Recent research at two mustatils (prehistoric rectangular open-air structures found across northern Arabia) is uncovering new information about the ritual practices that may have been taking place in the region in the late 6th millennium BC.
First identified in the 1970s, mustatils have been the subject of detailed investigations in recent years, with a survey commissioned in 2018 that identified hundreds across the region, followed by targeted excavations. The function of these sites has sparked much debate, but the discovery of a large deposit of animal bones in a chamber at one end of the first mustatil excavated in AlUla, Saudi Arabia, led to the identification of the structure type as a site for ritual purpose. The so-called ‘Horn Chamber’ contained a remarkable assemblage of animal horns, upper (maxillary) teeth, and skull fragments, densely packed into a layer 20-30cm deep, covering the floor. The assemblage dates to c.5300-5000 BC and represents a variety of horned animals, 95% of them domesticated – including goat, cow, and sheep – as well as wild species such as gazelle, Nubian ibex, and aurochs, confirming that the people who left these offerings were both herding and hunting animals. The size of the assemblage, the variety of species represented, and the excellent degree of preservation make this assemblage unprecedented in the Arabian Neolithic. The researchers believe that all the bones were deposited during a single ceremony, perhaps a community event where groups of pastoral nomads gathered at the mustatil, each sending a representative into the small chamber one by one to present a trophy on behalf of their social group.
A similar but smaller assemblage of animal bones was discovered during excavation of another mustatil east of AlUla in 2019 (CWA 108). This assemblage – also revealed in a chamber at one end of the mustatil – consists largely of cattle horns and skull fragments. Unlike the ‘Horn Chamber’, these bones appear to have been deposited in three or four phases, probably over a couple of generations, c.5200-5000 BC. If people were repeatedly returning to the site over the years to make offerings, it could represent one of the oldest examples of a ‘pilgrimage’ destination currently identified in the Arabian Peninsula. The research also revealed that the deposits seem to be centred around an upright stone in the heart of the chamber, which has been interpreted as a possible ‘betyl’ or sacred stone. This could be the earliest known example of the betyl tradition, which later became a key part of the pre-Islamic ritual landscape of Arabia.
The excavations at both mustatils also uncovered human remains. These are connected to later reuse of the sites, with no indication that they are related to the earlier animal offerings, but they do suggest that the mustatils remained places of symbolic significance in the landscape.
The results of the latest research at the Horn Chamber mustatil and the possible ‘pilgrimage site’ have been published in the book Revealing Cultural Landscapes in North-West Arabia (eds R Foote et al.) and PLOS ONE (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0281904), respectively. Archaeological work in the region will continue as part of ongoing research by the Royal Commission for AlUla, and may reveal more about these mysterious structures and the social and symbolic role they played in the lives of early pastoral groups of northern Arabia.
Text: Amy Brunskill / Images: Wael Abu-Azizeh et al 2022 / RCU; Hugh Kennedy, AAKSA / RCU