Thousands of monumental structures built from rock walls in Saudi Arabia are older than the Egyptian pyramids and ancient stone circles of Britain – making it perhaps the first ritual landscape ever identified, researchers say. .
A study published Thursday in the journal Antiquity shows that the mysterious structures dotted around the desert of northwestern Saudi Arabia – called “mustatils” from the Arabic word for “rectangle” – are around 7,000 years old. It’s much older than expected, and around 2,000 years older than Stonehenge in England or the oldest Egyptian pyramid.
“We see them as a monumental landscape,” said Melissa Kennedy, archaeologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth and author of the study. “We are talking about over 1,000 mustatils. These things lie on 200,000 square kilometers [77,000 square miles], and they’re all very similar in shape … so maybe it’s the same belief or ritual understanding.
“There must have been a great level of communication over a very large area, because the way they were built was communicated to people,” said lead author Hugh Thomas, archaeologist at the same university.
The research is funded by the Royal Commission for AlUla, which was established by the government of Saudi Arabia to preserve the heritage of the AlUla region in the northwest of the country, where there are many mustatiles.
Some of the older structures are over 1,500 feet long, but are relatively narrow, and they are often clustered together. They are usually built on bedrock, often on rocky outcrops above the desert, but also in the mountains and in relatively low areas.
The simplest mustatils were made by stacking rocks in low walls a few feet high to form long rectangles, with a thicker “head” wall at the higher end and a narrow entrance on the opposite side. . Researchers believe they may have been built to guide a procession from start to finish. But they also found many mustatils that were much more complex than they initially thought, containing pillars, standing stones, and smaller “cells” of rock walls. Kennedy and Thomas estimate that a mustatil they studied was built by moving over 12,000 tonnes of basalt stone – a daunting task that must have taken dozens of months to complete.