New archaeological finds add to the debate on the hypothesis that
the Mountain Har Karkom, in the north
(to be published in: Walter Baricchi, Har Karkom, a guide to major sites, Capo di Ponte [Edizioni del Centro], 2005).
is the north of the
In 1980, we came back to this mountain, and
started the archaeological survey which is still in progress. Meanwhile, the mountain
had acquired the Israeli name of Har Karkom, which means the Mount of Saffron. In December 1983,
after four years of fieldwork, the data collected suggested the identification
of Har Karkom with the biblical
Year after year, new discoveries are made. In 1992, a “Palaeolithic sanctuary”, likely to be the oldest sanctuary known in the Near East, stimulated new considerations on the history and meaning of this mountain. It became clear that it has been a place of cult for millennia. In 1993, geoglyphs were discovered on the mountain. They are drawings made of alignments of stones on the ground, which may have large dimensions. Some of them are geometric shapes, others represent anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures. Some of them are over 30m long. They are best seen from the air and they are considered to be human offerings to an invisible celestial entity, by the desert people of the Chalcolithic and the Bronze Age.
In 1994, a peculiar discovery concerned a cave,
which was inhabited by a solitary human being in the Bronze Age.
After over 20 years of survey, the area of investigation of 200 sq.km counts today over 1,200 archaeological sites. In 1980, nothing was known of the archaeology of this area, except for the 10 rock art sites that we discovered in 1954. Over 20 years of fieldwork in the area of Har Karkom has involved scholars and experts from five continents and from various disciplines: anthropologists, archaeologists, architects, art historians, biblical scholars, geologists, epigraphists, historians, historians of religions, palaeo-botanists, paleclimatologists, prehistorians and theologists. Several excavations have been carried on including living sites, shrines and tumuli.
One of the excavations, co-ordinated by Flavio Barbiero, has uncovered a cistern for the collection of water, on an isolated peak about 5km northwest of the Har Karkom plateau. In the cistern, Early Bronze Age pottery was found. The presence of this cistern, on the peak of a stone mountain, adds another to the many mysteries which still concern the mountain. Nearby there are some standing menhirs (orthostats), so that one can suppose that the cistern served a cult site.
Another excavation, co-ordinated by Valerio Manfredi, was
undertaken on a mountain which is
approximately 8 km south of Har Karkom. It is a prominent peak, dominating the
Another excavation, also co-ordinated by Valerio Manfredi, concerned a tumulus located on the eastern edge of Har Karkom in a prominent place. The tumulus shows its profile from many miles away. It was thought at first that the tumulus would contain a burial of an important person. However, nothing has come out during the removal of several cubic metres of stones. The team of excavators wished to stop the excavation when something strange was noticed. At the centre of the structure, lying on a large rectangular boulder which was lying on the bed rock, early people had laid down a calcareous white stone, intentionally shaped into a semicircle. The stone is 60cm long, about 10cm thick and weighs approximately 44 kg. Near to that stone an Early Bronze Age flint fan scraper of was found. The tumulus is visible from far away and it was supposed that this is a testimonial tumulus, a kind of monument that is mentioned in the Pentateuch, as Gal-ed. According to biblical narrations these monuments are built to commemorate an event, or as a testimony of agreement, or to dedicate a site (Gen 31, 43-45, Joshua 7, 25-26; 8,28-29).
This tumulus of black stones, was constructed to host a white stone, intentionally shaped by man as a crescent, lying on a boulder. After debate it was concluded that this was a dedicatory monument, a Gal-ed, by which the desert people of the Early Bronze Age, dedicated the mountain to the moon or rather to the Moon God, Sin.
possible relation between Har Karkom and the Moon God Sin had already been
hypothesised by the team studying rock art, on the grounds of numerous figures
of ibex in cult scenes. The ibex, with
its horns symbolising the moon, is somehow connected with the God Sin. These representations seem to indicate the
importance that the cult of the God Sin had on this mountain in the Bronze Age.
The figure of the ibex is often accompanied by a pair of footprints, which
appear to indicate worship of adoration. It is also sometimes depicted on
altar-stones, stones upon which there are cup marks, or man-made cupolas on
flat surfaces. The depiction of the ibex is likely to indicate the connection
between the sacrifices and this animal. A study by Rosetta Bastoni
(1997), stresses the possibility that the name Sinai would derive
etymologically from the name Sin, thus
Despite the fact that Har Karkom is only 847m
above sea level, and 1246m above the actual level of the
The Palaeolithic “sanctuary” (HK/86b) belongs to the beginning of the production of blade-industry, to a phase called “Karkomian culture”, which is earlier than the local Aurignacian; it is likely to be between 30.000 and 40,000 years old. In it, there are about 40 anthropomorphic orthostats made from flint, some of them are over 1m high. It is located in a small valley, on the edge of the eastern precipice of the mountain. Smaller figurines of flint have also been found, as well as remains of geoglyphs. From this sanctuary, we may presume that Har Karkom is likely to have been a sacred mountain from the moment it was visited by Homo Sapiens for the very first time. The Palaeolithic sanctuary has always remained exposed and visible in the course of millennia.
The cult sites on the mesa are mainly of the BAC period (an abbreviation of the Bronze Age Complex), which includes the Chalcolithic, the Early Bronze Age and the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age and covers from ca. 4,300 to 2,000 BC. The material culture, in particular the flint industry, maintains the same general characters throughout the various phases of this period. The society and the way of living seems to have kept similar trends based on a pastoral and hunting economy. Some of the hamlets and of the flint implements may indicate the presence of wheat agriculture. At the foot of the mountain several shrines, alignments of menhirs, and other cult structures of the same period, have been recorded near the living sites. There are also later cult sites, including a small temple from the Iron Age and a sanctuary from the Hellenistic period; both are near the mountain, but are not on it.
The evolved phase of the BAC period, between
3,300 and 2,000 years BC was the period of the most intense occupation, as is
shown by numerous sites on the mountain and the campsites at its base. Out of
187 sites, 128 are living structures, villages with stone wall huts, which are
located in the valleys at the foot of the mountain. The mountain was the theatre of numerous cult
activities and large human groups came to its foot. Archaeological discoveries are offering the
image of a paramount sacred mountain which has no parallels in the
The area of Har Karkom has provided an immense
documentation on the way of life, the social structure, the economy, the
costumes and the beliefs of the desert people.
It was clear from the very beginning that Har Karkom had been a cult
high place, a sort of prehistoric
Out of the multitudes, a few people only were
allowed to go up to the plateau. We deduced that mainly from the following
considerations. On the plateau, the
surface is covered with important Palaeolithic remains, over 239 sites with hut
basements, 42 fireplaces, and 55 flint workshops, were found practically
intact. On the hammada,
the typical stony soil of the stony desert, some trails lead from one to the
other of the more than 20 cult sites of the BAC period and they cross the
Palaeolithic sites. It is unlikely that the multitudes of the BAC camping sites
came to walk as a mass on this surface, as otherwise the Palaeolithic sites
would not have remained in this perfect state of preservation. It seems that the BAC population did not have
access to the plateau: it was probably
restricted to a limited number of persons.
An analogous prohibition of the people to climb the mountain can be
found in a passage in Exodus “…the people cannot go up
Flint stones or menhirs, circles of stones, geoglyphs, tumuli, altars, small “private sanctuaries” in which an orthostat is usually surrounded by smaller stones, and peculiar paved platforms likely to be what the Bible calls bamoth, are all indications of cult activities. We can add to this the enormous production of rock art (153 sites with over 40,000 engravings) the standing stone alignments, the remains of a small temple on the plateau and at least 9 more at the foot of the mountain. Indeed, Har Karkom concerns a unique aggregation of cult activities in the BAC period.
The first archaeological considerations which
suggested a link between Har Karkom and
On the top of one of the two hills of Har
Karkom there is a small rock cleft. A
cleft on the summit of a mountain is not common in the
Other similar parallels between the biblical accounts and the archaeological findings looked at first sight like coincidences, but, with the progress of research, these coincidences became too many. In the first place, rock art provides a remarkable number of parallels with the biblical accounts. The rock engravings representing the table with ten partitions, which was defined as “The Ten Commandments”, or the figure of the “serpent and the staff” or that of “the eye of God that looks from the rock” are well known already. Nothing similar has been found in other mountains in the peninsula or in other rock art sites. This peculiar style of hermetic rock art, from the BAC period, is typical of Har Karkom. This wealth of biblical parallels is at least peculiar for those who wish to explain it as purely casual.
Among the cult sites on and around this mountain there are also many sites which may not have anything to do with the biblical tradition. Around some of the boulders that have come down from the mountain, stone circles and stone alignments were built, and in some of them there are traces of ceremonial trails, likely to have been routes for ceremonial performances. On the plateau and around it there are 25 sites of geoglyphs. There are orthostats or menhirs in 60 sites, some of them forming circles or alignments.
The cult of this mountain persisted for millennia,
with particular intensity in the Early Bronze Age and at the beginning of the
Middle Bronze Age, involving different populations; and in more than one
instance, human groups camped at its foot.
So far we cannot say if one of these groups was made of slaves that fled
When the identification of Har Karkom with
Current archaeology tends to identify the remains of structures of stones, basements of huts, fireplaces and other aspects of material culture. In this context, there are additional elements. Traces of battered, compact palaeosoils, intentional traced trails leading to standing stones, and stone alignments reveal the action of the human hand on the entire territory. It seems that man manipulated the forms of nature, completing and complementing them with new elements such as rock art, geoglyphs, orthostats, stone circles, tumuli and platforms. The entire surface of many sites appears as an immense “mosaic” where ancient people left their messages.
Today the majority of scholars agree that Har
Karkom had been a great cult high place, a “
But new finds seem to project towards a new
perspective of interpretation. We refer primarily to the dedicatory tumulus to
the lunar God Sin. This monument, on the grounds of the flint finds discovered
in the course of the excavation, can be dated to an early phase of the Early
Bronze Age, which is probably between 3200-2600 BC. The mountain was then
dedicated to the lunar God Sin, a divinity of Mesopotamian origin, which is
considered to be of the same origin as the Hebrews, and their cousins the
Midianites, according to the biblical narrative. The proposal of the possible
origin of the name of
However, the main arguments for the
identification of Har Karkom with the biblical
1956 Rock engravings from Jebel Ideid (
1993 Har Karkom, In the light of new discoveries, SC, vol. 11, Capo di Ponte (Edizioni del Centro).
1997 Esodo tra mito e storia, SC, vol. 18, Capo di Ponte (Edizioni del Centro), 1997, 300 pp., 130 ill.
1998 Insediamenti di età del Bronzo, in F. Mailland (ed.), Har Karkom e Monte Sinai: Archeologia e Mito, Milan (Comune di Milano, Settore Cultura e Musei, Civiche raccolte Archeologiche), pp. 15-24, 117-118.
1997 Arte rupestre: Har Karkom e il dio Sin, BCN; pp. 22-25
MAILLAND Federico (ed.)
1998 Har Karkom e Monte Sinai: Archeologia e Mito, Atti del Convegno di Studi, Associazione Lombarda Archeologica, 18 Gennaio 1997, Milano (Comune di Milano, Settore Cultura e Musei, Civiche raccolte Archeologiche), 1998, p. 127.