Searching for Dolmens

Ancient Art

The second season of the NEAF-funded "North Jordan Tomb Project" was successfully conducted for six weeks in late 2007. The season surveyed the ridge of Tell er-Ras on the north side of the Wadi Rayyan, which flows into the north Jordan Valley. Several hundred megalithic cairn-tombs and dolmens (which the locals call "houses of ghosts") are found along this ridge, and these burial monuments are thought to be constructed by ancient nomads.

We surveyed 106 dolmens and 78 cairn-tombs, and were able to document several different tomb-types. In addition, we recorded over 10 Roman-Byzantine period wine-presses hewn into the limestone bedrock. Upon completion of the survey, we cleaned one dolmen of its robber spoil, finding bones from at least one adult and one juvenile. We then sounded six cairn-tombs, uncovering some remarkable internal structures. One example was of a type never before recorded in the Levant: beneath its rubble tumulus lay an intricate network of curved and L-shaped walls enclosing a small cave. This cave contained several flat-lying flint slabs that were probably the base of a robbed-out burial chamber. However, the most common cairn type consisted of a circular ring-wall of large limestone and flint boulders that contained a tumulus of small rocks. In one example we uncovered a rectangular stone-lined chamber beneath the tumulus, although it too was robbed out.

Architectural parallels with tombs elsewhere in the Levant suggest that the monuments date to the Early Bronze Age (about 5000 years ago). Nevertheless, the variety of cairn-tombs may indicate that the area was used as a monumental cemetery for centuries, or even millennia. While the project has now established a basic typology of tomb types found in the area, it is important that each type is accurately dated, and we plan to return to Jordan in 2009 to continue excavations.

-Jamie Fraser
University of Sydney

The photograph of one of the surveyed dolmens (right) is by Adam Carr.

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