As with the transition from hunting-gathering to farming, the rise of peripheral pastoral nomadism entailed far-reaching transformations in the basic cultural matrix of desert societies. Archaeologically it should come as no surprise that the earliest evidence for elaborate shrines reflecting public ritual and cult in the southern Levantine deserts coincides with the infiltration and adoption of herd animals – sheep and goat – replacing hunting as a primary subsistence base.

Survey and excavation at the desert shrine complex at Ramat Saharonim, in the Makhtesh Ramon (Crater) in the Central Negev, provide insights into the rise of these early nomadic systems, and their associated symbol systems. Preliminary indications suggest a chronological range from the late Neolithic through the Early Bronze Age, coinciding with the development of the earliest desert pastoral nomadic societies. The site consists of four courtyard shrines with smaller subsidiary rectangular features, and thirty large burial cairns/tumuli.


Detailed survey has established the embeddedness of the site in the landscape by documenting alignments with both small-scale topographic relief and with macro-scale features, most notably a large black volcanic mountain in the distance. In general the shrines are aligned with the setting sun of the summer solstice, with azimuth deviations from only 2 degrees to 8 degrees. There can be little doubt as to the intent of these alignments. The tumuli are set on cuesta cliffs, artificial horizons, visible from great distances.


Excavation of three tumuli revealed primary adult burials, of varying orientation, and varying states of preservation. These, of course, suggest a mortuary cult.
Excavation of Shrine 4 demonstrates a megalithic tendency, with some of the blocks of fieldstone weighing as much as 450 kilograms, most weighing more than 100 kilograms, and with a total structural mass of on the order of 30 tons. It is clear that all four shrines are similar in this respect. Stratigraphically, construction can be divided into at least two phases, spanning a long but still unascertainable period. The summer solstice alignment with the setting sun can be tied circumstantially to death symbolism, linking the shrines to the tumuli and suggesting generally a mortuary cult.
Tying these disparate ends together, it is possible to view the rise of desert tribal societies concomitant with the mortuary symbolism, territoriality, and herding. The interplay and interdependence of subsistence, symbol, and social structure is to be emphasized.