Ancient beehive tombs of Oman – so where are the bodies?
Lined up dramatically atop a rocky ridge, the beehive ‘tombs’ of Bat and Al Ayn are two of Oman’s most celebrated prehistoric sites. Little is known about the stone structures, or the culture that constructed them. However, despite this lack of knowledge, UNESCO feels it knows enough to conclude that “the necropolis of Bat bears characteristic and unique witness to the evolution of funeral practices during the first Bronze Age in the Oman peninsula” – a rather strange statement considering that not a single human or animal bone has been recovered from the hundreds of beehive-shaped monuments scattered across the rugged landscape.
Visit any website about the beehive monuments of Oman, and you will read endless descriptions about these impressive ‘tombs’, which form one of the largest proto-historic necropolises in the world. You will even read detailed descriptions of the ‘funeral chambers’ within the monuments and how many bodies would have been held within each room. However, what most of these sites fail to mention is that no burial remains have ever been retrieved from these so-called ‘tombs’.
Unfortunately, the beehive structures of Oman demonstrate one of the greatest shortfalls of the field of archaeology – the tendency to impose pre-conceived ideas upon phenomena that cannot be understood through our modern-day mindset. As there seems to be no other obvious purpose for their building than as funerary structures, the conclusion has simply been drawn that they were built as tombs – case closed.
Beehive tombs at Al Ayn, Oman. Image source .
It was during the 1970s, that a team of Danish archaeologists ‘discovered’ the beehive structures of Oman, although it is likely that the local people always knew of their presence. The monuments are composed of stacked local flat stones and have been dated to between 3,500 and 2,000 BC, a period when the Arabian Peninsula was subject to much more rainfall than now, and supported a flourishing civilization in what is now desert to the west of the mountain range along the Gulf of Oman. In 1988, the monuments were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The structures are arranged in three main clusters: one in Bat, which is arguably the most famous, as well as the sites of al-Ayn and al-Khutm. The best preserved are those located in al-Ayn, where twenty-one beehive structures are lined up over the mountain range before the impressive backdrop of the Jabal al Misht (‘Comb Mountain’).
Beehive ‘Tombs’, Qubur Juhhal at Al Ayn, Oman. Credit: Alfred Weidinger. Image source: Wikipedia
The earliest of the structures are the simplest, with only one entrance and one chamber, and the later tombs have two entrances and up to four chambers. Only a few artifacts give any clue to the culture, and are basically limited to a few arrowheads, daggers and water jugs.
Beehive ‘tomb’ at Al Ayn Oman. Image source: Wikipedia
Not far from Al Ayn beehive monuments are the circular tower tombs of Hili, including the Hili Grand Tomb, a reconstructed collective tomb, which is the largest monument in the UAE in terms of size of the stones used. It measures 12 meters in diameter and 4 meters high and has two entrances which are decorated with human and animal reliefs. The tombs belong to the Umm an-Nar culture, a bronze age culture that existed from the second half of 3rd millennium BC. This culture is known for their circular tombs characterized by well fitted stones. Within the tombs at Hili, archaeologists have recovered hundreds of human remains, as well as some objects and personal items.
The circular tower tombs of Hili bear many similarities to the beehive monuments, but as you can see below there are also distinct differences.
The Hili Grand Tomb. Image source .
It appears that there is a presumption that the beehive monuments must have served the same purpose as the circular tower tombs of Hili because they date to around the same period of time and are located in the same region. However, the important question remains – why were no human remains found in the beehive tombs?
Perhaps they were constructed as tombs but never needed to be used. Perhaps the deceased were placed in them and their bones moved to another location once decomposition had taken place. Or perhaps they served a different purpose entirely. Some scholars have suggested they were used as silos or tanks, while researcher Brien Foerster has referred to the incredible acoustic properties that have been detected in other beehive-shaped monuments found around the world.
The fact remains that we really do not know what the beehive monuments of Oman were used for and drawing conclusions based on assumptions and without sufficient evidence only serves to undermine and water-down the entire field of archaeology.
Featured image: Beehive tombs at Al Ayn. Image source: Wikipedia
Beehive Tombs of Bat – Atlas Obscura
The Necropolis of Bat – Oman Tours
Archaeological Sites of Bat, Al-Khutm and Al-Ayn - UNESCO
Results, limits, and potential: Burial practices and early Bronze Age societies in the Oman Peninsula – by S. Mery .
Strange Phenomenon of Beehive Shaped Tombs Around the World – Hidden Inca Tours