Point clouds of cult sites in Israel uncover a new side of 9000-year-old cultures. They prove that half-nomadic communities saw great importance in fixing their cult sites. It also shows that different communities had similar structural ideas for worshipping.

The Near Eastern deserts are exceptionally rich with cult sites of various types. Dominant among them are those with standing stones, also known by their biblical Hebrew-word “masseboth” (מצבות). In an incomplete survey of the Negev desert (southern Israel), over 450 masseboth installations have been recorded.

An in-depth analysis of the formation, location, and morphology of these installations may shed light on the half-nomadic communities that used to roam these parts during the 3rd – 5th centuries BC. Here is an example of a point cloud-based analysis of two unique sites.

The study focuses on two sites that are dated to the 3rd – 5th centuries BC. The sites were scanned using a terrestrial laser scanner with about 20-35 points per cm2, totalling 9 Million points in the first site and 17.5 Million points in the second site.

Ma’ale Shaharut

In the 1990s, a group of elongated fallen stones was discovered in Ma’ale Shaharut (מעלה שחרות) by a group of archaeologists, led by Dr Uzi Avner. After gradually restoring the stones to their place, based upon the order and position they were found in, the outcome was clear: 61 standing stones (masseboth) were arranged in two tiers.

Seven scans were required to reach a complete coverage of the tiered arrangement. Their analysis showed that the two general tiers are in fact concentric to a high degree and are aligned to NW-SE (azimuth of 117 deg), very close to the present winter solstice. Moreover, by fitting an ellipse to the masseboth that seemed scattered at random on the sides of the main tiers we found that they are actually a part of another incomplete tier, also with the same centre and aligned to the other two.

Morphological analysis of the proportions of the masseboth revealed that the stones were not chosen arbitrarily. There is an impressive resemblance between the stones, showing that these were selected for the purpose before being brought to the site. In contrast to the high uniformity of the masseboth, four stones are uniquely high, with two of them exceptionally wide.

Transforming the point cloud into volume and then into weight, showed that the two highest masseboth weigh 117 kg and 205 kg, and the other two are almost 70 kg. For comparison, the rest of the stones weigh between 10 and 20 kg. The weight of the larger stones points to the high importance they were attributed.

Nahal Ya’alon

Only 17 km from Ma’ale Shaharut, stands the site of Nahal Ya’alon (נחל יעלון). This site was found standing out in the landscape composed of a unique set of nine massboth. According to Dr Avner, these were meticulously selected from a nearby site. Then they were arranged as a dense crescent on a vantage point that was chosen specifically.

It took six stations to scan the site completely and avoid as empty regions as possible. On average, 3 million points were acquired from each position, with an average resolution of 35 points per sq cm. The stones are cylindrical in nature and are divided into two distinct groups: one pair is large and high, and the is smaller. Five out of those seven are approximately the same height (differing only by a few centimetres) and have the same height-to-width proportions.

A plan and cross-section of the masseboth area in Nahal Ya’alon.

Unlike the site at Ma’ale Shaharut, the analysis showed only little variability within the small stones group. However, here also, the weight of the large pair is considerably larger than the others: while the small stones weigh about nine kilograms, the large ones are about 300 kg each. Nonetheless, the analysis showed that though the two sites completely differ from one another, the density of stones per metre square is similar. This may indicate a similar perception of these cult sites.

The point cloud’s role in studying the masseboth

Both documented sites are unique examples of sites that compose an arbitrary number of stones, unlike most sites that compose smaller and simpler groups. In both sites the relation between the larger masseboth and the rest, that are considerably smaller. Both their weight and their relative size testify to their importance and their role in the rite. Based on other ancient sites, old testimonies and arts of traditional communities, we may assume that large pairs of masseboth signify gods while the smaller represent ancestors. Furthermore, the difference in proportions also has a symbolic role: wide stones apparently represent female ancestors, while the narrow ones represent males. The study showed that this also holds for the gods – in both sites, there is a narrow and a wide stone. This research has uncovered a side in the life of ancient desert communities, which were half nomads, but nevertheless erected stationary sites to represent important people and to practice religious rituals. The high similarity in shape and the high weight of some of the stones show the significance of these cult sites to ancient cultures.

The analysis of these 3D point clouds sheds light on the high importance of recording such sites, that both their size and their spatial characteristics make laser scanners the optimal tool for their documentation. In sites like these, details and space are equally important, both aspects that are represented by the point clouds. Such documentation shows parts of the ancient culture that lived in the desert and provides spatial analyses that were impossible to materialise otherwise. This, of course, does not end there – as the recording of these sites enables their exposure to the world.

Technical Details

Acquisition by a terrestrial laser scanner (Leica c10)

  • 20-35 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
    • Dani Nadel

The images in this post were reprinted from Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Volume 3, Issue 1, Reuma Arav, Sagi Filin, Uzi Avner, Dani Nadel, Three-dimensional documentation of masseboth sites in the ‘Uvda Valley area, southern Negev, Israel 9-21, Copyright (2016), with permission from Elsevier