In the accompanying article author Uzi Avner focuses on masseboth (standing stones) that represent deities and their abodes at scores of desert shrines, such as the impressive installation at Ma‘aleh Jethro, in the Uvda Valley, an area about 30 miles north of Eilat that is exceptionally rich in archaeological remains. He notes, however, that many different kinds of masseboth also stand as part of hundreds of tumuli (heaps of stones marking burial places) and open sanctuaries. Counting those, he says, would “mean more than a lifetime project. In all the Negev and Sinai they would reach the thousands.”

The photographs shown here offer a glimpse of the diverse masseboth that still bear witness to the intriguing and enigmatic religious impulses of those who erected them thousands of years ago in the Negev desert.

When new construction threatened a southern Negev burial site (6000–5000 B.C.E.), archaeologists carefully moved it to a nearby desert site to preserve it. Not only were the rocks (and the plainly visible masseboth) within each tumulus painstakingly reconstructed, but the layout and appearance of the entire original site, including the relative distances among the numerous tumuli, were preserved.

A Late Neolithic (6000 B.C.E.) open sanctuary in the Uvda Valley contains a group of 17 small, unaligned and detached masseboth enclosed protectively by four larger stones. Avner believes that the small standing stones represent the ancestors of the ancient worshipers, in part because they resemble other stone installations throughout the Near East, Europe and Asia that are associated with burial and the cult of the dead. Another such site is an open sanctuary in what is known as the Eilat Burial Site, which dates to the Late Neolithic-Early Chalcolithic Period (6000–5000 B.C.E.). Here, two large masseboth preside over an assembly of 99 smaller stones. The relative sizes and orientations of the stones in the group lead Avner to conclude that the two large stones represent a pair of deities, while the others stand for human ancestral spirits.