Ancient artifacts may predate the idea of one God

LOOKING at evidence he uncovered in a 6,000-year-old temple in Israel's northern Negev Desert, an Israeli archaeologist has challenged the prevailing chronology for the advent of monotheism. David Alon suggests that the momentous concept began not in the 2nd millennium before Christ, but nearly 2,000 years earlier, during the Chalcolithic Age, in the 4th millennium BC. Situated northwest of Beersheba, the Chalcolithic temple was named after the nearby settlement of modern Gilat, whose vineyards had yielded a collection of unique artifacts. Naturalism and abstraction, found side by side within the temple's three grain silos and altar basin, preserved ancient traditions. The discovery of 14 abstract violin-shaped figurines and 13 square palettes amid an assemblage of functional cult vessels offers a clue to the theological revolution that may have occurred in Chalcolithic Gilat, says Mr. Alon, leader of the ongoing excavation. His theory that the abstract figurines are ``the earliest expression of monotheism found anywhere'' has caused controversy among archaeologists.

A purpose to express unity

At the Gilat site, in the undulating terrain of the Negev where desolation and bloom alternate, Alon ponders the meaning of the artifacts. ``The fiddle figurines and squares [a reduction of the figurines] suggest an attempt to convey ideological symbolism in such a way that form and sex are forfeited,'' he says. The lack of features, ``no head, no shoulders, and no function,'' he stresses, ``indicates a purpose to express unity, leaving only the essence.''

The Chalcolithic (copper and stone) Age, a transition period unique to Israel, formed a bridge between prehistory and history about 4200-3500 BC. There were thousands of Chalcolithic settlements in ancient Israel, where farming, copper industries, and artisan workshops abounded. Trade developed among the central places, extending to countries like Anatolia, Lebanon, Cyprus, and Crete. In the Greek Cycladic Islands were found fiddle figurines resembling those from Gilat, but the Cycladic shapes are smaller, and dated (according to carbon 14) to the 3rd millennium BC.

In all of the Chalcolithic sites, Alon notes, only 30 violin figurines were found, 14 of them in Gilat alone. The figurines, made of igneous rocks (granite, diorite) and sandstone, measure as high as 20 centimeters and vary in size though not in form.

Supporting his theory that the abstract figurines from Gilat represent the earliest artistic concept of monotheism, Alon links the era of Abraham, the Hebrew patriarch and first man to recognize one God, to Chalcolithic Gilat. This predates the patriarchal period by about 2,000 years from the generally accepted 19th-18th centuries in the 2nd millennium BC.

The main events in Abraham's life are recorded in the book of Genesis. Abraham, his wife Sarah, and nephew Lot left Ur of the Chaldees (south Mesopotamia, ancient Iraq) for the land of Canaan. They stopped first in Harran, where Abraham received the divine call of nationhood and built an altar. (The site of Harran was found in the mountains northeast of Turkey.) From Harran, Abraham and his family proceeded to Shechem, Elon-Moreh, and Beth-El before reaching Beersheba. As head of a large establishment, Abraham was a semi-nomad, tent-dwelling shepherd who settled for a time in the northern Negev, near Gerar. His son, Isaac, was born in the Gerar-Gilat region.

No evidence has yet confirmed the precise date for Abraham, his son, Isaac, and grandson Jacob. Two distinguished biblical archaeologists from America, W.F. Albright and Nelson Glueck, associated the patriarchs with the 19th and 18th centuries BC. Dr. Glueck referred to the period as ``the Age of Abraham.'' Dr. Albright suggested that the patriarchs flourished early in the time of the Hyksos (``foreign rulers'' and ``shepherd kings'' of Semitic descent who invaded Egypt in the 18th century BC), and dated them to the 19th century BC or earlier.

Alon cites the clay tablets found in Ebla in north Syria (near Aleppo), which trace the city's achievements and foreign relationships in the last centuries of the 3rd millennium BC. Written in West Semitic (related to early Hebrew), the Ebla records are of special interest to Alon's proposed chronology, as some scholars have linked their lists of names to the accounts of the patriarchs. Others see the tablets as inconclusive evidence.

Alon names three possible sources for the fiddle figurines and squares: Transjordan, Sinai, and Egypt. Since there were no signs in Gilat of intensive contacts with either of the latter two countries, he ascribes the origin to Transjordan, pointing out that Lot settled in Sodom and that the connections with Gilat ``are possibly echoed in the later traditions and fraternal relations between Abraham and Lot, Jacob and Esau.''

Alon, who is supervisor of Israel's Department of Antiquities and member of kibbutz Mishmar Hanegev, is at odds with several colleagues in interpreting the Gilat artifacts. Itzhak Gilead, head of the Department of Archaeology at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, says there is no specific reason for challenging Alon's notion that the fiddle figurines herald the advent of monotheism, but Dr. Gilead suggests that his analogy here seems anachronistic. Adhering to the general criterion for dating the patriarchs, Gilead says, ``They most likely belong in the Bronze Age, about 2,000 years after the Chalcolithic era.'' He concedes there is a concentration of granite fiddle figurines at the Gilat shrine, but adds that similar figurines, smaller in form and number, were found in other Chalcolithic sites, such as the Aegean region.

At the Chalcolithic Halls of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where the Gilat finds are on display for the first time, curator Osnat Misch-Brandl associates the abstract figurines with fertility rites. ``The most important daily aspects among Chalcolithic farmers and herders were milk and food. How the uniformly shaped violin figurines achieved abstraction, and where they came from, one cannot clearly say.'' She noted that the distinctly decorated female statuette of the ``Woman with Cheese Churn,'' also from the Gilat temple, represents a fertility goddess.

Reflections of archaic monotheism

Sophie Kahn, also of the Israel Museum, supports Alon's early dating of monotheism. She points out that the descendants of Abraham, who were led by Moses from Egypt into the Promised Land, were forbidden to make idols and graven images. Suggesting that the fiddle figurines transcend the role of functional and cult vessels, Ms. Kahn says, ``The intuitively abstract, featureless figurines from Gilat probably reflect archaic monotheism.''

Paving the way for Alon's theory was a significant discovery in Jericho, in the 1930s, by a British archaeologist, Dame Kathleen Kenyon. In a series of excavations in ``the oldest town on earth,'' she uncovered the first Mesolithic structure, which provided a carbon-14 dating of 7800 BC, plus or minus 210 years (9th-8th millennium BC), thus predating Jericho to about 10,000 years ago.

The Chalcolithic people, about 4,000 years later, inhabited villages in Canaan, when religious crafts and new ideas flourished. Petrographic tests (classified rock descriptions) of Chalcolithic pottery in the northern Negev and southern Transjordan, made by Yuval Goren of Ben-Gurion University, show that Gilat contained the highest concentration of ceramic groups (nine out of 11) in the region. Through its output and trade, Gilat probably established itself as a governmental and religious center.

``Spiritual principles are historically reaffirmed,'' Alon says, elaborating that the peak of spiritual awakening in the time of Moses was preceded by abstract expression of one deity in Abraham's time.

The great strides in man's progress and the burst of original art in the 4th millennium BC were interrupted when Chalcolithic people abandoned their villages inexplicably. But their tools and artifacts are a testimony to a remarkable civilization.

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