Millions of visitors to the Yehudiya Nature Reserve have no idea that their footpath crossed a key to understanding the mysterious culture of ancient builders who once lived in the area.

A new study by Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel-Hai College researchers reports the discovery of engraved rock art motifs on four dolmens - giant burial structures - in the Galilee and the Golan.

The recently exposed rock art sheds light, for the first time, on the mysterious ancient culture of the dolmen builders. The discovery was published last week in the journal Asian Archaeology.

The rock art discovered is varied: On the Yehudiya Nature Reserve dolmen, a Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel inspector identified carvings of horned animals, such as mountain goats, antelopes and wild cows; the huge capstone of another dolmen is carved to depict a human face; and a variety of geometric shapes were discovered engraved in the rockface of a third dolmen.

The dolmens, burial structures built of huge rocks, are one of the most impressive of the archaeological phenomena in the Land of Israel. Most researchers agree that these giant rock structures were built in the Levant Intermediate Bronze Age, 4500-4000 years ago.

Hundreds of dolmens were surveyed in the Upper Galilee and the Golan but the dolmens and the culture who built them have yet to receive proper attention. In recent years, there has been renewed interest in the study of dolmens in the Middle East, and the research has yielded new and fascinating discoveries.

In the words of Prof. Gonen Sharon, head of the M.A. Program in Galilee Studies at Tel-Hai College, who wrote the article together with Uri Berger of the Israel Antiquities Authority, "Several years ago, a panel of rock art engravings was discovered on the inner wall of a huge dolmen in a field surrounding Kibbutz Shamir. This was the first time rock art was documented in the context of dolmens in the Middle East. Following this discovery, we started a research project to locate and document dolmen art throughout the Land of Israel. We surveyed dozens of dolmens in Upper Galilee and the Golan in an attempt to uncover the world of this mysterious culture that existed more than 4000 years ago, and left behind only dolmens as evidence of their rich culture."

According to Uri Berger, Upper Galilee archaeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority, "To date, many dolmens were identified in Israel and in neighboring countries, but we knew almost nothing about the civilization of these super-builders beyond the remains of the enormous structures they left behind as evidence of their existence in the region. The engravings in the rock open a window, for the first time, to the culture behind the construction of these dolmens. In Kiryat Shemona, a giant rock was found that served as the wall of a burial chamber carved much like a human face. In the Yehudiya Nature Reserve in the Golan, Paula Foley, an alert inspector of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, contacted us after discovering engravings in a dolmen located in the reserve. We were amazed to see seven animals with horns of various kinds, engraved in a complicated composition on the walls of the burial chamber."

The joint research of Uri Berger of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Prof. Gonen Sharon of Tel-Hai College is gradually uncovering the mystery surrounding the culture responsible for one of the largest, least understood, construction projects in the history of the Land of Israel. With the new dolmen discoveries, perhaps we will begin to identify the artistic technique, worldview, and social organization of this mysterious culture.