When it comes to having gods, it seems the most popular choices are none, one, and one for every occasion. The last option was more popular in ancient times and studying those gods tells archeologists much about a culture. A recent discovery in northern Saudi Arabia is a good example. In the 1970s, researchers began discovering rectangular, low-walled structures of varying sizes – some reaching 600 meters (a third of a mile) in length. That sounds like it could be an animal pen or corral, especially since bones from domestic cattle were found in them. However, not all archeologists were convinced. A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE unveils recent discoveries about these structures which pushes their age back to thousands of years before the pyramids or Stonehenge, and links their purpose to some previously unknown gods.
“Concentrated in northern Arabia, over 1600 mustatils have been identified through remote sensing, aerial photography, and ground survey. Ranging from 20-600m in length, these monumental structures were constructed from locally available stone, such as sandstone desert pavement or basalt.”
The study was done by the Prehistoric AlUla and Khaybar Excavation Project (PAKEP) under the direction of lead author Melissa Kennedy of the University of Western Australia. AlUla or Al-‘Ula is an ancient oasis city located in the Medina province of northwestern Saudi Arabia. The over 1600 mustatils vary in size but have much in common – they are long and narrow rectangles, with a stack of stones at one end, a ramp-like pile of rubble at the other, and long walls that are 1.2 meters (4 feet) high. All of the structures are rectangular – none are animals, birds or other geometric shapes like the Nazca lines of Peru. From the 1970s until 2017, the focus was on finding and cataloging these mustatils, and that effort identified over 1600 of them. However, their purpose remained a mystery. In 2017, a study was done using remote sensing data, but the purpose remained a mystery. After receiving the proper permissions, ground studies and excavations began under the auspices of the Royal Commission for AlUla. The first one excavated reveal offering chambers and “in situ ritual faunal deposits” – remains of sacrificed animals. This began to change everything. The team described their findings in a recent series of tweets.
“The excavated contents of these chambers have suggested that they were the focus of ritual activity, with current survey evidence indicating that the chambers were both sealed and open-air.”
In 2019-2020, the team began excavating a mustatil east of AlUla which measured 140 meters (460 feet) long and was hidden in a valley surrounded by large rock outcrops. The base faced west while the head faced east. At the head, they found a blocked off chamber, and inside the chamber were three larger vertical stones. These stones were key to identifying the purpose of the mustatil.
“We believe these stones are betyls, effectively a focal point on earth for dedications to an unknown deity. Why do we think that? Well, all the artefacts we uncovered were placed very close to the main betyl, the large one in the centre.”
Betyls or baetylus are sacred stones which helped gain access to a god. The were sometimes meteorites that were revered as symbols of the gods themselves. Surrounding the main upright betyl were animal remains - “260 animal skulls and horns, primarily from domestic cattle, as well as from domestic goats, gazelle, and small ruminants.” Those remains gave the researchers a much more accurate age of the mustatil – dating them back to 5300-4900 BCE, the Arabian Late Neolithic 7,000 years ago. That makes these bones “among the earliest evidence for domestication of cattle in northern Arabia” and makes the betyl one of the oldest ever identified in the Arabian Peninsula.
“We know the cattle were mostly male between 2.5-12+ years old. That is important. It shows us that they weren’t sacrificing young animals that had just been born.”
The age of the cattle was key to identify the mustatil as ritual areas and not mere corrals. These were mature cattle of a high value, as were the male goats and other livestock. The team also found stone tools, feces from a striped hyena, pebbles pressed into sediment as decorations, and other indications that this mustatil was used for rituals. It appears this was used until 4900-4800 BCE. However, other artifacts indicate it was put back into use a few hundred years later. That would imply that this area was the focus of pilgrimages. This second usage of the mustatil also yielded another mystery.
“Pieces of human. 5 vertebrae, half a foot, some long bones. The Forensic Anthropologists at UWA suggest they belong to a 30-40 year old. These date to 4600-4460 BCE.”
No, this was not a human sacrifice. The researchers say this was also a burial site, giving pilgrims another reason to make return visits. Other mustatils in the area have also yielded human remains. All of this evidence adds up to a change in how history views the Neolithic people in northwest Arabia – their “ritualistic belief and economic factors were more closely intertwined” than previously thought and stretched across a much wider geographic area.
“So why build the mustatil? Why sacrifice such prized animals? Well, we think it is due to water. We are currently performing statistical analysis, but we know most mustatil are near water or point to major water sources. Even this one bends to point at a nearby dried lake.”
The final mystery is the identity of the god who was the focal point of the mustatils, the sacrifices and the pilgrimages. The researchers believe it is some sort of water god because of their locations near water, or their orientations to make them pointers to water sources. In 2020, the team returned to the mustatils after large storms and all pointed to standing water. They speculate these structures, rituals and sacrifices may have been the result of climate change – as Arabia became more arid, the god in control of water and rain became more important.
“If the mustatil developed as a response to ancient climate and environmental change this gives us an important insight into how early communities faced these challenges and how their belief systems adapted to these new or changing realities.”
Extensive photographs of the mustatils, excavations and artifacts can be seen here and here. Kennedy notes that more research will take place at the mustatils. Did this new god help find more water? The arid Saudi landscape gives the answer. One benefit to being in a culture with multiple gods – if one doesn’t work, you can find another one.