Using laser scanners we follow the 5000-year-old ancients in planning and constructing the desert kites (large game traps). Though the reason for trapping herds in the desert remains a mystery, the 3D point clouds reveal that they knew exactly what they were doing.

This map is only partial, three more desert kites in the region have been found, but unfortunately, I do not have their exact locations.

Desert kites are large game traps found by pilots who were flying the Near East in the first half of the 20th century. From above, the pilots saw large constructions looking like kites: large enclosures with strings. Today, by using satellite imagery we constantly find more and more of these kites scattered in deserts around the world, especially in the Near East (like in Armenia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel).

Not much is known about those desert kites. Archaeologists dated only a few, finding them to be used until the 3rd millennium BC. In Israel and Egypt, their topographic setting and shape suggest that herds were approached while grazing and crossing the area. People would drive them into funnel-shaped arms and frighten them over a small cliff, into a small enclosure (the kite itself – the head).

Trying to shed some light on these magnificent constructions, we carried out a comprehensive campaign to document eight out of the eleven kites in southern Israel. To do so, we positioned a terrestrial laser scanner around and along the arms of the kites, while the head was scanned both from inside and outside. This allowed us to understand better how the ancients chose the location, planned the construction, and eventually built the kite.

Samar West kites point clouds. Broken lines emphasize the arms, highlighted circles are the scanner positions

Location and general shape

Since some kites are built on hills and others on plains it is difficult to determine how the ancients chose their locations. However, when we computed the slope and aspect of the underlying topography it was clear that hilly kites were built along topographic “ridges”, specifically where the orientation of the slope changes. Surprisingly, this was also the case for the plain kites: a detailed analysis of the point clouds showed the ancients were looking for small ridges in the topography to build the kites’ arms on.

Using cross-sections along with the kites, we saw that all heads were built at a lower level than the arms. In planar kites, where there was no topographic advantage, the ancients dug a trench and built a ramp to accentuate the height differences.

Construction methods

The general plan for the kites is also apparent from analysing the point clouds. Although built in different regions and although the kites vary in shape and size, the construction routine is almost identical: all arms cross water paths; all arms are built with local stones; in all kites, both the arm’s width and the density of the construction stones are unchanged throughout the arms; in all kites, the opening angles between the arms are strikingly similar, between 55° and 65° in hilly kites, and between 15° to 25° in plain kites. Even the heads have more or less the same size: computations of their volumes show that they differ only by ±6 m3.

The Samar West plain kites. Though disturbed by modern roads, it is still cleared that the in both kites the arms cross water pathways, and the opening angle at the head is smaller than in the hilly kites.

In the hilly kites, the arms were constructed so that the trap would be long and steep, leading the animals towards the head. In the plain kites, the arms were much longer, and the stones that compose them were smaller. This proves again that the ancients knew the topography they plan to build upon, knew which type of kite will fit where, and how to adapt it for maximal efficiency.

The point cloud’s role in studying the Desert Kites

The 3D point cloud data provide a powerful tool for documenting the macro- and micro-topography and allows to create a precise and high-resolution digital model of each kite. Until now, kites were usually described by 2D plans in relatively low accuracy and resolution, with very limited topographic details, and only with partial information regarding the construction methods. The 3D model provides such data that can be used to conduct spatial and architectural analyses, on a small scale. This in turn allows revealing patterns that could never have been traced otherwise.

By studying the kites’ architecture via visual reconstruction we are able to learn the construction methods in detail and understand how the ancients exploited the landscape. The data also serve as a platform to estimate the amount of labour invested in the construction of each kite. These add new ways to understand the profound knowledge of past hunters and their decisions regarding the choice of the best location for kite construction, and the location of the enclosure in particular.

Technical Details

Acquisition by a terrestrial laser scanner (Leica c10)

  • 70 points per cm2
  • Modelled surface precision: 2 mm
  • Angle measurement precision: 60 millirad
  • Registration error: 3 mm

Participants in Research

  • Laser Scanning and Photogrammetry Lab, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology
    • Reuma Arav
    • Sagi Filin
  • Dead Sea-Arava Science Center and the Arava Center
    • Uzi Avner
  • Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa
    • Guy Bar-Oz
    • Amnon Nachmias
    • Dani Nadel
  • Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, Haifa University
    • Dan Malkinson

Images in this post were reprinted from Journal of Archaeological Science Volume 57, Reuma Arav, Sagi Filin, Uzi Avner, Guy Bar-Oz, Amnon Nachmias, Dan Malkinson, and Dani Nadel, High-resolution documentation, 3-D modeling and analysis of “desert kites”, p. 302-314, Copyright (2015), with permission from Elsevier