Archaeologists uncover ritual sacrifices at mysterious 7,000-year-old monuments

Several thousand years before the pyramids rose above ancient Egypt, humans in the Arabian Peninsula constructed another marvel. Called mustatile, it differed drastically from a pyramid, arranged in a two-dimensional rectangle and characterized by short walls and open courtyards.

Named for the Arabic word for rectangle, mustatils were once common across the landscape. The remains of over 1600 are known in Saudi Arabia today – although their purpose in antiquity remains a mystery.

In recent years, scientific investigations and excavations have finally begun to unearth these mysteries. A group of researchers from Australia, Saudi Arabia and Switzerland have dug into the past of a certain 7000-year-old mustatil to understand how it was used.

On Wednesday in the Journal plus one, They describe new findings based on extensive excavations and analyses. Animal bones, ritual stones and human burials show that the site was a site for cult sacrifice and pilgrimage – and may have served multiple roles over the centuries.

Common sight

The Saudi Arabian city of Al-‘Ula (also stylized AlUla) is surrounded by mustatil remains. It’s just one of several regions in the northern Arabian Peninsula that is home to these unusual monuments.

Although Musatils range in size from 20 to 600 meters in length, they share the same distinctive features: two parallel long walls with short head and base barriers at opposite ends. A narrow entrance in the base usually opened onto a large courtyard, while chambers were built at the head of the monument.

A diagram of the remains of a Mustatil, shown from the air.

Kennedy et al., 2023, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

Some Mustatils were built from basalt in lava fields, while others were made from desert pavement, cairns that form naturally in arid climates.

People began documenting the mustatils as early as the 1970s, but it was only in recent years that scientists first studied them in detail. Funding from the Saudi Royal Commission for AIUla, established in 2017, has supported large-scale surveys and excavations, including those reported in the new study.

Melissa Kennedy, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia, helped excavate one of the mustatils 55 kilometers (34 miles) east of Al-‘Ula. Some first discoveries were reported in a 2021 year antiquity Paper in which Kennedy and colleagues described a variety of animal bones and a sacred stone known as a betyl. But more were hidden within the walls, waiting to be discovered.

place of sacrifice

The skulls and horns of cattle, sheep, goats and gazelles have all been found at the site buried around the betyl. Since betyls were part of many ancient religious practices and believed to connect humans to deities, Kennedy and colleagues interpreted the animal remains as part of a ritual sacrifice.

Whoever sacrificed the animals seemed to select only bones from the skull or the region of the skull surrounding the brain. Horns were also a common buried object. However, no teeth or jaws were uncovered during the excavation.

Kennedy tells The opposite that one of the new findings that was particularly surprising was the manner in which these remains were prepared as offerings.

“Some horns have had their bone cores removed, leaving only the keratin sheath, while others have had their bone core and sheath prepared,” she says. “We are not [know] why they were prepared in such different ways, but the fact that they weren’t all prepared the same way is really interesting.”

At this point, little is known about the details of the rituals that once took place there. Archaeologists sometimes look for written texts for a direct explanation, but only when they are available. The Mustatils predate the earliest known written language by thousands of years, so such a document is unlikely to exist.

However, Kennedy says that finding nearby ancient settlements may shed light on questions about the Mustatils.

“We have not excavated any settlements associated with the construction of the Mustatil, so these may contain further clues and information about the practices involved,” says Kennedy. “But we will only learn more through further excavation and research.”

place of pilgrimage

At the moment, many Mustatils seem to exist as isolated spaces; those at Al-‘Ula were a far cry from known settlements of the time. That’s one of the reasons researchers believe they may have been places of pilgrimage to which ancient people would travel for religious ceremonies.

At the time of animal sacrifice by the Mustatils, the climate in Arabia was very different than it is today: 7,000 years ago, the earth was in the Holocene Wet Period, a period when the landscape in Arabia experienced more moisture and rain.

It is likely that the Mustatils had some connection to water, as many of them cluster near features such as wadis (river beds that only fill up during the rainy season) and playas (flat areas that become lakes when it rains). condition. It is possible, the researchers write, that during periods of drought people made sacrifices to the gods for more rain.

But over time, the purpose of the Mustatils seemed to change. Human remains were found at the excavated Mustatil for the first time — and Kennedy says researchers have since found more evidence of people being buried in the monuments.

A lasting tradition

While the animal remains show clear signs of sacrifice, the human remains do not. And human burials always seem to come later than animals, says Kennedy — by about 400 years.

“I think what’s most surprising is that these people date much later than the Mustatils and that they represent a conscious return or decision to reuse these structures for a very different purpose,” Kennedy says, “it shows us that the function and meaning of structures can change over time.”

While a single adult male was described in the new report, Kennedy explains that the remains of other people of various ages and sexes were found at Mustatils. There doesn’t seem to be a clear pattern as to who is buried there.

“We [hypothesize] that these sites retained their importance even after their use had ceased, and that later generations would bury their dead in these sites, claiming ownership of these structures and essentially claiming a connection to the past,” says Kennedy.

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