Of Stones and Social Complexity – The Shamir Dolmen Field and the Intermediate Bronze Age

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR

By Uri Berger and Gonen Sharon

Dolmens - megalithic stone tombs - are among the earliest archaeological features documented in the Levant, first reported in 1817. In 1850 the French researcher De Saulcy first used the term "dolmen" to describe the megaliths at Adeimeh in Jordan. During the 1880s, C.R. Conder of the Palestine Exploration Fund laid the foundation for dolmen studies, mapping, describing, and drawing dozens of them from Syria, the Jordan Valley, the Upper Galilee, and the Golan Heights. Yet 200 years later dolmens remain among the less understood archaeological phenomena in the Levant. The precise definition of dolmens is under debate, as well as their use, significance, and geographical distribution. Above all, the precise chronology of the dolmens has yet to be established.

In recent years dolmen studies have been advanced primarily by researchers east of the Dead Sea Rift Valley. In addition, the growing number of dolmens excavated during construction and development in Israel has led to better understanding of these megaliths in the Galilee and Golan. More than 5600 megalithic structures were documented during the archaeological survey of the Golan, most of which are dolmens. Dolmens are so numerous that the term dolmen field had to be abandoned, as no margins could be observed separating the massive concentrations covering the central and south Golan. Much more awaits discovery.

Levantine dolmens are large structures, dominating the landscape, and many were either robbed or reused after their initial construction. The combination of this heavily disturbed history and poor preservation has resulted in the absence of reliable datable material from most excavated dolmens. Not a single radiocarbon date has been obtained. Levantine dolmens have been assigned chronologically to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (based on the absence of ceramics), the Chalcolithic, all stages of the Bronze Age, and to later periods.

Recent research suggests that east of the Jordan Rift Valley and south of the Yarmuk River dolmen burial was a common practice during the Early Bronze Age I (mid-4th millennium BCE). This supports the suggestion that the dolmens of the Golan and Galilee should be distinguished from those east of the Jordan Rift Valley. The Golan dolmens differ from the southern dolmens in the type of rock used for construction (basalt vs. limestone and sandstone), in size (typically much larger), in their design (typically passage tombs covered by an earthen tumulus), building technology (unworked stones), and in their chronology. It seems that the Golan and Galilee dolmens find their cultural roots in the north, in the megalithic traditions of Syria and Anatolia. In all of the many dolmens excavated and surveyed in the Golan and its escarpments, the earliest material unearthed clearly belongs to the Intermediate Bronze Age (IBA, ca. 2500-2000 BCE).

Upper Galilee landscape around the Shamir Dolemn Field. All images courtesy of Gonen Sharon.

The Shamir Dolmen Field

The Shamir Dolmen Field is located on the western slopes of the Golan Heights overlooking the Hula Valley, where the Golan slopes down in a series of basalt flows creating a step-like landscape.  These massive basalt slabs were the raw material used by the Shamir dolmen builders to construct their megalithic structures. A member of Kibbutz Shamir, the late Moshe Kagan, first surveyed the area and published a map in 1961. Kagan counted more than 400 dolmens surrounding the kibbutz, a number that does not include the numerous dolmens to the east. After Kagan’s survey, a few dolmens were excavated, but these salvage excavations did little to advance understanding of the Shamir dolmen phenomenon.

Map showing the location of Kibbutz Shamir and the surrounding domens.

Map showing the location of Kibbutz Shamir and the surrounding domens.

Aerial view of other excavated dolmens.

Dolmen 3 – The Giant

Structure and size. Dolmen 3 is the largest recorded in the Shamir Dolmen Field and one of the largest ever reported from the Levant. Its surrounding tumulus is 20 meters in diameter and the capstone covering the main chamber is estimated to weigh 50 tons. Tumuli of the same scale are reported from other parts of the Golan. The main chamber of Dolmen 3 is 3 by 2 meters in size, and the ceiling height is 1.6 meters. The size of the tumulus, the capstone, and the main chamber make Dolmen 3 exceptional.

Dolmen 3 is also unique in that it is a multi-chamber dolmen. Built into the giant tumulus are four additional, smaller chambers incorporated either during its initial construction or later. This is the first reported multi-chamber dolmen in the Levant.

Excavation of Chamber 3a exposed numerous poorly preserved human remains. The bones were concentrated in two sections of the excavated surface and included least three individuals, a young child and two adults, possibly a male and a female. Many ceramic sherds were found in the burial context, all dated to the IBA. 

Fragmentary human remains and ceramics from Dolmen 3.

Rock Art. The other unique feature of Dolmen 3 is the rock art panel engraved on the southeastern quadrant of the ceiling. The panel contains a group of 14 distinct figures made by pecking into the face of the basalt rock. While most are discernable to the naked eye, some are obscured. The unevenness of the weathered basalt surface, the darkness inside the chamber, and the difficult positioning of the panel, all hamper clear identification of the figures. In order to obtain precise and detailed documentation, 3D scanning by structured-light technology was used to reveal the subtleties of the engraved panel.

Chamber in Dolmen 3 showing location of rock art panel.

The figures are all variations on the primary motif, which can be described as a rounded arrow. The average size of the figures is 25 centimeters, and the alignment of each is slightly different, creating an arc of movement across the chamber ceiling. No parallel motifs in Levantine rock art are known and we have no way understand the meaning of these figures. Due to the location of the panel, the patina of the engravings, and the absence of parallel motifs, we suggest that the rock art is contemporary to the building of the dolmen.

Section drawing through Dolmen 3 showing location of rock art panel.

Imagery of rock art panel.

Ceramics and beads from Dolmen 3.

Chronology. All finds to date from the Shamir Dolmen Field support dating to the IBA and Dolmen 3 is no exception. In Dolmen 3, numerous ceramic sherds were uncovered in the immediate context of the human bones, probably the remains of grave goods offered at burial. All of the sherds found in Dolmen 3 fall within the ‘north family’ defined for the Levantine IBA pottery. Dating the actual burials and its association with the building of the dolmen is less secure due to the presence of colorful beads of different sizes and shapes collected during the sieving of the sediments, as well as small metal pieces, possibly the remains of a fibula pin. Some of the beads can only be assigned to later periods suggesting they are later intrusions. Nevertheless, the overwhelming evidence suggests that the actual construction of Dolmen 3 is well-dated to the IBA. 

3D model of Dolmen 3

The Shamir Dolmen Field and the Intermediate Bronze Age

Until recently, the Levantine IBA was understood as a “Dark Age” between two urban periods. The collapse of the Early Bronze cities, the near absence of settlements, together with the lack of monumental buildings, led the IBA being defined as “small-scaled mixed agro-pastoralism.” The Shamir Dolmen Field finds challenge this view and suggest that, at least in the Hula Valley Basin and the Northern Golan Heights, an organization existed with the ability to recruit the labor and construct monumental architecture. Social organization is also supported by the complexity of the burial field and the presence of symbolic rock art in the largest dolmen.

The Shamir Dolmen Field comprises hundreds of dolmens, most with uniform architecture: a central rectangular chamber surrounded by a well-built circular tumulus, covered by a giant capstone visible from afar. This uniformity suggests a cultural pattern that was practiced over a significant period of time. The Shamir Dolmen Field is not the only monumental megalithic structure of the Golan. Thirty kilometers to the southeast is the still mysterious Rujm el Hiri megalithic circle, with a diameter of 160 meters. Similar to the Shamir Dolmen Field, Rujm el Hiri is a monumental structure, surrounded by additional megalithic structures overlooking it from the surrounding hills, with no significant settlements in the vicinity. The Rujm el Hiri megalithic tradition is similar, yet not identical, to that of the Shamir dolmen. This similarity may indicate neighboring nomadic socio-political systems, sharing comparable megalithic burial practices as their governmental or ceremonial symbols.

The traditional approach to understanding social complexity s based primarily the magnitude of settlements and their monumental structures. The establishment of the first urban tells in the Levantine Early Bronze indicates a growing social and political organization. The implication, therefore, of abandoned settlements devoid of large urban monumental public structures, is collapse of a cultural system and a socio-political system with little complexity. History, however, has numerous opposing examples. The largest empire of all time, the Mongolian Empire, was established by small groups of nomadic, tent dwellers.

The Shamir Dolmen Field is evidence of a hierarchical, complex society with well-defined burial customs and monumental architectural design, requiring enormous human labor and organization. Complex burial customs, a hierarchical burial system, and symbolic rock art all suggest a much more complex society in the Hula Valley Basin than thought possible in the Intermediate Bronze Age.

Uri Berger is the Archeologist of the Eastern Galilee Region at the Israel Antiquity Authority. Gonen Sharon is Associate Professor at Tel Hai College and co-director of the Shamir Dolmen Rock Art Project


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