A groundbreaking archaeological survey of hundreds of prehistoric stone structures, known as mustatils, in Saudi Arabia has revealed them to represent one of the earliest known traditions of monumental building in the world.
Mustatils are large, rectangular stone constructions, believed to have had some sort of ritual or religious function. They are found across north-western Arabia, with a particular concentration in AlUla and Khaybar counties. The structures range in length from 20m to 620m, and typically consist of two short walls or platforms connected by two long walls, with no roof or covering.
Although first recorded in the 1970s, these monuments, collectively known as ‘the works of old men’, remained shrouded in mystery for decades – until now. This survey, carried out by researchers from the University of Western Australia and funded by the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), is part of the largest ever archaeological study of the region.
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 as were previously thought to exist.
According to the findings recently published in Antiquity, the mustatils are more architecturally complex than once believed, with entranceways, chambers, orthostats, and elongated courtyards.
At the excavated mustatil, archaeologists uncovered an assemblage of cattle horns and skull fragments interpreted as an offering, perhaps related to a ‘cattle cult’, further supporting the ‘ritual’ interpretation of these sites. The assemblage was radiocarbon dated to the Neolithic period, c.5300-5000 BC, making it the earliest evidence for the possible existence of a Neolithic cattle cult in north-western Arabia. Cattle are known to have been a vital commodity for its early pastoral inhabitants, but this offering in the north-west of Arabia pre-dates by 900 years the earliest known example of such a cattle cult in the southern Arabian Peninsula (at Shi’b Kheshiya, Yemen).
The architecture of the surveyed structures also supports the idea that mustatils had a ritual function. They are positioned prominently in the landscape, sometimes constructed on a very large scale, and – with no evidence that they were ever roofed – there is no indication that they were used for any kind of occupation. Their low walls and narrow entranceways mean they could not have been used as animal pens. It has been suggested that processions of some sort took place in them, with participants entering in single file through the narrow entranceway, and proceeding up towards the structure’s head.
The monuments are thought to have acted as territorial markers, too, denoting some sort of ownership of, or connection with, the surrounding landscape. The consistency in design across a wide geographic area suggests that prehistoric communities across the region shared a culture or belief system that influenced the construction of the mustatils.