An AP news story summarizes an article by Rami Arav in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
A newly proposed solution to an ancient enigma is reviving debate about the nature of a mysterious prehistoric site that some call the Holy Land’s answer to Stonehenge.
Some scholars believe the structure of concentric stone circles known as Rujm al-Hiri was an astrological temple or observatory, others a burial complex. The new theory proposed by archaeologist Rami Arav of the University of Nebraska links the structure to an ancient method of disposing of the dead.
Most scholars have identified Rujm al-Hiri as some kind of ritual center, with some believing it connected to astronomical calculations. Archaeologist Yonathan Mizrahi, one of the first to excavate there, found that to someone standing in the very center of the circles on the morning of the summer solstice in 3000 B.C., “the first gleam of sunrise would appear at the center of the northeast entryway in the outer wall.”
Just like England’s Stonehenge — thought to date to around 3000 B.C. at the earliest — Rujm al-Hiri has also provided fodder for ideas of a less scientific sort. One posits the site is the tomb of the Biblical giant known as Og, king of the Bashan. There is indeed a tomb in the center of the site, but scholars tend to agree it was added a millennia or two after the circles were erected.
Arav theorizes that the site was used for excarnation or sky burial. A corpse was exposed so that vultures could pick the bones clean before secondary burial in an ossuary.
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 [1 Sam 17:46], 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.”
This is an interesting article, but I’m not so sure it’s necessary to have excarnation in the background in order to understand David’s threat.
Access to the original BAR article is available with a subscription.
UPDATE: Shmuel Browns has posted some of his thoughts on the proposal in BAR.