Walls, Ramps and Pits: The Construction of the Samar Desert Kites, Southern Negev, Israel

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The way in which mid Holocene societies perceived, treated and manipulated their landscape included, for the first time, the construction of numerous large-scale stone features away from their villages and campsites. Falling within this new sphere of construction and modification of the landscape in the Near East are the huge linear stone alignments, termed 'desert kites'. These are large triangular-shaped features, built of two long converging stone walls with a circular enclosure at the apex. They were first noted from the air nearly a century ago (Maitland 1927; Rees 1929) and termed 'kites' due to their shape. The enclosure can range from a few metres to over 100m in diameter and the walls (arms) may extend for hundreds of metres and even several kilometres. The walls are constructed of local stones of varying sizes.

Ethnographic examples indicate that many of the desert kites were used for communal hunting, the latest evidence for this is provided by accounts written in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Burckhardt 1831: 220-21; Musil 1928: 26-7; Aharoni 1946: 31-3). Such large-scale hunting and trapping techniques are known from many parts of the world, including northern Europe (Barth 1983), central Asia (Yagodin 1998), North America (e.g. Frison 1991, 2004; Hocket & Murphy 2009; O'Shea & Meadows 2009) and South Africa (Coon 1976: 111-15). Thus it has become accepted that the Near Eastern desert kites were used mainly for trapping wild ungulates (reviewed in Rosen & Perevolotsky 1998; Betts & Yagodin 2000; Meshel 2000; Holzer et al. 2010). Some large-scale desert constructions from Yemen were recently published (Brunet 2009). These appear to include a variety of types, some of which may have functioned in a different way to the kites discussed here. It is also important to note that some desert kites were interpreted as systems used for corralling domestic herds (goats and sheep) at times of raids (Rees 1929).

The earliest date for a desert kite was claimed for a site in eastern Jordan, with a tentative assignment to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period (eleventh to ninth millennia BP, all dates calibrated; Helms & Betts 1987; Betts 1998; see also Legge & Rowley-Conwy 1987, 2000). However, only a few kites have been directly radiometrically dated. In some areas, like the southern Levant, in situ material remains and animal bones are very rare.

The kites found in the Trans Jordanian deserts are very large, sometimes comprising long chains encompassing tens of kilometres (Rees 1929: 398; Helms & Betts 1987; van Berg et al. 2004). At the other end of the scale are the kites of the Negev and Sinai deserts (Meshel 2000; Holzer et al. 2010). These are usually only 50-150m long, mostly isolated, and never a component of long continuous chains.

Archaeological studies of the Syrian and Jordanian kites provide details regarding their structure, type, topographic setting and distribution patterns (Helms & Betts 1987; Echallier & Braemer 1995; Betts 1998; Betts & Yagodin 2000; van Berg et al. 2004). While chain kites are thought to have been used to trap the large migratory herds of the Persian (goitered) gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa), the smaller and isolated Negev and Sinai kites were probably built to trap small numbers of non-migratory local herbivores that grazed in small herds (e.g. Dorcas gazelle [Gazella dorcas], onager [Equus hemionus] and Arabian oryx [Oryx leucoryx]). Species and herd size may have determined the location and dimensions of the traps. The topographic settings of some kites in the Negev and Sinai suggest that animals were approached while grazing in a pasture area, driven into the funnel-shaped arms of the nearby kite, and then frightened over a drop or into a small enclosure. Several of the Negev and Sinai kites have been subjected to a variety of archaeological, zoological and ecological studies (Avner 1972; Meshel 1974, 2000; Perevolotsky & Baharav 1991; Rosen & Perevolotsky 1998; Holzer et al. …