Ancient Symbols Surface on Israeli Pebble

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, June 9, 1990 | Go to article overview

Ancient Symbols Surface on Israeli Pebble


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Ancient symbols surface on Israeli pebble

An engraved limestone pebble uncovered at an Israeli archaeological site in 1988 provides a rare example of abstract, symbolic artwork in the Middle East during the Upper Paleolithic, a period between 35,000 and 12,000 years ago, according to a new scientific report on the artifact.

"The pebble appears to reflect the sophisticated, abstract encoding of a message," says Erella Hovers of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who directed excavation at the Urkan e-Rub IIa site where the engraved stone turned up. Artifacts found with the pebble belong to hunter-gatherers who inhabited the region between 19,000 and 14,500 years ago.

Only three other Middle Eastern art objects from the Upper Paleolithic have been found. A limestone plate with an engraving of a horse dates to around 30,000 years ago, a bone tool with engraved lined patterns is more than 20,000 years old, and a similarly marked bone tool is about 13,500 years old. Unlike the latter two objects, the Urkan pebble has no apparent use other than the presentation of its mysterious abstract design, Hovers says.

Unlike the Middle East, forms of artistic expression -- from cave paintings to engraved bones -- abound in Europe's archaeological record of the Upper Paleolithic, Hovers notes in her report in the June CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY.

The pebble is nearly 4 inches long and 2.5inches wide, with a maximum thickness of half an inch. Its edges are thinned by intentional polishing. One side contains eight sets of line incisions. Three sets contain five parallel lines, two of which are connected by smaller lines or "rungs" to form "ladders." The other five groups consist of from four to six parallel lines. The pebble's opposite face contains a cross-hatch design bordered by two "ladders."

The meaning of the engraved patterns remains unclear, Hovers says. Although similar ladder patterns occur on some Upper Paleolithic objects from Europe, the signs probably held different meanings in different cultural groups, she says. …

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