Suggests

Archaeologists Say a Mystifying Group of Ancient Monuments in Saudi Arabia Suggests the Existence of a Prehistoric Cattle Cult


A mysterious group of ancient monuments first discovered in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, known as mustatials, predate the first Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge by over 2,000 years, making them the world’s oldest ritual landscape, archaeologists now say.

Scattered across 77,000 square miles of desert in northwest Arabia, the mustatils (the name comes from the Arabic word for “rectangle”) were built between 8,500 and 4,800 years ago, during the period known as the Middle Holocene, according to a report published last week in the journal Antiquity.

Through satellite imagery, helicopter and ground surveys, and excavations, the study identified more than 1,000 mustatils, typically built in clusters. That’s more than double the number previously thought to exist.

The project, led by a team from the University of Western Australia, is being funded by the Royal Commission for AlUla, which is hoping to drive tourism to the nearby site of AlUla.

Experts had previously raised numerous theories as to the structures’ purpose, including as animal enclosures, burial sites, or territory markers. But the new study shows that the mustatils‘s walls would have been too low to prevent animals from escaping.

The locations of <em>mustatils</em> in northwest Saudia Arabia. Image courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

The locations of mustatils in northwest Saudia Arabia. Image courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

“You don’t get a full understanding of the scale of the structures until you’re there,” archaeologist Hugh Thomas, the director of the project, told New Scientist. “It’s not designed to keep anything in, but to demarcate the space that is clearly an area that needs to be isolated.”

Archaeologists found animal bones on the sites, which seem to be the remains of religious offerings. The presence of cattle skulls in particular suggests the existence of prehistoric cattle cult.

“We think people created these structures for ritual purposes in the Neolithic [era], which involved offering sacrifices of wild and domestic animals to an unknown deity/deities,” Thomas told the Art Newspaper.

A cattle horn found at a <em>mustatil</em>, suggesting ritual sacrifice. Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

A cattle horn found at a mustatil, suggesting ritual sacrifice. Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

The largest mustatils are more than 1,500 feet long, with one example constructed from 12,000 tons of basalt stone. Some are simple constructions, with low rock walls forming long rectangles. But others are far more complex, with pillars, interior walls, and small chambers that may have been used for ritual sacrifices.

During the construction of the mustatils, Saudi Arabia would have been all but unrecognizable to contemporary eyes, a verdant green landscape where there is now arid desert.

“The environment was certainly much more humid during this period,” Melissa Kennedy, assistant director of the Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia project, told Live Science. “Cattle need a lot of water to survive.”

Three mustatils. Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

Three mustatils. Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

But there were also periods of drought, suggesting the ancient people who built these structures may have been making offerings asking for rainfall, which is essential for raising cattle.

“These thousands of mustatils really show the creation of a monumental landscape,” Huw Groucutt, an archaeologist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History who has separately studied mustatils, told NBC News. “They show that this part of the world is far from the eternal empty desert that people often imagine, but rather somewhere that remarkable human cultural developments have taken place.”

The Royal Commission for AlUla will showcase mustatils at the Kingdoms’ Institute, an international archaeology and conservation center that is among 15 cultural institutions the nation is planning to establish.

“We have only begun to tell the hidden story of the ancient kingdoms of North Arabia,” José Ignacio Gallego Revilla, executive director of archaeology, heritage research, and conservation for AlUla, said in a statement. “There is much more to come as we reveal the depth and breadth of the area’s archaeological heritage, which for decades has been under-represented.”

See more photos from the study below.

A number of mustatils. Photo ©Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Commission for AlUla.

A) internal niche located in the head of a mustatil; B) a blocked entranceway in the base of a mustatil; C–D) associated features of a mustatil: cells and orthostats; E) stone pillar identified on the Harrat Khaybar lava field. Photo ©Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Commission for AlUla.

A group of mustatils. Photo ©Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Commission for AlUla.

A group of mustatils. Photo ©Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Commission for AlUla.

Two mustatils. Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

Some mustatils in northwest Arabia. Photo ©Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Commission for AlUla.

Some mustatils in northwest Arabia. Photo ©Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Commission for AlUla.

Three monumental mustatils and a later funerary ‘pendant’ located atop a rocky outcrop on the border of Khaybar and AlUla counties. Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

Three monumental mustatils and a later funerary ‘pendant’ located atop a rocky outcrop on the border of Khaybar and AlUla counties. Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

A mustatil. Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

A mustatil. Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

Some mustatils in northwest Arabia. Photo ©Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Commission for AlUla.

Some mustatils in northwest Arabia. Photo ©Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Commission for AlUla.

 

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A Newly Discovered Ancient Grave Site in Spain Suggests That Women May Have Been Bronze Age Political Rulers


An archaeological site at La Almoloya, in what is now the southeastern Spanish region of Murcia, has yielded a burial site of an upper-class couple that offers tantalizing evidence that Bronze Age women may have held great political power.

La Almoloya is one of the first Bronze Age palaces in Western Europe, and was the home of the El Argar society, which thrived from ca. 2200 to 1550 BC. The complex society was highly stratified by class and their cities featured monumental structures.

The couple’s grave yielded a trove of precious goods. Cristina Rihuete Herrada, an archaeologist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and one of the discoverers of the burial, tells the New York Times that women in Argaric society may have had greater political power than previously thought, while men may have been in charge of military matters.

Among the factors that suggest a unique status for women, say the authors of the study, published in the journal Antiquity, are that some objects of value are found only in female graves, and that women appear to have graduated into adulthood earlier, based on their having been given grave goods at a younger age. Crucially, only women were given diadems, or band-like metal crowns.

The grave in question contains a woman buried atop a man, both in a large jar beneath the floor of a grand hall. The building is unique among hundreds of Argar finds, say the authors, and was a political headquarters.

Both people appear to have died mid-17th century BC, at the height of Argar society. The 29 valuable objects buried with them suggest their upper-class status.

Valuable silver objects adorn the woman, such as hair fasteners, earlobe plugs, bracelet and ring. Most importantly, she wore a silver, headband-like crown. It is one of only a half-dozen discovered in Argaric graves to date.

“Imagine the diadem with a disc going down to the tip of her nose,” Rihuete Herrada told the New York Times. “It’s shining. You could actually see yourself in the disc. Framing the eyes of that woman, it would be a very, very impressive thing to see. And the ability of somebody to be reflected—their face in another face—would have been something shocking.”

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Startling New Evidence Suggests Stonehenge’s Inner Stone Circle Was Originally Erected 175 Miles Away, in Wales


Lending credence to an ancient legend, newly uncovered evidence suggests that Stonehenge’s inner circle of stones was originally erected in Wales, before being transported 175 miles and rebuilt on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England.

Archaeologists working on the Stones of Stonehenge project have found buried holes that once were part of a ring of stones that closely matches the dimensions at Stonehenge—and is located just three miles a Wales mountain range that is home to the quarries where Stonehenge’s “bluestones” were originally mined.

“I’ve been researching Stonehenge for 20 years now and this really is the most exciting thing we’ve ever found,” Mike Parker Pearson, a professor of British later prehistory at University College London and the Stones of Stonehenge leader, told the Guardian. The team’s findings will be broadcast in a BBC documentary, Stonehenge: The Lost Circle Revealed, on Friday evening.

In the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote of how Merlin and his men stole the Giant’s Dance, a magical stone circle in Ireland, and rebuilt it in England as a memorial to the dead. The tale was long dismissed as a myth, but the new findings from Parker Pearson’s team suggests it may have been based in truth—especially because southwest Wales was considered Irish territory at the time.

This standing stone at Waun Mawn in Wales is now believed to be among the remnants of an ancient stone circle that was deconstructed and used in the building of Stonehenge. Photo by Paul R. Davis, courtesy of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.

This standing stone at Waun Mawn in Wales is now believed to be among the remnants of an ancient stone circle that was deconstructed and used in the building of Stonehenge. Photo by Paul R. Davis, courtesy of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.

The site of a onetime stone circle near the Preseli Hills also conforms to a theory espoused by geologist Herbert Thomas in the Antiquaries Journal way back in 1923. He believed that Stonehenge’s bluestones, which weigh up to three tons, were originally part of a “venerated stone circle” in Wales.

“It seems that Stonehenge stage one was built—partly or wholly—by Neolithic migrants from Wales, who brought their monument or monuments as a physical manifestation of their ancestral identities to be re-created in similar form on Salisbury Plain,” wrote Parker Pearson in the journal Antiquity.

The Stones of Stonehenge team first began looking at the site of Waun Mawn, which is home to four prehistoric monoliths, back in 2010. They held off further investigations after initial scans with remote-sensing technology did not uncover signs of former stone holes. But when they returned for excavations in 2017, archaeologists were surprised to find holes where stones had been removed in ancient times.

The remains of the stone circle at Waun Mawn in Wales during excavations. Photo by A. Stanford.

The remains of the stone circle at Waun Mawn in Wales during excavations. Photo by A. Stanford.

Now, it would seem that the four surviving stones and the six newly discovered stone holes were once part of a ring of some 30 to 50 stones. Like Stonehenge, the circle would have aligned with the midsummer solstice. Most convincingly, the imprint of one of the stone holes matches the shape of one Stonehenge’s bluestones almost exactly.

Waun Mawn is located just a stone’s throw (ahem) from the quarries that the Stones of Stonehenge project identified as the source of Stonehenge’s bluestone two years ago. But when Parker Pearson’s team carbon dated hazelnut shells believed to have been left behind by prehistoric miners after a snack, they were found to predate the monument’s erection in England, around 3,000 BC, by almost four centuries, suggesting a delay in Stonehenge’s construction.

That’s when Parker Pearson began to suspect that Stonehenge might be what he dubbed “a secondhand monument.” Now, he believes Waun Mawn might be “amongst the earliest stone circles in Britain,” and that it may be part of “several stone circles [that] were dismantled in the Preseli area to provide Stonehenge” with its bluestones.

A stone hole at Waun Mawn in Wales during excavations. The imprint of this stone (in the right half of the stonehole) reveals that the base of this stone had a pentagonal cross-section that matches a bluestone at Stonehenge. Photo by A. Stanford.

A stone hole at Waun Mawn in Wales during excavations. The imprint of this stone (in the right half of the stonehole) reveals that the base of this stone had a pentagonal cross-section that matches a bluestone at Stonehenge. Photo by A. Stanford.

It’s a compelling theory, but it remains, of course, unproven. The findings at Waun Mawn “add to growing evidence for cultural links between the Preselis and Stonehenge that fills out the geological case for the region being the source of some of the Stonehenge megaliths,” Mike Pitts, a historian who has excavated at Stonehenge, told the Art Newspaper, but “there are too many unknowns” to know for certain.

Stonehenge’s larger standing stone monoliths, it now seems, are more locally sourced. Last year, after testing a core sample taken during repair work in 1958 and recently returned by a Florida retiree, archaeologists determined that the sarsens, as they are called, came from the West Woods area of Marlborough Downs—just 15 miles from Salisbury Plain.

How the ancients transported either set of stones, however, remains a mystery. But to make such an arduous task worth the effort, the bluestones “must have been considered as not just valuables” to the monument builders, Parker Pearson told National Geographic, “but the very essence of who they were.”

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