Mapping Mustatils, Saudi Arabia’s 7000-Year-Old Stone Monuments
Over 7,000 years ago, people built hundreds of large stone structures in the area that is now northwest Arabia. Archaeologists have identified this act as the earliest known example of a widespread monument building tradition. The stone structures, called mustatils, predate the Egyptian pyramids and Britain’s stone circles - by millennia.
From the Air to the Ground – Exploring Mustatils
Mustatils get their name from the Arabic word for rectangle and they are large rectangular stone constructions that have a platform/short wall at each end. The stone structures range from 20–620 meters (65.62-2034.12 ft.) in length and are particularly concentrated in AlUla and Khaybar Counties of north-west Saudi Arabia. Locally, they are referred to as the “works of the old men.” Although mustatils were first recorded by surveys in the 1970s, they haven’t received that much attention and are shrouded in mystery.
Mustatils. A–B) I-shaped platforms; C–D) rectilinear platforms. (© AAKSA and Royal Commission for AlUla / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
But things are starting to change thanks to the work of the University of Western Australia’s (UWA) Programme of Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (AL-ULA) (AAKSAU). The project director Dr. Hugh Thomas told Ancient Origins that the program started with the work of the project’s past director, UWA Professor David Kennedy, “the first person to put together some research on these amazing structures.” Funded by the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), the UWA team of archaeologists have documented hundreds of the stone structures by helicopter since the first systematic study of these features in 2017.
A group of three mustatils. (© AAKSA and Royal Commission for AlUla/ Antiquity Publications Ltd )
The results of their research have now been published in the journal Antiquity and it is the largest study of these structures ever conducted. The paper reveals that there are nearly twice as many mustatils in the region than previously believed. Dr. Thomas says, “We documented over 1000 mustatils, covering over 200,000 km².”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the impressive nature and sheer number of aerial photographs motivated the team to want to explore them on the ground too. Dr. Thomas says, “that's when we really began to realise how complex these structures actually are!”
Features of mustatil: 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. (© AAKSA and Royal Commission for AlUla/ Antiquity Publications Ltd )
According to an Antiquity press release, the team has explored almost 40 mustatils on the ground so far. They have also excavated one of the sites. Study co-author and assistant director of the project, Dr. Melissa Kennedy, told Ancient Origins that that mustatil “is basically hidden in a sandstone canyon, you would never know it was there unless you stumbled across it.”
Why Did Neolithic People Build Mustatils?
The new Antiquity paper explains that before now mustatils were basically known as structures with an “approximately rectangular form, comprising two parallel short walls/platforms linked by two perpendicularly set, parallel long walls.” Some of them were also noted to have central dividing wall(s).
However, the recent ground surveys demonstrate that mustatils are also comprised of clear entranceways, organized “cells,” and standing stones. The archaeologists found no evidence for domestic occupation at the sites, which they note in their paper may suggest a delineation between the ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ in Neolithic times.
Aerial image of three mustatil bases. Note the associated features (cells and orthostats) and blocked entranceways. (© AAKSA and Royal Commission for AlUla/ Antiquity Publications Ltd )
Radiocarbon dating at the excavation site places that mustatil’s construction to the Neolithic period, around 5300-5000 BC. According to Dr. Kennedy, this means that the mustatils located in northwest Arabia represent “the first large-scale, monumental ritual landscape anywhere in the world, predating Stonehenge by more than 2500 years.”
Hypothesized to be territorial markers, the excavation shows that at least some mustatils were also built to serve ritual purposes as well. Evidence for a ritual use of the site comes in the form of an apparent offering of cattle horns and skull parts. Dr. Kennedy explained this aspect further, telling Ancient Origins:
“We think they sacrificed these animals, mainly cattle, but also gazelle and sheep/goat to some unknown Neolithic deity, which in this instance was represented by a large up-right stone or betyl. We don't know why the sacrificed these animals, but perhaps it was done to appease or carry favour with the god(s). But it is important to remember that these sacrificed animals represent a huge community investment.”
The researchers note in their paper that this discovery is “the first evidence for the possible existence of a Neolithic cattle cult in north-western Arabia.” They also write that “Cattle were a vital commodity for the early pastoral inhabitants of Arabia” – citing the evidence of regional rock art depicting both cattle herding and hunting. The evidence of a possible cattle cult at the excavation site predates evidence of similar cult practices in southern Arabia by 900 years.
Artifacts recovered during excavation and ground survey: A) cattle horn positioned in front of a betyl; B–C) cattle horns; D) Neolithic micro core; E) Neolithic bifacial foliate. (© AAKSA and Royal Commission for AlUla/ Antiquity Publications Ltd )
It’s also worth mentioning that the larger size of some of the stone structures suggests that many people would have been involved in building them “suggesting that communities came together to build these features,” Dr. Kennedy says. The widespread nature of mustatils also may mean that people in several communities shared some similar ritual beliefs at the time and they created “the oldest monumental landscape of this scale ever identified,” according to the Antiquity press release.
More to Discover
The very existence of these stone structures is changing an old belief that the archaeological landscape of north-western Arabia was largely devoid of activity before the Iron Age (circa 12th to 5th centuries BC). In fact, it’s believed that the oldest mustatils were built in the Middle Holocene (c. 6500–2800 BC).
More research is planned to help uncover other details about the mysterious mustatils. Dr. Thomas told Ancient Origins that his team hopes to excavate some more mustatils in AlUla and Khaybar. Khaybar in particular has drawn his interest because it “has the greatest concentration of mustatil and it is perhaps in this region that this tradition originated. So, this is something we would like to find out, where in fact the earliest mustatils were constructed.” Preparations are also underway for a larger GIS study.
Geographic positioning of different mustatils. (© AAKSA and Royal Commission for AlUla/ Antiquity Publications Ltd )
Apart from local people telling the researchers that the stone structures are “very old,” Dr. Thomas says that his team is unaware of any legends surrounding the mustatils, but “that is something we are going to look into more when we are able to get back into the field.”
Finally, Dr. Thomas also suggests we should keep an eye out for more exciting research on mustatils when the results of Wael Abu-Azizeh’s research are published later this year.
Top Image: A group of three mustatils. Source: © AAKSA and Royal Commission for AlUla/ Antiquity Publications Ltd
By Alicia McDermott