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Uncovering Ancient Rituals in the Arabian Desert Through Ancient Structures

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We may be closer to understanding why hundreds of large stone structures were built in the deserts of northwestern Saudi Arabia thousands of years ago.

Mysterious rectangular structures were used by Neolithic people for unknown rituals and animal sacrifices, according to a new in-depth analysis. During the excavations, hundreds of fragments of animal remains were found, grouped around a standing stone slab, interpreted as sacred.

Known as mustatils (the Arabic word for rectangles), the nearly 7,000-year-old ruins have puzzled archaeologists ever since they first attracted scholarly interest in the 1970s.

However, it was not until 2017 that the full extent of its distribution across the Arabian Peninsula was revealed in the first scientific paper documenting its discovery. Aerial photography revealed over 1,600 mustatils, sometimes in groups scattered throughout the desert.

Nicknamed “The Gate” because of their aerial appearance, mustatils, described in this article as “two short, thick lines of closely packed stones, almost parallel, connected by two or more walls that are longer and thinner.”

It consists of two short and thick platforms connected by low walls of much greater length, up to 600 meters (2,000 ft) but no more than half a meter (1.64 ft) in height.

Although the tip is often destroyed, one short end forms the entrance and the other contains chambers of various sizes. The purpose of these rooms is unknown, but there is a strange lack of tools in and around them.

Archaeologists believe that this set of characteristics indicates that their use was not beneficial; The low walls and lack of ceilings make them unsuitable, for example, as livestock pens or storage areas.

In some cases, they may contain standing and decorated stone slabs, as well as a scattering of animal bones. A number of mustatils also have a long patina.

In 2019, an international team of scientists led by archaeologist Melissa Kennedy of the University of Western Australia excavated a 140-meter sandstone habitat near Al-Ula, named IDIHA-F-0011081, collecting material fragments and cataloging various features of the site.

At the head of the mustatil – the short end of the chambers – they found a space with standing stone slabs. They also collected 260 animal bones, teeth and horns, most of which are grouped around a stone slab.

They identified 246 such fragments. And, most interestingly, the bone pieces were made exclusively from animal skulls taken from goats, deer, small ruminants and livestock.

The team says this indicates the stone slab is known as betel, a sacred stone representing the god or gods of people who lived in the area thousands of years ago, with animal heads placed as ritual offerings.

These immovable stones are not found in all mustatils, but researchers believe that there are enough of them to be important.

Radiocarbon analysis shows a series of dates indicating that the site was in use over an extended period of time, from about 5307–5002 BC. BC. to 5056–4755 BC.

The researchers wrote: “Evidence from the site indicates that the Mustatil tradition is characterized by an intersection of beliefs and economic lifestyles. The confluence of these two aspects suggests a deeply rooted ideological intertwining, one of which was common over a vast geographical distance, suggesting a more interconnected landscape and culture. than previously thought during the Neolithic period in northwestern Arabia”.

The study was funded by the Al-Ula Provincial Royal Commission and published in PLOS ONE.

Source: Science Alert

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