We might be getting closer to understanding why hundreds of large stone structures were built across the deserts of northwest Saudi Arabia thousands of years ago. These mysterious, rectangular enclosures are known as mustatils, and they were used by Neolithic people for unknown rituals, likely depositing animal offerings as votives to an unknown deity or deities.
In 2017, the full extent of their spread across the Arabian Peninsula was revealed in a scientific paper documenting their discovery; with aerial surveys identifying over 1,600 mustatils scattered throughout the desert. Mustatils consist of two short, thick platforms that are linked by low walls and measure up to 600 meters (2,000 feet) in length. Though often collapsed, one end usually forms an entrance while the other contains chambers of varying sizes. Despite having no tools inside or around them, archaeologists believe they weren’t used solely for utilitarian purposes. The true meaning behind these mysterious structures remains largely unknown, but hopefully, continued research will help piece together what took place there thousands of years ago.
Nestled deep within the sandstone canyons of north-west Arabia lies an ancient monument, thought to date from approximately 5307-5002 BCE and 5056-4755 BCE: a mustatil. Built from large chunks of unworked sandstone, this type of megalithic structure is rare and has been found in only a few locations in the area. Now, researchers have uncovered evidence that indicates it was important for more than its age and design – evidence that suggests it was more than just a curious focal point for ancient societies in the region. Led by Dr Lisa Kennedy of The University of Oxford, the team found evidence indicating religious or cultural importance at the monument site beyond its physical attributes; including a broken human skeleton, believed to be an adult male with arthritis, discovered near one end.
The remains were unearthed within a small 'cist', a type of stone chamber associated with burials during the Neolithic period. Interestingly, they were placed several hundred years after the animal bones which suggests ‘shrine revisiting’ – that people returned to pay their respects at the site years after its original use had ended. This pattern hints at a far more sophisticated and interconnected culture in the area than was previously thought — one where belief came together with economic life-ways to create something deeper and more meaningful to those living there thousands of years ago. The findings have been published in PLOS ONE following research funded by The Royal Commission for AlUla.