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One hundred prehistoric "cult sites," complete with penis stone structures and artifacts with vulva shapes cut into them, have been discovered in the Eilat Mountains, an extremely arid area of the Negev Desert in Israel.
At the sites, which date back around 8,000 years, archaeologists discovered a variety of stone structures and artifacts, including stone circles that measure 1.5 to 2.5 meters across (roughly 5 to 8 feet) with penis-shaped installations pointing toward them. Other findings there include standing stones that reach up to 2.6 feet (80 centimeters) high, stone bowls and stone carvings that have a humanlike shape.
In one area, the team discovered 44 cult sites in a spot encompassing only 0.8 square kilometers (less than 200 acres). "The density of cult sites in this region is phenomenal," the team wrote in an article published recently in the Journal of the Israel Prehistoric Society. [See Photos of the Cult Sites and Stone Structures]
These sites were used for ritual activities of some form. Archaeologists know little about what activities went on at these sites, although animal sacrifice, as seen from bones found there, seems to be one of them.
Archaeologists are working to decipher any meaning from the artifacts and structures, noting that both death and fertility seem to be symbolized at the sites. For instance, in addition to the penis-shaped structures, researchers also found that some of the stones have vulva-shaped holes cut into them. The circles that the penis-shaped structures point to also seem to represent females.
"The circle is a female symbol, and the elongated cell is a male one (phallus)," Uzi Avner, a researcher with the Arava-Dead Sea Science Center and the Arava Institute, said in an email to Live Science.
Death is "signified by the burial of stone objects and by setting them upside down," the team members wrote in their paper. In one case, a humanlike stone carving was found buried "with only the very top visible on the surface."
The two symbols identified so far, fertility and death, go hand in hand in many cultures. "Combinations of both are actually well-known in anthropological studies as relating to ancestral cult," the archaeologists wrote.