Arabia’s mustatils identified as the earliest monumental landscape

The enigmatic stone structures predate Stonehenge by more than 2,500 years.

A ground-breaking archaeological survey of hundreds of 7,000-year-old rectangular stone constructions in North-West Arabia has revealed them to represent the earliest known tradition of large-scale monument building.

Mustatils, as they are known, were likely constructed because of ritual or religious beliefs.

Although first recorded in the 1970s, these structures, collectively known as ‘the works of old men’, remained shrouded in mystery for decades, until now.

A group of three mustatils in North-West Arabia. Photo: © AAKSA and Royal Commission for AlUla.

Mustatils, named after the Arabic word for ‘rectangle’, are large stone constructions featuring a platform at each end, and ranging in length from 20-620m. The majority are situated in AlUla and Khaybar Counties in modern-day Saudi Arabia.

The survey, conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Western Australia, is part of the largest ever archaeological study of the region. It is funded by the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU).

The team documented 641 mustatils through systematic remote-sensing, and 350 through helicopter aerial surveys. One undisturbed structure was excavated, and 39 were targeted in ground surveys. More than 1,000 mustatils were recorded over 200,000km² – nearly twice as many than previously thought to exist.

According to the findings, published in Antiquity, the unique entranceways, organised cells, and elongated courtyards highlight the complexity of the constructions. The consistency in their design suggests that the shared beliefs of prehistoric communities across the region inspired them to organise themselves in order to build these monuments.

Radiocarbon tests obtained during the excavation revealed they date back to the Neolithic period, c. 5300-5000 BC.

Aerial image of three mustatil bases. Note the associated features (cells) and blocked entranceways. Photo: © AAKSA and Royal Commission for AlUla.

Dr Melissa Kennedy, assistant director of the project, said: ‘The mustatils of North-West Arabia represent the first large-scale monumental ritual landscape anywhere in the world, predating Stonehenge by more than 2,500 years.’

The discovery of an assemblage of cattle horns and skull fragments during the excavation has been interpreted by the study’s authors as an apparent offering, and as possible evidence of a Neolithic ‘cattle cult’ in the region. The mustatils may have also functioned as territorial markers to convey their ancestral landscape.

According to the director of the project, Dr Hugh Thomas: ‘This will completely change how we view Neolithic societies in Saudi Arabia and beyond.’