December 15, 2010

Stone rings from Syria

This is interesting news (hat tip to Tim again) but caution is obliged because they are talking as of now of a mere visual survey by an archaeologist, Dr. Mason, who is not an expert in Neolithic (but was studying some Medieval frescoes instead).

All the information I have is in this article from The Independent.

The dates provided are just a mere hunch and even the role of the structures as tombs is as of yet mere speculation. 

It is also rather shallow the comparison with Salisbury Plain, where Stonehenge is found. 

Corbeled structures

Two types of structures seem to co-exist side by side: the corbeled structures and the stone rings.

The closest I can think to corbeled structures in West Europe are the tholoi or beehive tombs (a "Neo-Megalithic" tomb style found primarily in Southern Iberia since the the 3rd millennium BCE) and related. This architecture has precedents in Cyprus and Tell Halaf but then they were not used as tombs yet but as habitations or chapels. The first use of tholoi for burial is with all likelihood from South Iberia in the said 3rd millennium (early Chalcolithic by local chronology, Middle Chalcolithic by pan-European one). Architecturally related buildings are the nuraghe of Sardinia and the motillas of La Mancha, which are forts instead and belong to later periods (Bronze Age).

However corbeled arch buildings properly speaking do not appear in West Europe until the navetas of Majorca, which are from Iron Age (very late). 

So in this sense the comparison with Western Megalithism is misleading. If it has no dolmens (trilithons) there is no Megalithism as in Western Europe, which is best defined as Dolmenic Megalithism and in which stone circles, alignments, cairns, tholoi, artificial caves, silo tombs, etc. are rather epi-phenomena and not the defining characteristic of Western Megalithism. 

Stone circles

More intriguing (but still unrelated to Western Megalithism) are the stone circles. These are small ones, with a diamater of c. 2 m. and made up of small stones. Nothing to do with the great stone circles of Egypt, Morocco or Britain, which seem to have an astronomical purpose primarily. 

However there are two phenomenons in Europe that did build similar stone circles on totally different time frames:

  1. The Boleráz group of the central Danubian Plain, c. 3500 BCE, built such stone rings (1-3 m. diameter) as cremation tombs. The ashes were accompanied with some grave goods: jar and cup, stone axes and shell beads. This group is sometimes considered important in kick-starting the Baden culture (the last important one of the Danubian Neolithic), but these, unlike the Boleráz group, followed traditional Balcano-Danubian burial customs (fetal position, no cremation and no stone ring). 
  2. Pyrenean Iron Age also includes such stone rings (restricted to a mountain area) some 3000 years after Boleráz. The coincidences are size of the rings and cremation burial but there were normally no grave goods and the time-frame is so distant that it feels almost ridiculous to make a comparison. 

Other sites

The article also mentions (Prof. Banning) that other such sites are known to exist (from satellite imaging) in the Palestinian and Jordan deserts.

We will have to await further research.


  1. It is a fascinating find because it potentially is evidence of cultural unity, at least at some thing level, all the way from Iberia to the Levant. Of course, that depends on the age of the find, which from its absence in your post, I assume is not established at this point.

    I'm not sure what meaning you intend with the phase "disparaging time frames."

    The 3500 BCE Danubian cremation date is also interesting. This is the earliest cremation date that I am aware of anywhere, at least for a clearly intended cremation (rather than an accidental death by fire) with associated ritual elements.

  2. Mason guesses that "Neolithic" but from the article it's obvious that it's just a hunch. So I understand that date, which is indeed critical to understanding, is not yet clear - logically, as no research has been made yet, other than a visual overview by a non-specialist who is clearly moved by the, probably shallow, parallel with Salisbury Plain and other British megaliths.

    "I'm not sure what meaning you intend with the phase "disparaging time frames." "

    That the dates of the two, otherwise very similar, cultural expressions are totally dissimilar, with some three millennia of nothing-of-the-like in between (anywhere). For me that's a quite intriguing mystery of Metal Ages archaeology in Europe.

    Oops, I just looked "disparaging" in the dictionary. Haha. Guess I'll replace by "different" or "distant", which is what I meant (you know: English is second language to me...)

    "The 3500 BCE Danubian cremation date is also interesting. This is the earliest cremation date that I am aware of anywhere".

    Actually there's an older group, also Danubian, which used cremation. In Bohemia, I believe (from memory). There's also some instance of Neolithic cremation in Anatolia - I'll check that up because unsure.

    I got very intrigued by the Boleráz group when I read about them because of the striking coincidence with Pyrenean stone rings, which are sort of a mystery themselves. But the dates' difference makes any connection impossible, yet the parallel is astonishing.

  3. "you know: English is second language to me."

    I suspected that this was precisely what was going on.

    It wouldn't be impossible for the Boleráz/Pyrenean coincidence to be a cultural relict community, but the question would be why there aren't other traces in the intervening three thousand years. One could, however, imagine that most of the sites were intentionally destroyed or hidden by a relict community in the Pyrenean area to escape persecution or as a result of persecution (perhaps at the hands of Celtic religionists) and that one site escaped the purge and was forgotten. If there weren't many such sites and they were in active use until Celtic arrivals (so that their locations were all known at that time, perhaps a pre-Indo-European astronomer-high priest was tortured until he gave up all the locations he remembered), it wouldn't have been so hard to destroy almost all of them beyond recognition or to build new Holy Sites on top of them that left them unrecognizable.

  4. Off topic, I'm quite concerned that we haven't heard from the proprietor of Mathilda's Anthropology Blog for a long time. As I understand it, she was suffering from some very serious degenerative health problems the last time we heard from her, so I fear that this has grown worse, although I hope that her blog has simply become a lower priority for her.

  5. We have discussed cremation at the Megalithic forum of Stone Pages some times but I can only find now references to Stonehenge (c. 3000 with cremation burials), not the ones about Turkey (or somewhere else in West Asia) that I'm almost certain to have seen mentioned somewhere.

    The earlier Danubian culture with incineration is known as "Cerámica Puntillada" in Spanish, which should translate to English as point engraved pottery or something like that (pierced pottery?). It is born as regional diversification of Western Linear Pottery (LBK) from the Elbe Group. It is found Bohemia, East Germany, South Poland, Bavaria and parts of Moravia and Austria. Even if cremation is dominant, some fetal position burials also exist.

    They are dated to Late Neolithic, which is very roughly 4000 or, more likely, 4500 BCE.

  6. About the off topic: I agree with your thoughts almost to the word. But I cannot say much more (no idea). Maybe a polite inquiry via comment (she can always suppress it, as comments are moderated) may get some answer.

  7. And about the Boleráz-Pyrenean stone ring burials conjecture you mention, guess that one can speculate in such ways but I rather think that the fact that some such burials have arrived to us requires that others should exist elsewhere too. Hence I'd be only persuaded when such other locations are found.

    That's why I'm intrigued about the Syrian stone rings, which fit the pattern totally for what we know right now. But we will have to wait for research to be performed and published.

    I can only add that, in Basque Mythology, the creators of these stone rings are a mythological race known as Mairu, of not known Basque etymology.

    An acquaintance of mine once proposed 'hamairu': thirteen and linked it to the other legend when the Devil tricks Basque Christian "hero" Atxular (or is it St. Martin?) into acknowledging that the lack of a thirteenth religious mystery is a mystery in itself and that is the thirteen mystery.

    In the past it was popular to relate to Moors with no reason but the phonetic coincidence between Mairu and Moro, Spanish for Moorish, and the corresponding conceptual change in the mythology of the areas now speaking Romance (like High Aragon).

    The Mairuak or Mairus are also called Intxisuak in the Bidasoa area. The only word I can relate to this is intxaurra: walnut (where -urra means nut).

    Anyhow, the Mairuak are paired whith the Lamiak (Lamias: rather similar to Greek lamias and other oriental characters, the Basque nymphs but with bird feet and golden combs sometimes ambitioned by dumb greedy peasants who get punished). However Lamiak also exist in the folklore of all the Basque geography, while Mairuak are restricted to stone rings areas. In some places the stone rings were used historically as community meeting place: people gathered outside the ring, not in it (Oteiza in "Quosque Tandem!" - Oteiza, a world-famous sculptor, loved stone rings and all the megalithic "genius")

  8. The timing of the stone rings and the notion of their Mairu builders as giants suggests parallels to the Philistine giants in the Biblical David and Goliath story which is roughly contemporaneous with the Iberian stone circles.

    If the age of the Syrian stone circles were 1000 BCE instead of 3500 BCE, one could see them as an artifact of the Sea People diaspora at the end of the Bronze Age and start of the Iron Age.

    Your note on their use as gathering places, rather than tombs, also suggests that they may be architectural tradition successors to Greco-Roman amphitheaters, as much as they are to pre-historic Neolithic tombs. Perhaps any evidence of cremation or death was an artifact of subsequent executions in the equivalent of a public square.

  9. There's always "giants": Greeks believed that certain Mycenaean buildings were "cyclopean" in construction, while Basques and others have typically attributed Megaliths in general to giants (Roland becomes a giant in Basque mythology and is attributed some stone rings, for instance) and witches. So giants as such are not any good clue.

    What is interesting about the Mairuak is that they are related ONLY to stone rings and are not known to exist (in legend) where these structures do not exist. I'm not sure if the Mairuak were "giants" (you don't need to be any giant to build those small stone rings) but I'm sure they are a different kind of your usual giant in this aspect.

    "If the age of the Syrian stone circles were 1000 BCE instead of 3500 BCE, one could see them as an artifact of the Sea People diaspora at the end of the Bronze Age and start of the Iron Age".

    But again, from where? Boleráz had been gone for more than 2000 years. Any diaspora or cultural diffusion has an origin and a pattern of some sort. This instead is different.

    "Your note on their use as gathering places, rather than tombs"...

    They are tombs (archaeologists know) almost invariably but they are before anything else landscape monuments that people use in their real lives, referential.

    "also suggests that they may be architectural tradition successors to Greco-Roman amphitheaters"...

    With this I can't agree: meetings were outside the ring, never inside. It played as your usual town oak, where the assembly took place. That's why the oak is so important: it defines the community as gathering under such tree. But other elements were used: stone rings and later churches.

    The oak is so important, that it has replaced the church in some places: in my family's ancestral neighborhood, unless it's raining, the yearly mass for the holidays is held under the oak, not in the nearby chapel (used only if raining).

    But what matters, oak or ring or chapel, is that it is a cultural element that the people make central to their collective identity.

    "Perhaps any evidence of cremation or death was an artifact of subsequent executions in the equivalent of a public square".

    What a gruesome and shallow comparison! These tombs for whatever were reverenced can only be compared to shrines. The people buried there must have been once considered important in some sense (ancestor, saint, leader...).

    But the reference of who was buried there (other than the mythical Mairuak) was lost eventually. I think that people anyhow understands that they are us in the dimension of time, that's why an oak (long lived, deeply rooted, protective) can take their place (no comparison with American oaks: those fall down easily because, as a friend of me put it: "they have no roots").


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