Was Rogem Hiri the Site of Ritual Excarnation?
In “Excarnation: Food for Vultures,” author Rami Arav argues that Rogem Hiri was a special type of sanctuary, built specifically for the purpose of ritual excarnation—that is, purposefully exposing the bodies of the dead to vultures and other birds of prey in order to divest them of their flesh. As Arav explains, excarnation was widely practiced in cultures and civilizations that for one reason or another were interested in saving the bones of the deceased and not their flesh.
Archaeology shows that the Chalcolithic peoples of the southern Levant were very interested in preserving the bones of the dead. Peoples of the Chalcolithic Age throughout Syria and Palestine interred the bones of their deceased in fancifully decorated clay boxes, or ossuaries, which were often decorated with stylized facial features, including eyes, noses and mouths. Chalcolithic Age ossuaries also often have a boxy or “house-like” appearance, with a large opening in the front through which the bones of the dead were inserted.
But how exactly did the peoples of the Chalcolithic Age manage to reduce their deceased loved ones to neat piles of dry bones that fit easily into such bone boxes? Rogem Hiri is one of a number of round, high-walled structures from the Chalcolithic Age that Arav has identified in the Golan. He believes such structures were used primarily for excarnation. At Rogem Hiri, the body of the deceased would have been carried into the center of the structure and laid out on a large stone slab, left exposed to the elements. After the living had departed, vultures and other birds of prey, perched atop Rogem Hiri’s high walls, would descend on the corpse, completely divesting the body of its flesh within a matter of hours. Once the excarnation was completed, the living would return to Rogem Hiri to collect the bones and place them in their carefully crafted ossuaries.
But in “Excarnation: Food for Vultures,” Arav asks another important question: Why were the bones of these Chalcolithic people placed in ossuaries instead of simply buried? Arav believes the ossuaries were seen as magic boxes that had the power to revive, resurrect and bring back to life the dry bones deposited within them. In the Chalcolithic mind, he argues, ossuaries were thought of as symbolic granaries. Similar to the dry and seemingly dead grain stored in granaries that revives and comes back to life when sown, so was the wish to see the bones in the ossuary “granaries” revived and resurrected.
To continue learning about Rogem Hiri and Chalcolithic excarnation, read Rami Arav’s “Excarnation: Food for Vultures,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2011.
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