The 6,000-year history of the Negev Desert is set in stone – Atlas Obscura | Candle Made Easy

plintLior erchweimer was the first to discover the World of Negev Desert Rock Art one summer ago 10 years ago. “I was preparing to give a lecture,” says the southern district archaeologist at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, “and decided to look again at a rock I had seen before that had an ibex carved on it. I went to a small valley and saw some petroglyphs. I kept walking and saw a few more, not many.”

Then he followed the valley known as Nahal Le’ana around a curve. “I found myself on a slope with hundreds of rocks, each carved with symbols, figures, inscriptions, and shapes in dozens of different hues and patterns,” he recalls. “I wandered among the rocks and felt as if I had opened an invisible door to a vast library in the middle of the desert.”

The Negev is home to thousands upon thousands of rocks adorned with carvings, sometimes in isolated places like Har Karkom and sometimes in the midst of modernity. Har Mihya Park, for example, is a hill covered in cairns carved with ancient ibex and camels. On one side a visitor can see the flesh and blood camels, tin huts and canvas tents of the Bedouin Yahala desert camp and on the other side the guest huts of Aurelia Farm. Not far from there, the Carmey Avdat Farm produces Chardonnay and Merlot.

A modern carving of a man and woman holding hands. Courtesy of Davida Eisenberg-Degen

The window of Negev rock art opens onto the cultural and spiritual world of the people who have lived in the desert – hunters, herdsmen, itinerant merchants – since at least the fifth millennium BC. It’s part history book, part art gallery – the story of people in one place, written and drawn into the landscape itself.

“The carvers have been in dialogue with each other for thousands of years,” says Davida Eisenberg-Degen, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority who studies the carvings. “We see people from different eras painting into older carvings or putting symbols and animals next to them. We suspect that this is an act that expresses identification, belonging and familiarity.”

“On the other hand,” says Schweimer, “we also see negative interactions. We discovered many carvings in which daggers, which served as a mark of identity, were obliterated. The deletion is an act of protest. It is possible that the old Negev was controlled [for a time] from copper traders. After they left, tribes took over and erased the identity marks of their oppressors. In any case, this is a conversation that spans 6,000 years.”

What makes the desert such a unique canvas are the rocks themselves. They are covered in a thick, dark patina that forms when the surface interacts with oxygen, water, and sunlight. Researchers examined the surface using X-ray fluorescence to study its mineral and chemical properties. “There are bacteria in the rock,” explains Schweimer. “They adsorb iron from the rock and manganese from the dust in the air and fix them.

“If you pick at the patina with a sharp tool, you’ll find limestone underneath,” he adds. “Many pick points create a carving.” Scientists can examine the manganese of the patina to date it, but it’s also easy enough for a visitor to guess the relative age of a carving by how dark the patina on the carving itself has become . The darker the carving looks, the older it is, which can make interpreting the oldest of the carvings difficult.

A leopard is among the unusual animal images researchers have found.
A leopard is among the unusual animal images researchers have found. Courtesy of Lior Schweimer

“The oldest drawing we have found is an early Bronze Age carving of ibex. The older the carving, the richer and more detailed we see the artistic world. At that point, drawing was a ritual activity, the carver was trained to do it, and the tribe would gather to witness it,” says Schweimer. “[Later] Carvings were made by copper traders who rode into Egypt from Mesopotamia, Bahrain or Jordan. A carving of an ox or a lion, [animals] which never existed here, was made by a Mesopotamian or Egyptian merchant and gives the approximate course of the copper trade route. Later we see carvings of Roman soldiers or a shepherd who happened to pass by and wanted to leave his mark.”

“In the last few centuries it’s been Bedouins,” says Eisenberg-Degen, who has mapped these more recent Bedouin works. “Bedouin tribes traversed the desert from the east, west and mainly south, and the carvings they left behind show us how Bedouin culture has changed: in earlier times a Bedouin tribe was a collective, and its symbol appears identically in carvings from the same Interval. During the farming period, some groups became more segmented and began to work separate plots. The symbols of the tribes also branched out. For example, the symbol of the Azazme tribe initially appears as an arrow. Later, the arrow has a longer horizontal line or looks like a door with a long lintel.”

Tribal Symbols Used As <em>wusum</em> are known, testify to the continued presence of Bedouins in the desert.  ” width=”auto” data-kind=”article-image” id=”article-image-90251″ src=”https://img.atlasobscura.com/tgDqdc4Ac7E0q6qAf8hnqiR7eAH323OD1brbqaSRH8k/rt:fill/w:1200/el:1 /q:81/sm:1/scp:1/ar:1/aHR0cHM6Ly9hdGxh/cy1kZXYuczMuYW1h/em9uYXdzLmNvbS91/cGxvYWRzL2Fzc2V0/cy9mNTZiODQ0NTU4/MDI1YWI4YTRfQSBy/b2NrIHdpdGggV3Vz/dW0gc2lnbnMgLSBM/aW9yLmpwZw.jpg”/><figcaption class=Tribal symbols known as Wusum testify to the continued presence of Bedouins in the desert. Courtesy of Lior Schweimer

The oldest carvings depict animals that had spiritual significance related to hunting and fertility. The most common motif among them, the ibex, has survived to this day. “It’s always a male ibex and almost always in heat, and it’s found in areas of the desert where ibex have never lived,” says Schweimer. In certain mythologies, animals such as ibexes taught humans survival skills, and some served as spiritual guides. Uzi Avner, a senior researcher from the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center, suggested that Capricorn symbolizes the cycle of life and death, perhaps as a deity who dies and rises again, and is also related to rain and fertility.

About 8,000 years ago, Negev people began domesticating goats and the region’s pastoral culture was born. According to Schweimer, “The domestic camel first appeared in the Negev during the Iron Age, and camel carvings first appear during this period. Next we see horse and donkey carvings.”

Ibex are by far the most common desert animal, but with domestication came others, including camels.
Ibex are by far the most common desert animal, but with domestication came others, including camels. Courtesy of Lior Schweimer

“So far I’ve reviewed nearly 15,000 panels with more than 50,000 carvings,” says Schweimer, who is in the final stages of his PhD. In general, he focuses on the carvings of human figures. Historically, these examples appear after the first animal carvings and in hunting scenes or when hands are raised to the sky. In Byzantine carvings they can represent a person carrying a cross or holding a chalice.

During the early Islamic period, the desert is filled with camel carvings, etched tribal symbols and written inscriptions due to the ban on human representation. According to Eisenberg-Degen, most Bedouins living in the Negev today cannot recognize the ancient tribal symbols carved on the rocks, but still carry on the great tradition of Negev carving – a tradition that has always reflected the world around them.

Modern images, such as this one of a car, stand for a millennia-old continuity.
Modern images, such as this one of a car, stand for a millennia-old continuity. Courtesy of Davida Eisenberg-Degen

“We found carvings of a Volkswagen Beetle and a Jeep from the 1950s,” she says. “There are airplane carvings next to an air force base, heart carvings, and board games. There are inscriptions in Arabic and some in Hebrew and English – all by Bedouins. Carvings of women who, like the male shepherds, began adding their names can also be seen in the last 50 years.

“As archaeologists, we usually unearth buried finds, and our job is to understand where they came from and what they were used for,” she continues. “On the other hand, when we study carvings, we understand exactly what happened at that moment. We see where the person was sitting, what they were looking at and what they were thinking about at that moment.”

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