Saudi Arabia is home to thousands of monumental stone structures known as mustatils. These structures are rectangular, low-walled, and range from 20 to 600 meters in length. Despite their prevalence in the region, a comprehensive study of the structures was not conducted until 2017. In recent excavations in Al Ula, researchers discovered that these structures had a ritualistic purpose. This article will discuss the recent findings about mustatils and their significance in the region.
What are Mustatils?
Mustatils are ancient stone structures that are prevalent throughout Saudi Arabia. They are rectangular in shape and are characterized by low walls. Mustatil is the Arabic word for rectangle, and the plural has been anglicized to mustatils. These structures were built around 7,000 years ago and range in size from 20 to 600 meters.
Discovery of Mustatils
Since the 1970s, thousands of mustatils have been documented across Saudi Arabia. However, it wasn’t until 2017 that the first intensive and systematic study of these structures was undertaken by University of Western Australia’s Professor David Kennedy. That study was based on remote sensing data and was focused primarily on the Harrat Khaybar and areas to the east.
Purpose of Mustatils
Due to the nature of the data-set, researchers were unable to hypothesize a precise function for these enigmatic structures. However, subsequent studies based on ground survey and preliminary excavation data revealed that the mustatil served a ritual purpose during the Arabian Late Neolithic. Recent excavations in Al Ula have now determined that these structures fulfilled a ritual purpose, with specifically selected elements of both wild and domestic species deposited around a betyl.
Recent Excavations in Al Ula
In 2018, the Royal Commission for Al Ula, in conjunction with Oxford Archaeology, excavated the first mustatil in Al Ula. The excavation revealed offering chambers with in situ ritual faunal deposits. Over the course of the 2019 and 2020 excavation seasons, researchers excavated another mustatil, which is 140 meters long and is constructed from local sandstone.
Significance of the Recent Findings
The recent excavations in Al Ula revealed that the mustatil served as a destination for pilgrimages and provided evidence of the domestication of cattle in the region. The researchers’ analysis included identification of 260 fragments of animal skulls and horns, primarily from domestic cattle, as well as from domestic goats, gazelle, and small ruminants. Nearly all of these remains were clustered around a large upright stone interpreted to be a betyl. Radiocarbon dating suggested that the betyl is one of the oldest identified in the Arabian Peninsula, and the bones provide some of the earliest evidence for domestication of cattle in the northern Arabia.
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