On 8.11.2020 a field survey accompanied by documentation was conducted along an ancient path (naqb) ascending to Rosh Zohar (map ref. 2226–35/5698–710) as part of a project aimed at identifying ancient routes in the vicinity of Arad. The ascent was identified by D. Punio and was documented—on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority—by A. Levi-Hevroni, D. Eisenberg-Degen (photography) and E. Aladjem (plan and drone photography) in collaboration with H. Ben-David, Z. Sherzer and a group of Pre-Army Service-Year scouting counselors. The survey was assisted by D. Graff and L. Schwimer (identification of inscriptions) and T. Arnon (seal dating).
The documented ascent (width 1–3 m; Fig. 1) is part of an ancient path that connected the Dead Sea rift valley with the Arad valley; it is dated by the pottery finds collected along the route, which range from the Iron Age to the present day. The ascent provides an easy passage for pedestrians and beasts of burden, but it is impassable for carriages and carts. The ascent is not documented in any of the early maps of the region. Seventeen find spots recorded along the ascent and near it (Fig. 2) include walls, stone heaps, cairns, rock engravings, a rock shelter, campsites, Bedouin tombs and a split in the road.
Retaining walls were built to flank sections of the ascent that either pass along the banks of streambeds or traverse steep terrain (Figs. 3–7); in one section, two parallel walls were documented. The walls attest to alterations and renovations in the route of the ascent, as well as to its prolonged use. The walls were dry-built of either one row (width 0.4–0.6 m) or two rows (width 0.7–1.0 m) of limestone fieldstones of various sizes. The walls were preserved to a maximum height of nine courses (height 1.6 m). In two sections of the ascent, the path was hewn in the bedrock (width 3 m; Fig. 8). The remains documented along the ascent are described below.
1. A wall built of medium-sized fieldstones placed on their narrow side, with recently added stones laid on top of it (length 6 m). An earthen surface cleared of stones (c. 4 × 4 m) abutted the southeastern face of the wall.
2. Two stone heaps (2 × 4 m each), possibly tombs.
3. A heap of large flint stones (diam. c. 1.5 m, height c. 1 m).
4. An unusual cairn consisting of a circle of large stones (diam. 5 m; Fig. 9) enclosing a raised area with an east–west built cell (1.7 × 2.5 m) in the center; a few stones were placed on top of the cell. The northern part of the circle was not preserved. Near the stone circle was a stone bearing two inscriptions (Fig. 10)—names, probably identical, in the Thamudic script, which was used in the region in the Early Roman period (Macdonald 2000).
5. A stone heap on a built base (1.5 × 2.0 m).
6. Rock engravings on an exposed rock ledge overlooking a streambed. The engravings—several letters and short inscriptions in Arabic—are dated to the last few centuries
7. A split in the path into two routes, attesting to the preparation of additional paths and to the prolonged use of the ascent (see Fig. 5).
8. A stone heap (diam. c. 4 m) that may have been placed on a built base.
9. A cairn surrounded by a circular wall at its base, which was founded on a retaining wall. The upper part of the cairn was not preserved, and the stones were scattered across an area approximately 4 m in diameter (Fig. 11).
13. A rock shelter with an enclosing wall along its entrance, in which a concrete threshold is incorporated. The shelter was used until recently, and its roof is covered with soot. Fragments of Byzantine pottery and Ottoman Black Gaza Ware were found at the entrance to the shelter.
14. A cairn of river pebbles (diam. c. 4 m) surrounded by a partially preserved stone circle at its base.
15. Fifteen modern north–south Bedouin tombs; three of the tombs are small and probably belong to children. Among the tombs was a stone engraved with two wasum (Bedouin family, clan or tribal markings; Fig. 12).
16. A stone cairn (diam. c. 4 m) surrounded by a circular wall at its base. Several large stones placed along an east–west alignment beside the wall may be the cover stones of a tomb.
17. A campsite containing built remains.
Pottery (Figs. 13, 14) dating from the Iron Age and Late Hellenistic–Ottoman periods discovered along the ascent and in the various campsites reflects human activity in the region during these periods. A survey conducted at Rosh Zohar yielded a stone seal pendant bearing a figure with a crescent head that dates from the late eighth–early seventh centuries BCE (Fig. 15; T. Arnon, pers. comm).
Of the four cairns documented, only one (No. 14) is typical of the cairns in the region, which date from the sixth through the second millennia BCE. Several cairns discovered in the Negev Highlands include remains attesting to their reuse for burial during the Hellenistic period and by modern Bedouins (Rothenberg and Glass 1992; Rosen 2015). Evidence of reuse of cairns, albeit in the Early Roman period, is also known from the Black Desert in northeastern Jordan (Brusgaard 2019:19–20). Since Cairn 9 is later than the retaining wall on which it was built, the Early Roman period may be the latest date (terminus ante quem) for the construction of the retaining wall. At this stage it is not possible to determine whether the Thamudic inscriptions found near Cairn 4 date its construction to the Early Roman period, or whether their proximity to the cairn is incidental. Cairns 4 and 9 may be ancient types of cairns from the Roman period in the Negev.
Ma‘ale Rosh Zohar is one of several routes that connected the Dead Sea rift valley to Arad valley. It may have preserved part of the biblical Edom Road, which linked Transjordan and Jerusalem. The finds along the ascent attest to the periods of its use, but do not indicate when the retaining walls were built nor the extent to which the ascent was used. Nevertheless, the construction style of the retaining walls suggests that they were probably built during the Roman period to facilitate use of the path; similar construction was observed along the Runner Path in the area around Masada. The places where there are two parallel built walls indicate relatively frequent use of the ascent during this period. The ascent continued to be used after the Roman period, when it may have even undergone some maintenance work.
Brusgaard O.N. 2019. Carving Interactions: Rock Art in the Nomadic Landscape of the Black Desert, North-Eastern Jordan. Oxford.
Macdonald M.C.A. 2000. Reflections on the Linguistic Map of Pre-Islamic Arabia. Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 11/1:28–79.
Rosen S.A. 2015. Review of Mobile Pastoralism and the Formation of Near Eastern Civilizations Weaving Together Society by A. Porter. JNES 74:153–155.
Rothenberg B. and Glass J. 1992. The Beginnings and the Development of Early Metallurgy and the Settlement and Chronology of the Western Arabah, from the Chalcolithic Period to Early Bronze IV. Levant 24:141–157.