Archaeologists Find Prehistoric Cultic Monuments in Saudi Arabia

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A group of mustatils in northwest Saudi Arabia
A group of mustatils in northwest Saudi Arabia: Hardly suitable for animal pens or trapsCredit: AAKSA and Royal Commission for A
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Thousands of giant stone structures dot the desert of the Arabian peninsula, chiefly in northwest Saudi Arabia. The age and purpose of these monumental edifices, which differ in size and shape, has been a mystery. Now a new paper published in the journal of Antiquity puts a timeline on their prehistoric construction, and supports the theory that these were not traps, or pens, or burials; they were some of the earliest monumental ritual structures in the world.

The monumental structures, called mustatils, based on the Arabic word for “rectangle,” were erected between 8,500 to 4,800 years ago, the period known as the Middle Holocene, write Hugh Thomas of the University of Western Australia and colleagues in Antiquity.

Previous suggestions for their use ranged from a pen or trap for animals, which would be caught within the walled structure from which they couldn’t escape; burial sites; and/or territorial markers.

Regarding use as a trap – first of all the walls were too low to prevent the more agile of the herbivores from jumping out and fleeing, Thomas and the team observe. Further contravening such simple use, the mustatils are architecturally more complex than had been initially realized.

Mustatils are rectangular, with a head and base, and elongated sides. Some had an entrance at the base and a chamber smack in the center of the head. Some had multiple chambers at the head. Furthermore, some feature orthostats – large stone blocks that are taller than they are wide, Thomas and colleagues write.

The mustatils range in size from titches a mere 15 meters long to monsters more than 620 meters in length. They were thrown up all over the peninsula, including on the slopes of volcanoes, using simple dry-stone masonry – unworked flat slabs of sandstone or other local rocks. Some of the mustatils have dividing walls down their length.

Mustatils in northwest Saudi Arabia: Didn't have any particular orientationCredit: AAKSA and Royal Commission for A

While they’re all over northwestern Saudi Arabia, they’re particularly concentrated in the counties of Al-Ula and Khaybar.

The paper by Thomas and team focuses on a subset of over 1,000 mustatils in northwest Saudi Arabia, of a type dubbed “gates.” Gaining any potential insight into the logic underlying their construction begs understanding the prevailing conditions in Neolithic peninsula.

When Arabia was green

Far from being bereft of life other than lizards until the Iron Age, as some had thought, the Arabian peninsula turns out to have hosted a hive of prehistoric activity, certainly in the early Holocene. It helps to realize that in the early Holocene, the Arabian peninsula was green.

Green Arabia” and the potential role of the mustatils has been previously described. The peninsula was lush from roughly 10,000 years ago. Grasslands reached their maximal expansion perhaps 8,000 years ago – the very time many mustatils were being erected. But from that time, the aridification process was rapid and the green grassland was replaced by hardier shrubs.

Huw Groucutt of the Max Planck human history group in Germany described the mustatils in a 2019 paper in the journal The Holocene as “fence-like” low walls created by piling up stones and dated one of the structures to 7,000 years ago. This team postulated that the mustatils were somehow related to ancient rituals in the context of the transition from hunting and gathering to pastoralism and the resulting territoriality in the "challenging environments" of northern Arabia.

Three mustatil bases: Note the associated cells and orthostats, and blocked entrancesCredit: AAKSA and Royal Commission for A
Distribution of mustatils in northwest Arabian peninsulaCredit: AAKSA

In the new paper, Thomas and the team focus on the “gate” mustatils in northwestern Saudi Arabia. (They weren’t called gates because they are a passage; they were called gates because some thought they looked like European gates seen from above, the team explains.) Their findings certainly don’t sound like fencing designed to frustrate animals.

As said, many of these “gates” have entrances positioned at the center of their base, directly opposite the “head” of the mustatil at the other end. At their heads, some had chambers, with doorways to the main courtyard. Sometimes the doorways seem to have been deliberately blocked, casually or decisively, which could argue that the facility had been “decommissioned.”

In some cases that interior chamber was apparently roofed by a single huge rock, aka a capstone (think of dolmens in prehistoric Israel) or by multiple stones.

The main “courtyard” of the mustatil was generally empty, or at least it is now. But in some cases the chamber features niches in the walls.

In their interior, smack in front of the base, many mustatils feature three to eight separate or interlocking circular cells, which are more or less identical in size, the team writes. They note in passing that there may be more, but if there are, they’re hidden in the sand.

These cells were built along the base, leaving a passage between the outer edge of the base and the cells, leading to the entrance to the courtyard. In seven cases that were surveyed, the cells contained orthostats in their center – some of which, over 8,000 years later, are still standing. In contrast to the orthostats in Neolithic Turkey, at Gobekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe for instance, these do not seem to have been decorated in any way.

Mustatils could be built practically anywhere, including on volcanic slopes, with the "head"section highest when possibleCredit: AAKSA and Royal Commission for A
'Simple' mustatil, ‘complex’ mustatils, single (B) and double (C)Credit: AAKSA and Royal Commission for A

The authors add that the mustatils in another region, the Harrat Khaybar lava field, don’t have orthostats. But that may be because there were no suitable rocks there, the authors point out – and instead, they feature stacked-up boulders, creating makeshift pillars. In the case of one mustatil, they observed 50 such pillars.

Moreover, archaeologists have noticed strange structures shaped like the serifed capital letter I, often in association with the rectangular mustatils. These in contrast were low rubble-filled platforms. In fact of the 131 such I-shaped platforms recorded by the AAKSA project, 73 were in association with mustatils – as many as six per mustatil. They are apparently contemporary with the mustatils and were likely used together – but for what?

How now sacrificial cow

It cannot be said that the mustatils were associated with any particular geological, geographical or cosmological orientations. That said, their heads were often situated higher than any other part of the structure, when the topography allowed. On flat land it did not allow but there seems to have been a preference to build on slopes, which did allow prominence of the head.

The team points out that mustatils and I-structures, certainly on slopes, could be seen for miles, which was likely the point; and the mustatils tended to be built in groups, meaning in this case within half a kilometer of on another.

And in these mustatils, archaeologists have been finding evidence whispering of ancient animal sacrifices, possibly to the spirits, gods or ancestors.

Flat stone platforms often found in proximity to mustatils: Note the serifed I-shapeCredit: AAKSA and Royal Commission for A

Take the Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia excavation of an undisturbed mustatil east of AlUla. In the central chamber of the head, bones were found, mainly of cattle but also of sheep and goats and gazelle. The bones were found in proximity to a large upright stone in the center of the chamber. The bones were radiocarbon-dated to the sixth millennium B.C.E., not all that long after the animals’ domestication.

The domestication of cattle, sheep and goats cannot be neatly nailed down to one event in one place but it was apparently over 10,000 years ago. Cattle may have been domesticated in multiple, separate processes in prehistoric Egypt, the Fertile Crescent and the Indus Valley. In any case, by the time the mustatils and the I-shaped structures were erected in the Saudi non-desert, the bovine, the ovine and the caprine were tamed. (The gazelle wasn’t but they have been a favored food of the Homo genus since time immemorial; one would assume the spirits would appreciate venison too).

No evidence of human habitation was found in the mustatils; and the finds in that mustatil chamber do not have the hallmarks of dining table garbage. The archaeologists choose to interpret the bones as remains from offerings.

All the evidence adds up to the mustatils serving a ritual function for a cattle-oriented cult. They were discrete structures, prominent in the landscape, built with much investment during a period of climatic insecurity, featuring elements such as orthostats and circular interior chambers but not bedding or anything smacking of human habitation and comfort; the walls were generally too low to keep quadrupeds penned inside; and Thomas and the team see in their collective minds’ eye – the passageways were too narrow to enable people to walk side by side. They had to be walking in procession from the entrance at the rear to the structure’s head.

Though not serving as mortuary structures themselves, mustatils have been found in association with funerary monuments, but those evidently date to a later time.

Further indirect evidence of a Neolithic cattle cult in northwestern Arabia is rock-art, which features scenes of hunting and cattle herding – which among other things show how different environmental conditions were back then. Art in over 250 panels in Shuwaymis “provides compelling evidence that humans and animals once thrived in landscapes that are extremely arid today,” wrote Maria Guagnin, Groucutt and others in 2015.

And wondrously, Guagnin and her team show that earlier peninsula rock art shows hunting, while later drawings show cattle herding – and the cattle scenes were often engraved over, or integrated into, older hunting scenes. Hunters turned into herders, they write. And who knows, possibly the mustatils went up to exhort the powers to restore the good times, when the desert was green.

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