Stones and Bones

Some people’s impression of Israel is Stones and Bones.  And indeed, for a country which has built with stone for millenia, and who celebrates her residents of the past, stones and bones is not a far-fetched description of Israel.  Four-thousand years ago, stones and bones were also important.

In the fields outside of Kibbutz Shamir in the Upper Galilee, Moshe Kagan explored and mapped the unique bronze-age. table-like structures called dolmens in the 1950’s.  Dolmens have been found from Korea to Ireland and consist of a millenia-old megalithic stone table surrounded by a heap of stones.  They most often are found in dolmen fields – concentrations of many dolmens located near each other.  Their use is unknown but most associate them with tombs.

Recently, Professor Gonen Sharon of Tel Chai College in Kiryat Shmoneh went to the dolmen field in Kibbutz Shamir to examine one especially unique dolmen.  Unlike the thousands of dolmens found in the Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights, this one is especially huge – a large central dolmen stands in a field of stones (tumulus) which includes 4 smaller dolmens.  The stones gathered around the central monument spread in a 20 meter radius and weigh an estimated 400 tons. The table stone of this particular dolman weighs about 50 tons!

Besides its size, researchers recently have discovered another feature not found in any other dolmens in Israel – artistic engravings.  Professor  Sharon entered the 2 x 3 meter central chamber of the large central dolmen in the Kibbutz Shamir field and looked up.  Meeting his eye was an arc of 15 drawings.  No parallels for the shapes he saw have been found in the middle east and their significance is unknown. dolmen engraving

This dolmen field has been dated to the intermediate Bronze Age (2200-2000 B.C.E.) during which we see a general decline of society.  The large cities of the Middle Bronze Age disappear and, until recently, the current theory was the civilization took a step back.  This dolmen, its size, its organization and now its art, is starting to paint a different story.  To erect such a monument, a society would need to have some sort of complex government and economy as well as some knowledge of engineering and architecture, which are generally not present in small nomadic groups.

The discovery of the engravings leaves more questions in its wake. Who made the engravings and for what purpose?  And if, indeed, this dolmen is a tomb, then who was the leader who was ensconced in this eternal monument? and what role did he/she have in this mysterious time in history?

“The more we learn, the more we realize how little we know.”


Turtle Soup

Turtles are one of the first wild creatures to which kids have a connection. It is a wild animal that moves slowly enough on land that any fairly coordinated 3-year old can capture it. Additionally, its ability to retract its head and legs makes it a custom crafted “toy” for the younger set. My summer vacations in northern Minnesota inevitably including taking our turtles into town for a race, an interesting endeavor since turtles neither move quickly nor care about getting to the finish line.

As we grow older, we learn that turtles are some of the most ancient animals alive today. As soon as early humans found turtle meat under those hard shells, turtles began to be hunted and eaten. One million years ago in Africa, people hunted and ate turtles. As they moved out of Africa, they took their hunting skills with them. In the Qesem Cave, tortoise shells attest to their inclusion in the prehistoric human diet 400,000 years ago.

turtleResearcher Rebecca Biton, who 3 years ago discovered an extinct frog species in the Hula Valley in northern Israel, has been examining sites there for signs of amphibious life. She discovered in a Middle Paleolithic site (60,000 years ago), next to the paleo-Lake Hula, evidence of hunting of the freshwater Western Caspian Turtle which is indigenous to Israel. Sixty bones from sites in this area have been identified as having been from freshwater turtles.

Interestingly, when we think of harvesting food from lakes, we first think of fishing, not hunting. Fishing, however, only started in the Upper Paleolithic era, 40,000 years ago. These turtle bones predate fishing and suggest that freshwater turtles were hunted in the water much as their cousins, Mediterranean Spur-Thighed Tortoises, were hunted on land. Both land and freshwater species have been found by Biton in various sites in the area.

Protein requirements consisted mostly of  deer, gazelles and cows during the Middle Paleolithic period in Israel.  There is some thought that turtles provided a sort of “canned food” option which rounded out people’s diet.  Everyone likes some variety in what they eat – even thousands of years ago.

Considered a delicacy in some Chinese communities today, Turtle Soup was apparently also enjoyed by our human ancestors in Israel 40,000 years ago.

Neglect at the Spring

I write so often of settlement – studying settlement and learning about the past, but we forget that settlement is also destructive. A place which has been continuously settled waves a checkered flag for archaeologists – “Dig here and you will uncover the past!” – but those same settlements also cloak the past and destroy it. Ancient building was disassembled for later use, ruining structures while marking the place.

One site which escaped destruction by settlement was uncovered in the past few years with the aid of modern technology around Tel Yizrael, in the Galilee.

So much archaeology has been focused on this tel, site of the biblical city of Jezreel. Tel Yizrael was continuously occupied until today, and as such, is not only studied but confused by the destruction which comes with settlement. Stones from the biblical period were used by the Romans. There was a Byzantine settlement described there in the writings of Eusebius. The Crusader castle of LaPetit Gerin (Small Jenin) took advantage of the detritus of the past in its construction. All of the building materials were incorporated into an Ottoman village which claimed that its tower was from the times of King Ahab (and perhaps some of the stones were).  After that village was abandoned during Israel’s Independence War, it was replaced by the kibbutz of today, which only built over part of the ancient tel. Layers of different civilizations mixed together due to repeated settlement making for a rich site, but also a headache for ein yizrael 1

Recent finds have focused on an additional settlement down the hill around the Jezreel Spring, Ein Yizrael, which has remained untouched since the 7th century C.E. (We see in the photo the trees around the spring, and to the right, the area of the tel.)  Tel Ein Yizrael was first settled around 5000 B.C.E., predating by 1000 years the city on the top of the tel. Like Tel Yizrael, this settlement enjoyed the location at the junction of the main superhighway connecting Egypt and Mesopotamia and the local route, the Spine Route, connecting the cities in Israel’s hill country.  It also benefited from close proximity to the spring.  The largest settlement period was during the time of the large cities, 3300-2200 B.C.E. However, since the 7th century C.E., Tel Ein Yizrael has been abandoned. Whether is was the earthquake of 632, or a change in political climate with the conquest by the Moslems, or global warming, the residents of Tel Ein Yizrael left their town and their fields. Because no buildings were erected or plow was drawn over the site, it remained for archaeologist Nehemia Tzuri to be the first to discover this settlement in the 1950’s. He did not dig here at all and left that work for archaeologists Norma Franklin and Jennie Ebeling to come with modern aerial imaging, following an ancient footpath from Tel Yizrael to once again look into this window to the past. Since 2012, Tel Ein Yizrael has been giving up its secrets to the archaeologists, after being well preserved by centuries of neglect.

Walking around Israel we are aware of the many settlements from the past which are visible to the eye, but those which are hidden and neglected are still keeping their secrets.

History Set in Stone

Geology tends to be one of those subject you need to learn for the Tour Guide test, but which everyone dreads. Rocks were formed over periods of time which are difficult to grasp and change over similarly unfathomable time frames. Rocks are not alive, go through no changes, and do not interact with anything intentionally. Let’s face it, stones are….boring.

Genesis pushes us to walk the land of Israel and learn about it in order to gain a deeper appreciation and connect us to it. How can studying dead, cold rocks connect you to a place?

When you go around to different sites in Israel, one common thread that stands out is that the building here have been constructed throughout the ages from stone. The climate here is not conducive for massive forests to provide wood, nor are mud bricks a good long-term option for the downpours in the winter; stone became the building material of choice. Good news for us today, as rock structures last a long time and hundreds and thousands of years later we can reconstruct buildings from long ago.

capenaum-kfar-nahumStones can also give us clues as to the people who used the buildings. One place geology and rocks shed light on history is in the synagogue in Kfar Nahum. This impressive synagogue from the 4th/5th century has been reconstructed to its original size. It was constructed of white limestone, the most common stone in Israel, which occurs in many areas, but not here in Kfar Nahum. The entire rest of the town which has been preserved as it was more or less between the 1st and 4th century C.E. was made of the local stone, black basalt; and right there, in the center stood a white limestone massive synagogue.

We know that this town was populated at the time by Romans and Christians as well as Jews. The Christian Byzantine emperor, Theodosius II, made an edict in 423 C.E. stating that Jews were not allowed to build any new synagogues. Is this a case of an extant limestone building being moved lock, stock and barrel from somewhere else? Did the Jewish community of the town want a “designer” synagogue which would stand out in the town? One can only imagine the expense that went into the erection of the white synagogue here, the massive stones which needed to be moved from somewhere else, somewhere where limestone is found, to be placed here. The non-Jews living here at the time may not have felt so positively about this beautiful white synagogue being erected in their black basalt town.

I remember bringing my children here for the first time – children who were brought up in a religious Jewish environment.  Here, in Kfar Nahum, looking at the white synagogue in the black town, one can start to understand the world of the Mishnah and the Talmud.  For Christians, seeing the lavish synagogue can shed light on the social inequalities which fueled Jesus’ teachings.

Michaelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the test of the sculptor to discover it.” In Israel, every stone has a story inside of it and if you are attentive, even the actual rocks can give you their insights.

Board Crusaders

“I’m bored,” is a phrase uttered by children and a thorn in the side of many overwhelmed parents.  How can children be bored when there is always so much work to do?  When my children told me they were bored, I answered, “Excellent!  That is your brain signalling you to do something else.”  Of course, if they needed suggestions, I was happy to supply them with any number of household tasks. They usually, when faced with the choices, were able to busy themselves, very often with games.  We are a family who loves their games and in that sense are not much different from Crusader knights.  It’s amazing that in the modern world of computers, ample free-time, and massive technology that people still get bored.  How much more knights stationed at the Crusader fortress of Montfort.  I have written before about Montfort here, but I want to focus on the lives of the knights and the governor who were stationed here as seen through archaeological finds.

Montfort defended nothing, is surrounded by no farmland, and is located on no road.   Despite this relative solitude, it was built to the highest standards of luxury for its time.  The head of the Teutonic order, for which it served as a base, lived here and tried his best to stay out of the way of the Italians and Hospitalliers in Akko.  There was nothing to do here, and surely the knights were bored.  Recent archaeologic finds give us some answers to what the residents of Montfort did with their time.

Many pig bones were found among the castle ruins.  Were some of their eating habits linked to boredom?  Perhaps.  One of the remains left by Crusaders in all of their castles was a large refectory or dining hall, where Crusaders could gather and whittle away the hours.  We know that unlike the Jews and the Moslems, pigs were enjoyed thoroughly by the Christian Crusaders.

Another finding from Montfort is a Nine Men’s Morris game board. This game was invented at least 1000 years before the Crusaders during the Roman period.  Although it is a solvable game, it is complex enough to take some skill to master.  Nine Men’s Morris isn’t a long game and so can be finished rather quickly if duty calls, which would make it attractive to knights keeping watch. It was a board game for bored Crusaders.9mens-morris

I tend to think that people in the past are pretty much like people today.  It is interesting that Crusaders living 800 years ago in today’s Upper Galilee region turned to games to fill time and connect to others similar to how my family uses games today.

And playing games has always been much more fun than dusting.

Nearby sites:

-Akko Knights halls
-Park Goren
-Yechiam fortress