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9 November 2011
Was Holy Land prehistoric site used for 'sky burials'?

A new interpretation has been postulated for a prehistoric site, known in Arabic as Rujm Al-Hiri. The site is located in the Golan Heights, between Israel and Syria, and only came to notice after Israel captured the area from Syria in 1968. Even now, because of its location in this disputed territory and the possibility of walking through an old minefield, very few visitors have ventured to view its wonders.
     From the ground very little is visible from a distance but if you take to the air its full glory is revealed with 4 massive concentric stone circles, the outer of which is over 240 metres across. It is believed that these circles were once walls reaching a height of 14-15 metres, at which point a massive 42,000 tonnes of stone would have been used in their construction. The site is dated at approximately 4,000 BCE, during the Chalcolithic Period.
     Several theories have been proposed for the meaning of the site, some more believable than others. The structures could not have been used for either defensive or settlement purposes and they are not strategically placed, so the obvious solution is for a form of ritual practice. Some of the more believable theories include an astronomical temple or observatory and a burial complex. The wilder ideas vary from the location of the tomb of the Biblical giant 'Og', to a healing centre with supernatural energy fields.
     The latest idea, however, is much more feasible. Archaeologist Rami Arav, of the University of Nebraska, USA, has been studying the Chalcolithic civilisation, of which this site is a remnant. The Chalcolithic people practiced a type of burial known as 'sky burial'. This comprises leaving the body exposed to the elements, so that birds and vultures could pick the bones clean of flesh. When this process was completed the bones were then placed in small boxes or ossuaries.
     Arav reached these conclusions after studying the site at Rujm Al-Hiri and similar structures used by the Zoroastrians in India and Iran. He also discovered a copper cylinder at a Chalcolithic site near the Dead Sea, which had an opening like a gate and which depicted birds ready to swoop. Whilst this is a highly plausible theory no hard evidence has yet been found is support.

Edited from Popular Archaeology (29 October 2011), Associated Press (2 November 2011)

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