Monumental stone structures in the ancient settlement of Dumat al-Jandal in northwest Saudi Arabia include a vast triangular platform that may have served pastoralist nomads for rituals over 7,000 years ago, archaeologists suggest based on radiocarbon dating of remains at the site.
The ruins at Dumat al-Jandal were but one of many prehistoric enigmas in the region. Now the dates of the remains at Dumat have been established in a paper published this week in the journal Antiquity by scientists from France, Saudi Arabia and Italy, led by Olivia Munoz of France’s National Center For Scientific Research, CNRS.
The notion that pastoralists lived in small nomadic groups and couldn’t have been behind monumental prehistoric construction has basically been abandoned. Sites such as Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, dating back more than 11,500 years ago, attest that however their societal structure worked, nomadic hunter-gatherers were capable of great collective efforts.
The prehistoric monumental ruins at the oasis settlement of Dumat al-Jandal are not unique in that sense; thousands have been found in the Arabian Peninsula and the southern Levant since the advent of satellite imaging – and thanks to the fact that the desert is bereft of inconvenient vegetation cover. Other sites include “kites” (alignments of stones that archaeologists think may have been giant traps for hunting), tombs and other platforms of the type found at of Dumat, Munoz says.
“However, few have been explored, and it’s often difficult to date them, which is one of the novelties of our study,” she says.
Ritual site for 2,000 years
At Dumat al-Jandal, human remains found in and around the monumental ruins and in nearby tombs span from nearly 8,000 years ago to 50 C.E., the archaeologists determined based on radiocarbon dating.
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During the Iron Age, the settlement developed into a walled city-state, known in part for its great temple to the goddess Ishtar. But worship at the site probably went back much further.
The enigmatic triangular platform was surrounded by dry-stone exterior walls, one of which contained two niches. The triangular shape was filled with large, irregular stones, Munoz told Haaretz. That filler didn’t come from collapsing walls, they were part of the original construction; that is, the platform had been filled with the stones from the outset, she says.
The results indicate that the platform had been built in several phases 8,000 to 7,000 years ago – and beneath the stone filling lay one or more human bodies, apparently adults.
The condition of the bones within the platform was too decrepit to ascertain much, but the archaeologists did note that some of the long bones had been deformed by the weight of the stones and sediment atop them. That indicated the bones still contained collagen when put in their final resting place: They hadn’t been completely dried out.
“Their organization in the repository – disarticulated and deposited as a bundle – shows that this is a secondary deposit, i.e., that the body had decomposed elsewhere, and that only certain bones were selected and placed in the platform,” Munoz says. “The deposition of these human remains was probably of strong symbolic importance from the early days of the use of the platform, which may have been a place of commemoration at the time.”
It bears adding that secondary burial was very much the norm in the ancient Levant and Middle East. Bone boxes found in many ancient burials in the region, including in today’s Israel, were the final repository for bones after the body’s decay.
The secondary burial within this enigmatic platform suggests that the monumental edifice served a ritual purpose, likely a funerary function, Munoz explains.
In addition, the platform was oriented along a west/northwest to east/southeast axis, corresponding to the winter sunrise and sunset.
And most intriguingly: “Its monumentality and long duration of use (over at least two millennia) suggest that it was a place of collective commemoration for social and ritual activities as well a material anchor for social memory and identity construction,” Munoz says.
Trading relations with ancient Egypt
Another set of human remains found at Dumat al-Jandal, in a messy deposit about 20 meters (66 feet) from the platform, was disorganized to a degree that suggests they were extracted from a tomb, possibly by prehistoric grave robbers.
This assemblage of bones came from at least five adults and a toddler. Their remains have been dated to about 5,400 to 5,000 years ago, Munoz says. The likelihood that they had been protected in a tomb for at least some time is based on their limited weathering.
With these bodies, the archaeologists found 13 beads: two cylindrical shell beads, three cylindrical stone beads, three flat beads of whitish stone and five carnelian beads.
More carnelian beads were found in a looted tomb about 20 meters from the triangular platform, which dated to a later time: around 2,150 to 1,970 years ago.
So, first of all, Dumat is in the middle of the desert and the shells had to come from afar. Now for the carnelian beads.
Carnelian is a semitranslucent pink, orange, red or brown chalcedony, a type of quartz crystal. Though nonorganic beads can’t be dated, from the contexts of their discovery, the archaeologists deduce that the carnelian beads in the two deposits speak volumes.
The question is where these semiprecious stones came from. The five found in the disorganized assembly of bones from over 5,000 years ago may have been locally sourced, relatively speaking.
The archaeologists note a separate discovery of flint drills that were apparently used to work hard stones in Rajajil, just 32 kilometers (20 miles) from Dumat al-Jandal. They also note the separate discovery of a carnelian bead workshop 270 kilometers southwest of the oasis, at Tayma.
“Beads found there [at Tayma] show similar sizes and the same technological know-how,” the team writes.
On the other hand, the carnelian beads found in the looted tomb dating to around two millennia ago were discovered together with seashells from the Red Sea, a faience bead with typically Egyptian light green glaze, and a scarab – an amulet in the shape of a dung beetle – from ancient Egypt.
And that, the archaeologists suggest, indicates trading relations between the inhabitants of Dumat al-Jandal and Egypt at that later time, by a land route through the Sinai Desert.
The archaeologists also dwell at length on the scarab, a rare find in the Saudi context. Less than a dozen have been found, and this is the first to be found in the central desert, far from the coast.
The stone scarab retains traces of blue glaze and is engraved with a stylized human, probably a pharaoh based on his headdress, wearing a long pleated skirt. His right arm hangs down and his left one is raised in front of him. Typical of a subset of pharaonic scarabs, cobras protrude from his skirt.
Which pharaoh it might be is another matter. The style could date as early as the New Kingdom, which ruled from the 16th to the 11th century B.C.E., though motifs of a standing or kneeling pharaoh with cobras is most frequent in scarabs from the Ramesside Period, which began late in the 13th century B.C.E.
This would be just the latest evidence suggesting that prehistoric peoples were perfectly capable of maintaining brisk trading. Just for one example, somebody in a Neolithic town just north of Jerusalem, at Motza, from 9,000 years ago was the proud owner of a blade made of obsidian, aka volcanic glass, that probably hailed from Anatolia, the other side of the Mediterranean Sea.
“The presence of Egyptian-style objects at the site is explained by its proximity to the Sinai and to the Southern Levant, where large numbers of Egyptian and Egyptianising scarabs circulated from the early second millennium B.C.E. to at least the mid-first millennium B.C.E.,” the team sums up. Indeed, some have been found in archaeological digs in Israel too.
The samples from the platform area and necropolis were collected by the archaeologists, and other samples from nearby were collected during a 2015 survey in the project at Dumat al-Jandal led by Guillaume Charloux of France’s National Center For Scientific Research. This was part of a collaboration with the Saudi Ministry of Culture (the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage).