“I missed the detour,” he said.
I looked out the window a little confused as I couldn’t see an obvious curve.
“Here,” he exclaimed, as the car lurched across the basalt rocks to take an almost imperceptible path into the desert.
We continue through a vast and flat landscape. A bright blue sky surrounded us on all sides, and a smattering of white clouds hung low.
After a few minutes, we stopped at a circle of stacked stones. I got out of the car, expecting to find Jane McMahon, a member of a team of archeologists at the University of Western Australia who have been working on AlUla since 2018.
Around me was a barren plain of dark gray rocks lightly dusted with pink sand.
There was something supernatural about it all: the lack of a single tree or patch of grass; the stillness of the air that was only interrupted now and then by a relentless gust of wind that chilled him to the bone.
I came here because the recent discoveries at AlUla are shedding light on a fascinating period of history in Saudi Arabia.
As the country only opened to international research a few years ago (and to tourists in 2019), many of its ancient archaeological sites are being studied for the first time.
While historians are familiar with the ruins of the 2,000-year-old cities of Hegra and Dadan located on the Incense Route (Hegra’s tombs and monuments are a UNESCO World Heritage Site), they didn’t have much knowledge about the civilization that came before it. – yet.
They found that scattered across the vast and remote landscape of AlUla are ancient archaeological remains that could change our understanding of prehistory.
The work of McMahon and his colleagues is shedding light on some of the first stone monuments in world history—prior to Stonehenge and the first pyramid at Giza.
The Nabataean city of Hegra was Saudi Arabia’s first Unesco World Heritage Site — Photo: Tuul & Bruno Morandi/Getty Images via BBC
When McMahon arrived, he explained that the rock circle next to me was the remains of a house occupied in the Neolithic period (6000 to 4500 BC), and that this area was once teeming with thriving settlements.
Until recently, the prevailing thought was that this region had little human activity until the Bronze Age after 4000 BC.
But the work of McMahon and his colleagues revealed a very different story: that Neolithic Saudi Arabia was a dynamic, heavily populated and complex landscape spread over a vast area.
Around me were over 30 dwellings and tombs, and that was just a tiny fraction of the remains found here.
I tried to imagine what the landscape might have looked like thousands of years ago: green and lush and full of people who were noisily moving, herding goats and calling to one another.
“Saudi Arabia’s climate and inert landscape means that most of the archeology is very well preserved on the surface from 5,000 to 8,000 years ago. So exactly the way you see it, that’s how it was all this time ago,” he says. McMahon.
She explains that understanding more about the lives of these early peoples could also shed light on how the large, dense settlements of Hegra and Dedan developed, and how cultural and technological changes in the region—such as irrigation agriculture, metallurgy, and written texts—occurred in the past. following millennia.
“The cultural changes that happened after the Neolithic are huge, but we don’t know much about how these changes occurred,” she says. However, even in the hands of such experienced archaeologists, a discovery at AlUla remained unexplained.
Spread over an area of an impressive 300,000 square kilometers and built in a relatively consistent pattern are 1,600 monumental rectangular stone structures that also date back to the Neolithic period.
Initially called “gates” because of their appearance from above, the structures were later renamed “mustatil”, an Arabic expression that can be translated as “rectangle”.
“It makes your imagination run wild to think that we have structures as big as five to six football fields, made of thousands of tons of stone, that not only cover a huge geographic region, but are 7,000 years old,” says Hugh Thomas, co-director of Projects. of Aerial Archeology of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (AAKSAU).
He has worked alongside McMahon for the past two years, conducting aerial archaeological research and targeted excavations to understand the mustatil’s purpose.
Mustatils are certainly impressive, and the only real way to get a sense of their size is from the air. As I flew over the structures by helicopter, I could see the large stones laid out in straight lines on the sand, approximately the length of four football fields and at least two wide.
“In my opinion, mustatils are among the most unique archaeological structures identified so far in the world,” says Thomas.
“When we look at other structures dating back to the Neolithic that are so impressive in their construction, I have a hard time thinking of one that covers such a large geographic region.”
In addition to recording mustatils of various sizes and complexity, Thomas’ team also noticed consistent characteristics. All were built in a similar way, stacking stones to form low walls that are filled with gravel — and include a head (the top of the structure), a base, and long walls that connect them.
Some have entrances and several narrow interior courtyards. The stones used for the construction were specially chosen to fit and support the large structures, demonstrating a deep understanding of local materials.x
What were mustatils for?
These prehistoric monuments were first recorded in the 1960s by a local team doing ground surveys, but at that time no one knew what they were.
Remote sensing research carried out by Professor David Kennedy (also at the University of Western Australia) in 2017 heightened interest in the area, and early theories suggested that mustatils were used as territorial markers for ancestral grasslands.
However, as more and more structures were found, all dating to the same period, a different understanding emerged.
Since then, Thomas, McMahon and their teams have uncovered evidence that suggests the practice of a cult.
They found large numbers of skulls and horns from cattle, goats, and wild gazelle in small chambers in the mustatils’ heads, but found no indication that they were kept for domestic use.
As no other animal body parts were found, this led the team to deduce that they were sacrifices. And it suggested that animals were sacrificed elsewhere. This is important because it is evidence of a highly organized cult society much older than previously thought — predating Islam in the region by 6,000 years.
“The excavation of several mustatils revealed artifacts suggestive of ritual practices that took place within the structures,” says Thomas.
“The people who built them had a shared culture and belief system, and this was not a localized practice. It spread over a huge area of Arabia, the size of Poland.”
“Saudi Arabia has the appearance of being an arid and inhospitable landscape, seen as isolated from the rest of the world except for a few notable sites such as Dedan and Hegra. However, archaeological evidence such as the mustatils demonstrates that the region had a rich and complex history. Having such a widely dispersed structure over such a large area suggests a shared belief system, language and culture on a scale I personally never imagined possible,” adds Thomas.
‘Heavier than the Eiffel Tower’
Munirah Almushawh, co-director of an archaeological project in Khaybar (another area of AlUla), agrees, noting that this society not only shared a unique belief system, but traveled great distances to share the knowledge that allowed the structures to be built.
Some of the mustatils weigh up to 12,000 tons; more than the Eiffel Tower. Its construction would have required knowledge, skill and organization over long periods of time. “Mustatil suggests great social networks, innovative architectural skills and vast exploration into prehistoric Arabia,” notes Almushawh.
Despite these exciting discoveries, knowledge about mustatils is still incipient, with only five of the 1,600 excavated so far. The only certainty is that AlUla will continue to reveal its mysteries.
As the region reopens to tourism after the Covid-19 pandemic, there are plans to build a huge open-air museum, where visitors can delve into various archaeological sites or rely on the service of a guide.
Tourists will be able to learn about the Neolithic period, see the ancient ruins of houses and mustatils, and imagine how this apparently highly organized society lived and moved through the landscape.
McMahon and Thomas are as excited about AlUla’s future as they are about its past.
“The significance of what we found is rewriting Neolithic history in northwest Arabia,” says McMahon.
“Our work has so far revealed only what has always been there: the complexity of the Neolithic period in this region, which had previously been considered uninhabitable or merely unimportant at the time.”
– This article was originally published in https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/vert-tra-62150256