Uncovering the Secrets of an Ancient Stone Monument: New Findings From an Archaeological Site in Saudi Arabia

Excavations at a Mustatil East of AlUla

Spatial relationships between the main and secondary chamber. Credit: Kennedy et al., 2023, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

Researchers carry out a thorough excavation of one of the over 1600 monuments known as mustatils.

An extensive study of an archaeological site in Saudi Arabia has uncovered new information about mustatils, which are stone structures from the Late Neolithic period believed to have served a ceremonial function. The findings, which were recently published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, were the result of a collaboration between Melissa Kennedy of the University of Western Australia, Perth, and her colleagues and The Royal Commission for AlUla.

Constructed approximately 7,000 years ago, mustatils are rectangular stone structures featuring low walls and varying in length from 20 to 600 meters. They were first uncovered by researchers in the 1970s, and to date, over 1,600 mustatils have been found, primarily located in northern Saudi Arabia.

Recent excavations in the city of AlUla suggest that mustatils were used for ritualistic purposes involving the placement of animal offerings. Now, Kennedy and colleagues have conducted an extensive excavation at a mustatil located 55 east of AlUla. This mustatil is 140 meters (460 feet) long and is constructed from local sandstone.

Main Architectural Features of a Mustatil

Main architectural features of a mustatil. Kennedy et al., 2023, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

The researchers’ analysis included the identification of 260 fragments of animal skulls and horns, primarily from domestic cattle, as well as from domestic goats, gazelle, and small ruminants. Nearly all of these remains were clustered around a large upright stone interpreted to be a betyl. Radiocarbon dating suggested that the betyl is one of the oldest identified in the Arabian Peninsula, and the bones provide some of the earliest evidence for the domestication of cattle in northern Arabia.

This study also uncovered evidence for several phases of offerings at the mustatil, as well as interment of an adult male human, suggesting that the site may have been the destination of repeated pilgrimages.

Taking all the new data into consideration, the researchers suggest that ritualistic belief and economic factors were more closely intertwined for Neolithic people in northwest Arabia than previously thought and that this entanglement was shared over a broad geographic area.

The authors add: “The ritual deposition of animal horns and upper cranial element within the mustatil suggests a profound intersection of belief and economic life-ways in the Late Neolithic of Northern Arabia. The incorporation of these two facets suggests a deeply rooted ideological entanglement, one which was shared over a vast geographic distance, indicating a far more interconnected landscape and culture than had previously been supposed for the Neolithic period in north-west Arabia.”

Reference: “Cult, herding, and ‘pilgrimage’ in the Late Neolithic of north-west Arabia: Excavations at a mustatil east of AlUla” by Melissa Kennedy, Laura Strolin, Jane McMahon, Daniel Franklin, Ambika Flavel, Jacqueline Noble, Lauren Swift, Ahmed Nassr, Stewart Fallon and Hugh Thomas, 15 March 2023, PLOS ONE.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0281904

The study was funded by the Royal Commission for AlUla.

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