Extensive excavation of a Late Neolithic stone monument known as a ‘mustatil’ has uncovered evidence for the ritual deposition of animal remains – including some of the earliest evidence for domestic cattle in northern Arabia – and shed new light on the economic and cultic landscape of the region during the 6th and 5th millennium BC.
Mustatils are rectangular, low-walled structures built around 7,000 years ago. Ranging from 20-600m in length, these monuments were constructed from locally available stone, such as basalt or sandstone.
More than 1600 mustatils have now been identified across 300,000km2 of land in northern Arabia through remote sensing, aerial photography, and ground survey.
However, for decades the purpose of these monuments remained shrouded in mystery.
Now, as part of part of a five-year research project led by the University of Western Australia, under the auspices of the Royal Commission for AlUla, archaeologists have conducted an extensive excavation of a mustatil.
Located 55km east of the ancient city of AlUla, the structure is 140m long and comprises two chambers constructed with local sandstone slabs.
Inside, the team identified 260 fragments of caprine, gazelle, and domestic cattle remains, the latter of which are among the earliest evidence for domestic cattle in northern Arabia.
As the remains all represent either elements of skull or horn, it can be inferred that their selection and deposition was part of a ritualised act.
Most of them were found clustered around a large upright stone positioned in the main chamber. This has been interpreted as a betyl – a sacred stone thought to have acted as a proxy or manifestation of a deity – and radiocarbon dating indicates it is one of the oldest-known in the Arabia peninsula.
‘It looks like cattle, goats, and gazelles were brought to the site, potentially slaughtered there and then presented to what is probably a stone representation of an unknown deity,’ said Dr Melissa Kennedy, who led the excavations.
‘The predominance of cattle,’ she says, ‘suggests that the region had enough vegetation and water to sustain herding, which could indicate the continuation of the Holocene Humid Period. It suggests that our understanding of the Neolithic period in the Arabian Peninsula needs further revision.’
A cist burial containing the partly articulated remains of an adult human was also discovered at the site. The individual, who appears to have died elsewhere and been transported to the monument, was interred around the mid-5th millennium BC, indicating that the site maintained a degree of significance for some 400 to 500 years after its decommissioning.
This research, published in PLOS One, offers new evidence that the Neolithic communities of this region shared a common culture or belief system.