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AP ENTERPRISE: Grisly theory for Holy Land mystery

By Matti Friedman

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Nov. 3 2011 1:40 a.m. MDT

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."

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