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Mystery Circles, Yonathan Mizrachi, BAR 18:04, Jul-Aug 1992.

Rujm el-HiriThe mysterious site of Rogem Hiri (Rujm el-Hiri, in Arabica) was unknown to professional archaeology until after the Six-Day War in 1967 when the Golan Heights became accessible to Israeli archaeologists. It was discovered during the 1967–1968 archaeological survey of the lower Golan Heights.

This unique site consists of five concentric stone circles, the outer one of which is nearly a third of a mile in circumference. In the center is a massive, carefully constructed cairnb over 60 feet in diameter.

The five circles are reasonably well preserved. In places they are nearly 8 feet high and over 10 feet wide. At various points, the concentric walls are connected by radial walls, creating separated spaces. The circular complex has two monumental entryways, one facing northeast and the other southeast.

According to one estimate, the site contains over 125,000 cubic feet of stones, ranging in size from small field stones to massive megaliths weighing several tons.

Hundreds of cairns and dolmensc of various sizes and shapes are clustered around the site. Numerous straight low stone walls create complex geometric patterns in its immediate vicinity.

I first heard of Rogem Hiri in my first year archaeology class at Tel Aviv University. Professor David Ussishkin projected a slide of the site onto the screen; the strange circular structure immediately captured my imagination. In the following weeks I looked everywhere for information about this unusual monument, only to discover that almost nothing was known about it. I knew then that if I ever became an archaeologist, Rogem Hiri would be the first site I would study. Five years later, I directed the first major archaeological exploration of the site.1

Shortly after the site was discovered, several suggestions were tentatively offered regarding its function—a ceremonial center, a defense enclosure, a central storage facility, a large burial complex, a center for astronomical observations and a calendrical device. One scholar2 went so far as to identify the complex as the tomb of Og, the king of Bashan, the last of the race of giants known in the Bible as Rephaim. Og’s iron bedstead, the Bible tells us, was 9 cubits long and such a marvel that it was apparently preserved for later generations (Deuteronomy 3-11).d

Because few sherds or other artifacts could be found on the surface at Rogem Hiri, it has been extremely difficult to date the construction of the site. Most investigators suggested a date somewhere in the third millennium B.C.E.,e although both slightly earlier and later dates were also proposed. These tentative dates were based on fragmentary lithic and ceramic remains found on the surface and, more importantly, on stylistic similarities in construction methods to other third millennium sites in the region.

In the summer of 1988, we launched the first systematic study of the complex. We have now completed four field seasons. From the outset, our Rogem Hiri project was designed as a long-term, problem-oriented, multidisciplinary effort, employing specialists from both the social and natural sciences. The aim of the project was to place the site in a broader cultural context within the region and beyond.

When we began, we were fortunate to have a detailed site plan of the complex drawn by Dr. Mati Zohar of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Mati and his wife Aviva spent several years at Rogem Hiri drawing each and every one of the site’s thousands of stones. On the basis of their site plan and our own field observations, we decided to begin excavating an opening observed in one of the walls in the northeastern gate area. Here we exposed a massive gate that was part of a monumental entryway that extended through three of the concentric circles. The entryway through these walls measured approximately 65 feet by 100 feet. At wall 2, the entryway narrowed to an opening about 12 feet wide. The walls flanking the entryway contained the largest boulders found at the site; the biggest weighed 5.5 tons. Within the entryway, near the gate, a high square building with two flanking walls obstructed the view through the gate. The large number of fallen stones from the building suggests that originally it was high enough to obstruct the view of the central cairn. The floor of the entryway was crudely paved with flat stones covered with layers of beaten earth. In the course of the excavation, we recovered a score of potsherds dating to Early Bronze Age II–III (3050–2300 B.C.E.) and Iron Age II (1000–586 B.C.E.).

While the first season was exploratory, the next marked the beginning of a more systematic study of the complex and included some high-tech methods of investigation. Harvard professor Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky introduced me to two people who would play critical roles at this point in our project- Bruce Heafitz of Heafitz Energy Management, Inc., who is in the oil and gas business and works with his friend Vincent Murphy, a geophysicist with the Weston Geophysical Corporation. These two oil and gas explorers had recently turned their attention to archaeology, using some of the techniques they had been using in the oil business—sonar and radar scanning, magnetometry and infrared photography. They had already utilized these techniques to locate tombs, sunken ships, lost aircraft and buried cities. Heafitz and Murphy were soon convinced to support the Rogem Hiri project.

Several factors made Rogem Hiri ideal for their ground-level remote sensing techniques, including the shallow nature of the site (it is at most 2.5 feet from surface to bedrock) and the high cost of excavation labor due to the megalithic nature of the site’s construction.

In 1989 a group of technicians led by Murphy explored the site with the latest high tech remote sensing technology. The geophysical survey had two goals- (1) to help us locate areas that would be most productive for excavation by identifying subsurface elements and areas with several distinct layers and (2) to help us explore the central cairn to identify where we should excavate and possibly to identify phases in its construction.

Murphy’s team used the latest and most innovative techniques- ground-penetrating radar (GPR),f electromagnetic (EM) measurements, seismic refraction with a seismograph unit, and magnetometer coverage that extended beyond the exterior wall of the complex. Data from the magnetometer survey conducted by Dr. Bernard Yudowitz indicated that the central cairn was built on a naturally elevated basalt formation.

The GPR survey of the central cairn enabled us in effect to look at its internal features, very much like X-rays look through a human body. For several days Murphy’s team dragged the heavy antenna back and forth over the cairn, producing a large number of graphic radar images of its interior. On the basis of the radar data, several targets were identified for excavation. Murphy suspected that the largest one, represented by an almost unnoticeable dark spot in the radar record, was a void, possibly a burial chamber.

The next summer (1990), after calibrating the radar records with actual dimensions of the cairn, we dug a 16- by 16-foot (5- by 5-meter) test pit on the central cairn exactly above the radar-identified target. Excavation here was a risky business. Since we did not know how deep the target was within the cairn, we supported the boundaries of the test pit with heavy sandbags to minimize the danger of collapse. Two lines of workmen carried the excavated stones from the top of the cairn to ground level. Hand to hand the stones were passed along this human chain to the base of the cairn, where donkeys and tractors with trailers were waiting to take the excavated material out of the complex.

Then late one afternoon, the moment that we were all waiting for came. One of the workers cried out- “I can see a dark chamber below; cold air is coming out.” With the help of radar data, we had been able to hit the chamber with remarkable accuracy.

The only thing we could do before sunset was to insert into the small opening a camera equipped with an automatic flash. In this way we shot several rolls of film. Our field photographer, Montana Billings-Kennedy, developed the films in our lab at Kibbutz Afiq. At 2 a.m. we saw for the first time the contents of the chamber.

It was quite disappointing. The chamber was littered with stone rubble, and we saw no artifactual remains.

Early the next morning, excavation resumed. By late afternoon, we got into the chamber. It was a massively constructed, circular megalithic chamber over 6 feet in diameter and nearly 5 feet high. An entrance chamber, or dromos, led into the central chamber. The dromos was over 11 feet long and just over 3.5 feet wide.

The burial chamber walls consisted of six courses of large basalt plates arranged one on top of the other and slanted inward somewhat. The chamber was covered with two massive slabs of basalt, one of which weighed more than 5.5 tons.g

The contents of the chamber and the dromos had apparently been looted in antiquity. No visible remains of bones were detected in the chamber, but later analysis of the soil by geologist Paul Goldberg, using the thin section technique,h revealed fragmentary remains of bone material. Originally the floor of the chamber had been paved, but the paving stones had been forcibly removed by the looters as they plundered the tomb in their search for burial goods.

Despite the extensive plundering of the tomb, however, we did find a few gold earrings, some elongated bronze arrow heads, and about a dozen carnelian beads. Remains of flint blades and ceramics were also recovered. This assemblage points to a date sometime in the Late Bronze Age, between about 1550 and 1200 B.C.E. But these artifacts could represent a secondary use of the cairn in the Late Bronze Age (other megalithic structures in the Golan were found to have been used a second time in later periods, including the Late Bronze Age). If that was the case, the cairn and the concentric walls could have been built contemporaneously in the third millennium B.C.E.

In our 1991 season we tried to resolve this dating puzzle and to understand better the function of the complex. One possibility was that there were additional chambers in the cairn that were undisturbed and that contained datable material. We used a fiberoptic camera to search for additional excavation targets suspected on the basis of the GPR data, but we found nothing. We nevertheless excavated two additional test pits to make sure that this was the case. We had to conclude that no other chambers existed in Rogem Hiri’s main cairn.

The only thing we could do to try to solve the dating problem was to excavate a large area around the central cairn to date the cairn as a whole. We did this in two main areas. In one of the areas we found a substantial amount of Late Bronze pottery, but nothing earlier. We also found a fragment of a Byzantine oil lamp (fourth–seventh centuries C.E.). This oil lamp was found well below the surface in association with the Late Bronze material. This may suggest the date when the burial chamber was looted. The looters apparently took away the valuable burial goods and discarded the ceramic material that had originally been placed in the tomb chamber in the area northeast of the cairn where we had dug our probe.

We also cleared a quadrant of the exterior of the cairn of fallen and displaced stones, thereby exposing the exterior wall of the cairn. In the course of this clearance we found considerable pottery dating to the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age II. The Late Bronze Age activity at the site was substantial and certainly reflects more than just a secondary usage of a preexisting burial chamber. Late Bronze Age remains were dominant not only inside the burial chamber but also all around the central cairn. Well over 95 percent of the ceramics recovered consists of LB material.

But our overall analysis suggests that the cairn was built within a preexisting monumental complex of concentric circles rather than a monumental complex built around a megalithic burial.

We never expected, when we started the project, that this would be the case. Indeed, common sense suggests that the cairn and the circular complex were part of a one-time building effort. However, the construction or a cairn within a preexisting enclosure can find parallels in many sites from the Sinai, the Negev, and from the Early Bronze Age Sha’abaniyeh enclosure near Rogem Hiri. Construction of a cairn within a preexisting complex enhances the protection of the cairn and ensures an unlimited supply of readily available construction material.

How do we conclude that the concentric walls were built earlier, in the Early Bronze Age? First, the potsherds found in the complex’s entryway dating to the Early Bronze Age indicate such a date. Second, in the course of our 1991 excavation outside the cairn, at its base, we exposed at least one wall (lying under the western section of the cairn) that appears to belong to an earlier phase than the cairn itself. Third, our geometrical analysis has shown that the central cairn is situated off-center with respect to the concentric walls of the complex. The approximate center points of the concentric walls all fall to one side (east) of the cairn. This suggests that the cairn was not a center point from which the carefully measured concentric walls were drawn and that the cairn was most probably built after the construction of the concentric walls. Thus the cairn is a megalithic burial structure built within a preexisting circular monumental complex, rather than a monumental complex built around a megalithic burial.

If the concentric walls were built 1,000 years before the central cairn, what function did the earlier construction serve?

In our opinion, Rogem Hiri was a multifunction site. A few Chalcolithic (fourth millennium B.C.E.) sherds indicate that some activity took place here even before the Early Bronze Age. This is not surprising in light of the extensive Chalcolithic presence elsewhere in the central Golan Heights at this time. It is impossible to identify the precise nature and extent of the Chalcolithic activity at Rogem Hiri; indeed, it may even be that the Chalcolithic remains had nothing to do with the complex as we know it.

In the Early Bronze Age (mid-third millennium B.C.E.), a large ceremonial center was erected at Rogem Hiri. The complex reflects care in engineering and design, and there is little doubt that the alignments of the architecture were intentional and meant to symbolize notions of religion and cosmology. They may also have been meant to record culturally significant alignments, such as those associated with the agricultural calendar, by using the entryways and the radial walls as indicators. This Early Bronze Age complex may have had a small burial chamber at its center, but its primary function during the third millennium was ceremonial. We believe that it was built by the urban populations who inhabited the Golan during the third millennium B.C.E. The urban population lived in enclosures like Mithram Leviah, described in “Rediscovered! The Land of Geshur,” in this issue. Similar enclosures to Mithram Leviah have been found all over the central Golan, mostly on strategic locations fortified with massive stone walls. Until recently scholars were puzzled as to the function of these enclosures. Some suggested they were central gathering areas for cattle; others interpreted them as large fortified settlements. The Leviah enclosure for the first time established that these Golan enclosures were in fact used for habitation. The excavations there yielded Early Bronze (I–III) occupational remains wherever the excavators dug.

A systematic study of the astronomical and the geometrical aspects of the complex, as well as associations between the architecture of the complex and celestial events, physical elements in the landscape and local ecology-related phenomena, is being conducted by Professor Anthony Aveni of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Colgate University, and by the author.3 It is clear from analyses of the geometry of the site that whoever built it employed some knowledge of measured proportion. Measurements of the radii of the concentric walls reveal that simple proportionate whole numbers may have been involved in the design of the complex. We are now trying to isolate the unit of measurement and compare it with other documented units of measurement from the Old World. Our as-yet incomplete analysis may detect indirect evidence of cultural interactions. If the unit of measure employed in the construction of Rogem Hiri originated, for example, in Mesopotamia or Egypt, this may suggest cultural connections and may even serve as a chronological indicator.

Moreover, the northeastern entryway into the site is clearly aligned with the June solstice sunrise. Since this long-suspected alignment is somewhat controversial, a word about the methodology employed is in order. The position of celestial bodies with reference to observers from a fixed time-space point on earth changes through the millennia. Hence, any analysis of architectural alignments to celestial bodies must be date specific. Contrary to popular belief, it is impossible to observe the June solstice sunrise from the northeast entryway today. However, equatorial coordinates of selected celestial bodies have been tabulated backward for European sites to 2500 B.C.E. Since an earlier date for the complex is suspected, these equatorial coordinates were extrapolated by Aveni further back to 3500 B.C.E., where they acquire a probability of error of ± 0.5 degree. All of our measurements and analyses were performed with reference to these timespecific coordinates. According to our analysis, if one were to stand at the center of the complex during the June solstice sunrise of 3000 B.C., the first gleam of sunrise would appear at the center of the northeast entryway in the outer wall. Given the same scenario for the same observer after 2000 B.C.E., the first gleam of sunrise would appear way off center of the same entryway. Hence, we may conclude that from the Middle Bronze Age to the present, Rogem Hiri could not have functioned as a predictive device for the June solstice. This tends to confirm an Early Bronze date for the construction of the walls.

Our analyses also leads us to suggest that the radial walls of the complex are best understood as alignment fixing devices for both celestial and non-celestial phenomena.i

The peak of Mt. Hermon is perched almost exactly to the cardinal north of the center of Rogem Hiri, which may have been symbolically significant. Apart from this, horizon features offer little help in determining whether local inhabitants actually used the complex as an anticipatory solar horizon calendar.

But what was the function of these alignments? The socioeconomic, the political and ideological implications of mastering celestial and astronomical knowledge have been widely discussed in literature dealing with European megaliths and with pre-Columbian Mesoamerican and Andean cultural configurations. This literature emphasizes the importance of astronomical alignments in the context of ritual observation and the establishment of a calendrical system for administrative and agricultural purposes. Although we are just beginning to assess the cultural implications of the astronomical alignments associated with Rogem Hiri, it seems likely that the alignments at the complex played a similar role here.

The Early Bronze Age complex at Rogem Hiri teaches us a great deal about the urban population of the Golan at this time. Clearly, a society that could erect this ceremonial complex had the ability and the knowledge to plan and execute construction on a colossal scale. It must have been a hierarchical and economically stable society in order to plan, organize, coordinate and execute such a long-term, labor-intensive project. Over 42,000 tons of basalt stones were brought to the site, ranging from small field stones to massive megaliths weighing several tons. We estimate that it would take 100 workmen working eight hours a day, six days a week, over six years at a minimum to build this complex. Was this communal work compulsory or voluntary? Temporary or permanent? Was it organized by shamans, priests or by a relatively secular leadership? By a headman or, perhaps, by a king? Unfortunately, the archaeological record is silent on these questions.

I mentioned the large dolmen fields carefully arranged around the complex at Rogem Hiri. Many other dolmen fields exist on the Golan Heights as well as in the Galilee to the west. Their date is a matter of some dispute. If the Golan dolmens are viewed as Early Bronze Age cemeteries as has been suggested by Lipaz Vinitzky,4 then the dolmen fields near Rogem Hiri may be interpreted as a natural contemporaneous cultural extension of the Rogem Hiri complex. If, on the other hand, we accept Claire Epstein’s dating for the dolmen fields around Rogem Hiri to Middle Bronze I (2200–2000 B.C.E.) then they may represent the preservation of earlier (Early Bronze) sacred traditions associated with this late third millennium site. Only future excavations of the dolmen fields in the immediate vicinity of Rogem Hiri can resolve this interesting problem.

In the Late Bronze Age (late second millennium B.C.E.), the central cairn was built in its present form. This date for the central cairn raises the question of its cultural and historical contexts. At that time, the archaeological record reflects the absence of any urban form of settlement (and for that matter of any substantial settlement remains at all) in the Golan. The second-millennium textual evidence—including the Tale of Sinuhe, the Execration Texts and the El Amarna Texts—is consistent with the archaeological record. All this clearly indicates that during this period the Golan was populated by seminomadic populations whose primary mode of subsistence was based on pastoralism. Only by the 11th century B.C.E. did the cultural entities in this region consolidate to become the small Biblical kingdoms of Geshur and Maacah.

Given this archaeological and historical data for second-millennium Golan, the only populations who could have erected the central cairn of Rogem Hiri were the pastoral and seminomads who inhabited the central Golan throughout this period. Indeed, many scholars now consider similar pastoralists responsible for the large dolmen fields east of the Jordan River and the massive cairn and tumulus structures throughout the Arabian Peninsula.

Sometime after the Late Bronze Age, Rogem Hiri ceased functioning as a ceremonial/burial site. Its primary function shifted—the large stone complex became a source of construction material, a cattle pen, a storage place and perhaps even a defense post. The site was well known to the local inhabitants. But it was not known to the outside world until it was rediscovered in 1968.

a. Rujm el-Hiri means “stone heap of the wild cat.” We do not have any satisfactory explanation for the origin of this unusual name which was adopted by the survey team from old Syrian military maps captured after the 1967 war.

b. A cairn (or a tumulus) is a heap of stones covering an above-ground burial chamber.

c. A dolmen (from Breton dol = table and men = stone) is a form of megalithic burial chamber made up of an immense capstone supported by several upright stones arranged to form a sort of enclosure or chamber. Some dolmens were originally covered by a pile of stones (a cairn).

d. See Alan R. Millard, “King Og’s Iron Bed—Fact or Fancy?” BR 06-02. Another name given to the site is Gilgal Rephaim. Although completely unfounded, it is nonetheless interesting. Gilgal is the Biblical term for a circle of stones, and Rephaim is the name of a legendary race of giant people who, according to the Bible, lived in the Bashan region (the Biblical name of the Golan).

e. B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era), used by this author, are the alternate designations corresponding to B.C. and A D. often used in scholarly literature.

f. See Dan Cole, “Hi-Tech Archaeology- Ground Penetrating Radar,” BAR 14-01).

g. This construction can be described as a semicorbelled dome. A number of medium size field stones positioned between the lower course of the dromos wall and bedrock raise the possibility of an earlier construction phase.

h. The thin section technique involves the removal of a thin slice of material from an artificially cemented block of soil for the purpose of examining it under a petrological microscope. The technique can be used to identify micro elements (such as organic and chipped stone material) in soil samples taken from archaeological contexts and hence to suggest the type of activities that took place in the areas from which the soil samples were taken.

i. If the radial walls were astronomically aligned, we might expect fewer of them as we approach the northern axis of alignment because in this region most of the stars are circumpolar; that is, they neither rise nor set. This is precisely what we find at Rogem Hiri. In the northern portion of the complex (azimuth zone between 325° and 35°, a span of 70° of the horizon) there is only a single radial wall. Moreover, the positioning of the radial walls results in the least efficient movement within the complex possible. Hence, their positioning cannot be understood on functional grounds, such as storage room walls, defense walls, or dividers between residential and other socio-economic related units. Finally, there is no archaeological evidence that such compartments ever were occupied or were used for storage.

1. Yonathan Mizrachi (Department of Anthropology, Peabody Museum, Harvard University) directs the exploration of the site as part of the Land of Geshur Project of the Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University, directed by Professor Moshe Kochavi and Professor Pirhiya Beck (Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University). Professor Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky of Harvard University is contributing his advice and support to the exploration efforts of the site. The project is sponsored by the Peabody Museum and the Department of Anthropology, Harvard University; the Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University; and by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Benefactors from the U.S. and from Israel are sponsoring the excavation effort- Bruce Heafitz sponsored the 1988 geophysical survey at the site and part of the 1990 excavation efforts, Dr. Bernard Yudowitz and Vincent Murphy sponsored, consulted and physically participated in the 1989 and 1991 seasons. The 1991 season was sponsored by the Israel Antiquities Authority, by a National Science Foundation dissertation improvement grant and by the city of Qazrin, Golan Heights. Fiberoptic equipment for the 1991 season was provided by the Olympus Corporation, U.S.A. Mr. Murphy from Weston Geophysical Corporation, Westboro, Maine, is heading the geophysical exploration efforts. S. Lev-Yadun of the Department of Botany at Tel Aviv University coordinates the environmental research. The archaeoastronomical study of the site is conducted by Prof. A. Aveni of Colgate University, New York and sponsored by the magazine Masa Acher, Tel Aviv. Mr. H. Hasoon and his skilled crew of excavation workers played a key role in the excavation and stone removal efforts. W. Kennedy is the chief architect of the project. Additional survey work was conducted by M. Zohar, J. Dekel, Y. Teper, and G. Covo. The whole project was shot on video, Kaethe Fine (1989), Bernard Yudowitz (1990) and Zvika Arav (1991) are the video photographers. Photographers are Montana Billings-Kennedy and Nikolai Trachanov.

2. Yehuda Ziv, in Drom Hagolan (1972), ed. E. Meltzer, pp. 82–86 (in Hebrew).

3. The study is being sponsored by the magazine Masa Acher, Tel Aviv, Israel.

4. Lipaz Vinitzky, “The Date of the Dolmens in the Golan and Galilee—a Reassessment,” Eretz-Israel 21 (1991), pp. 167–173 (in Hebrew with English summary).

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