When you look up from Earth, you see stars. When you look down, you see circles – crop circles, geoglyphs like the Nazca lines, Siberian holes. Archeologists in Jordan recently used satellites to take high-definition photographs of some other famous circles – the aptly-named Big Circles of the Middle East.
Three of the Big Circles in what is now Jordan were first discovered and photographed in the 1920s by British pilot Lionel Rees. Made from low walls of stone, he noted that they were about 1,200 feet in diameter and almost perfectly round. Since then, a total of eight have been found in west central Jordan, between Wadi el-Hasa and the edge of Shara escarpment. Four more have been discovered in Jordan just north of Azraq Oasis and one was found by satellite in 2002 in Syria. Older satellite images show two others in Syria and Jordan that have been destroyed by development.
The Big Circles range from 720 feet to over 1300 feet in diameter and are simple structures made of stone that experts estimate could have been built by dozen workers in a week. While some are mounds a few feet high, others are only inches tall. Dating of materials found in and around some of the circles puts their construction in the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age between 2,000 to 4,500 BCE. Others appear to have been built in the Roman period between 1 and 7 BCE.
Their mysteries lie in their origin and purpose. In an article in the journal Zeitschrift für Orient Archäologie, archeologist David Kennedy explains that the near perfection of the circles would have required some advanced planning. The low height and lack of openings rules out using them as pens for livestock, although some have openings created later for roads. One of the circles has rock piles that may have been used to mark a burial, but they appear to have been added long after the original construction.
Kennedy thinks the circles have come cultural purpose and notes that satellite photos are continuously revealing new smaller geoglyphs in the Middle East in addition to the Big Circles, but their purpose will only be determined by archeological digs at the sites.
Like most great discoveries, you first have to get your hands dirty.