great lengths to construct something that was not a village or fortress, whose location was not strategic and whose practical purpose is entirely unclear.

Most scholars have identified Rujm al-Hiri as some kind of ritual center, with some believing it connected to astronomical calculations. Archaeologist Yonathan Mizrahi, one of the first to excavate there, found that to someone standing in the very center of the circles on the morning of the summer solstice in 3000 B.C., "the first gleam of sunrise would appear at the center of the northeast entryway in the outer wall."

Just like England's Stonehenge — thought to date to around 3000 B.C. at the earliest — Rujm al-Hiri has also provided fodder for ideas of a less scientific sort. One posits the site is the tomb of the Biblical giant known as Og, king of the Bashan. There is indeed a tomb in the center of the site, but scholars tend to agree it was added a millennia or two after the circles were erected.

A self-proclaimed expert in supernatural energy fields visited the site in 2007 and claimed it had high levels of energy and vibration, which he suggested was the reason the ancients chose the location. A psychic consulted afterward by the same expert declared that Rujm al-Hiri had been a healing center built with knowledge that came from "ancient Babel" and was "managed by a priestess named Nogia Nogia."

The theory proposed by Arav, who has led the excavation of another ancient site nearby since the late 1980s, is based on a broader look at the local Chalcolithic civilization and on similarities he noticed with more distant cultures. Arav published his idea in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, a U.S. periodical.

"I tried to look at the whole culture of that time," said Arav.

The Chalcolithic people of the Holy Land buried their dead in ossuaries, small boxes used to house bones. Use of ossuaries requires that the flesh first be removed, which can be achieved by burying bodies for an initial period in temporary tombs until only the bones remain. But archaeologists have not found evidence of such preliminary graves from Chalcolithic times, Arav said, suggesting a different method for disposing of the flesh.

Arav found a clue in a trove of Chalcolithic artifacts discovered to the south, near the Dead Sea: a small copper cylinder with a square opening like a miniature gate and, crucially, figures of birds perched on the edge.

He also noticed a similarity to round, high-walled structures used by Zoroastrians in Iran and India, known as dokhmas or towers of silence. These are buildings used for a process known as excarnation or sky burial — the removal of flesh from corpses by vultures and other birds. The winged scavengers perch on the high circular walls, swoop in when the pallbearers depart and can pick a skeleton clean in a matter of hours.

Rujm al-Hiri, Arav believes, was an excarnation facility.

The cylindrical object found near the Dead Sea, he believes, is a ceremonial miniature of such excarnation sites. He cites evidence — including a mural showing vultures and headless human corpses — that excarnation was practiced several millennia earlier in southern Turkey, where the local Chalcolithic residents are thought to have originated.

Arav's theory is the first such claim that excarnation was practiced in the Holy Land in that era.

Archaeologist Mike Freikman of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who has led digs at the site for the past five years, said Arav's theory was based only on "very distant parallels" rather than on hard evidence, but that it could not be ruled out.

"We know so little about this site that the answer could be yes or no," he said.

Freikman's excavations have yielded almost no material remains of the kind that are common at most archaeological sites, he said. That is significant, however, as it confirms that the site was never lived in and was thus not a defensive position or a residential quarter but most likely a ritual center of some kind — possibly, he said, one indeed linked to a cult of the dead.

If Arav's theory is correct, the biblical narrative written millennia later might offer hints that sky burial remained in the memory of the local population. No longer practiced, it was instead considered an appalling fate wished on one's worst enemies.

In one example, from the Book of Samuel, the shepherd David tells the Philistine warrior Goliath that he would soon cut off his head. Then David says: "I will give the carcasses of the Philistine camp to the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth."


THE time of Babylon's greatest material wealth and splendour, and the period which is reflected in much of the later tradition about Babylon, was the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 B.C.). We are fortunate in having a fair amount of information about the city at this period, not only from Biblical and Greek tradition, but also from Nebuchadnezzar's own building inscriptions, and from the business, legal and administrative records of his reign. Important information has also been obtained from the excavation of the city itself, notably in the dig directed by the German, Robert Koldewey, between 1899 and 1917. Taken together, these strands of evidence give us a fairly clear outline of life in the Babylonian capital under Nebuchadnezzar II, though of course there are many details which we do not yet know and some which we may never know.

At the time of Nebuchadnezzar the city of Babylon spread out on both sides of the Euphrates. What we may call the 'old city' was the part on the east bank, and this was somewhat larger than the 'new city' opposite. Close by the east bank and in the centre of the city as a whole stood Etemenanki, 'House of the platform of Heaven and Earth', the great seven-storeyed ziggurrat or temple tower, already very old but splendidly rebuilt at this time. This was possibly the original behind the 'tower of Babel' story of the Bible (Genesis xi 1-9), though of course the Biblical tradition relates to a period over 2000 years before Nebuchadnezzar. This great tower, with a small temple on its summit, rose to a height of almost 300 feet and dominated the view across the plain for many miles around. The dimensions varied at different rebuildings, but excavations show its base at its maximum extent to have formed a square with sides of about 300 feet. This ziggurrat's main mass was of trodden clay, though there was a casing of burnt brick nearly 50 feet thick. A staircase about 30 feet wide led up to the first and second stages; how the higher stages were reached is not certain, but presumably there were further staircases or ramps.

Etemenanki stood in an enclosure surrounded by a continuous line of brick-built chambers or double walls. Some of these chambers were certainly store-rooms. Others were probably houses for priests and other persons engaged in the service of religion, or perhaps (some people have suggested) lodgings for pilgrims.

Just to the south of the Etemenanki enclosure, and intimately associated with it, was the great temple-complex of Esagila, 'House of the Raised Head'. This contained not only the principal shrine sacred to the city-god Marduk (otherwise called Bel, 'The Lord'), but also others sacred to Marduk's son Nabu and a number of other deities. We have accounts of Esagila and Etemenanki both from Greek writers and from cuneiform tablets, one of the latter giving a detailed account of the measurements of both structures.

Inside Esagila the main chapel of Marduk was a chamber measuring some 66 feet by 132. This must have presented a scene of dazzling splendour, for, to quote simply one detail, Nebuchadnezzar himself records that he overlaid the whole of its interior, including the rafters, with gold. On a pedestal inside the chapel stood golden images of Marduk and his consort Sarpanitum, whilst images of divine attendants stood on either side of the supreme pair. These attendants included hairdressers for Sarpanitum, a butler and a baker, a door-keeper, and dogs. Statues of winged creatures called Kurub (whence our word 'Cherub') guarded the entrance. All these images were heavily decorated with gold and precious stones and dressed in rich raiment, but except for glimpses from the courtyard the ordinary Babylonian had to take this on hearsay, for it is unlikely that at the period of Nebuchadnezzar anyone other than the King, the Crown Prince and certain priests ever entered the inner shrine.

There were other temples in the city quite distinct from Esagila. Within the temples the usual (though not the invariable) layout was as follows. The god's statue stood in the middle of one long wall of an oblong chapel, and in the wall opposite was a doorway into an ante-chamber. The ante-chamber was very similar in shape to the main chapel and ran parallel to it. In the wall of the antechamber farthest from the chapel was another doorway giving access from the main courtyard, so that when both the antechamber door and the chapel door were open the populace could see through to the statue of the god himself. In the case of Marduk's shrine the doors opened towards a point a little to the north of east, as befitted a sun-god, though some other temples had quite different orientations. At the sides and back of the antechamber and chapel and around the courtyard there was a series of other chambers, used no doubt as storerooms for the equipment used in the cult.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


Between c. 7000 and 4000 B.C. the climate in Europe reached its optimal level (the Hypsithermal) in the present interglacial. It was not, however, uniform in its onset. In the British Isles the maximal warmth was about 6000–4500 B.C., whereas in northern Europe 4000–2500 B.C. saw the highest average temperatures. There are of course no instrumental records, but data from fossil pollen and other organic remains, the stratigraphy of lakes and bogs, and from tree rings suggest that temperatures were at least 1 to 2°C (1.8 to 3.6°F) above those of the late twentieth century. This implies of course that the spread of agriculture into much of Europe and the development of all the more complex societies of Celtic Europe and their early medieval successors took place in periods of climatic deterioration (albeit with warmer remissions). The hunter-gatherers had had the best of the weather.

The consequences for the natural environment are obvious to some extent. The forest belts extended northward, so mixed deciduous forest was dominant over much of Europe, save from mid- Scandinavia northward, where conifers and birch predominated, and in mountainous areas. Here there were always more conifers, though not to the extent familiar in the Alps, for example, where there was more beech (Fagus spp.). The steppes of the east retreated in favor of woodland cover. Within the forests, too, species that were adapted to greater warmth flourished. The lime (Tilia spp.) is a good example, along with ivy (Hedera sp.), holly (Ilex), and mistletoe (Viscum). The European pond tortoise (Emys orbicularis), confined to the Mediterranean in the twenty-first century, was found in Denmark and southern Sweden. The presence of insect and molluscan faunas also reflected the warmth, but of greater importance for human communities were the large mammals, such as the red and roe deer, wild ox, wild pig, and beaver. As the optimal period peaked, agriculture became important, and it is clearly critical that such cereals as wheat and barley were able to ripen even in the British Isles and southern Scandinavia.

Another feature of the optimal period was its water relations. In the early part the climate over most of Europe was drier than in the twenty-first century, but as time passed there was a move to wetter conditions, especially in the west. In part this change reflected the increasing influence of the sea as its levels rose. A leading consequence of this continued eustasy was the formation of the Dover Strait and then the submergence of the low-lying terrain between England and the Low Countries to form the North Sea. By c. 7400 B.C. the British Isles were insulated from the rest of Europe, and it took the completion of the Channel Tunnel in the 1990s to make it possible again to walk from Dover, England, to Calais, France. In cultural terms this separation took place in the Mesolithic. The adoption of agriculture in the British Isles necessarily was preceded by a sea passage of some kind of mix of ideas, people, seeds, and young cattle.

Wetter conditions are reflected to some extent in higher lake levels and thus the renewal of lake fringe successions, but they are most apparent in upland areas and the western fringe of Europe. Two processes are notable. The first is the leaching of minerals down the profiles of many types of soils, particularly from those on such acid substrates as sandstone and gritstone. The redeposition of minerals, such as iron and manganese, in solid horizons (“pans”) made the soils prone to becoming waterlogged, and hence their floras moved away from large tree species toward wet- and acid-tolerant species, such as birch, and to dwarf shrubs of the Ericaceae family. On some uplands in Scandinavia and the British Isles great blankets of peat formed on low slopes where the rainfall exceeded about 700 millimeters per year. It is possible that there was some human involvement in the inception of these miry spreads, whose surface often was one of the bog mosses of the genus Sphagnum.


One of the lessons from the present plethora of research into climatic history is that change is not necessarily gradual. In the case of Europe the transition from the tail end of the ice ages to a much more temperate climate was quite rapid. About 9500 B.C. amelioration started to produce warm surface waters (above 14°C [57.2°F]) around the coasts of western Europe, and warming rates may have reached about 1°C (1.8°F) per century in these waters. On land, rates of 3 to 4°C (5.4 to 7.2°F) per 500 years have been postulated for France and even 1.7 to 2.8°C (3.06 to 5.04°F) per century in not yet insular Britain. Overall the climates of Europe may have reached levels similar to those of the twentieth century or even a little warmer by 7000 B.C.

The consequences for the natural world and hence for human habitats were profound. The vegetation belts and their associated fauna shifted northward, so most of Europe was a cool temperate forest zone with dominance by broad-leaved trees. There were montane variants in the Alps, and over much of Scandinavia and eastern Russia the overwhelming dominance of conifers meant that a taiga, or open forest, was the land cover. A taiga biome also penetrated some of the loess lands of the northern European plain, and the Black Sea had a broad penumbra of moist steppe, which was in essence treeless grassland. Within all these biomes, the better conditions encouraged rapid plant growth, so many lakes left in glaciated regions began to fill with organic debris and the area of open water shrank when colonized by marginal vegetation.

A major result of the warming was more free water in the oceans as the polar, mountain, and Laurentide ice sheets melted, producing what are termed “eustatic” rises in sea level. Such increments, however, often were in opposition to isostatic rises in land levels as land surfaces rose when freed from the weight of the ice that had depressed them. The northern part of the Gulf of Bothnia has risen about 850 meters during the Holocene and is still rising at 9 millimeters per year. Northern Britain is still rising, too, though at less than 3 millimeters per year, and the south is sinking at up to 2 millimeters per year. Thus many European coasts during the era of barbarism were the outcomes of competition between eustasy and isostasy, with the latter winning easily to the north. The shorelines and harbors from which the Vikings launched their ships were almost 8 meters above the modern sea level.

The largest-scale physical consequence of sea-level change is found in the Baltic. The region underwent a four-stage evolution in which there was an interaction of ice retreat, eustatic rises of sea level, and isostatic rebound. During the Terminal Pleistocene the Baltic essentially was an ice-dammed freshwater lake, but the retreat of ice in central Sweden led this lake to fall by about 28 meters and become connected to the Atlantic, thus turning brackish. By 7000 B.C. this outlet was closed, and the new but narrow outlet that developed in the region of the Great Belt allowed the Baltic to become a freshwater lake again. After 6500 B.C. more saltwater penetrated, since increased eustasy was accompanied by decreasing isostasy, bringing about the twenty-first-century salinity gradients of the Baltic–Lake Ladoga region.