Stone Circle Structures: Traces of the Earliest Inhabitants of Northwest Arabia

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Standing Stone Circles

A gust of wind stirs up dust across the barren expanse of Harrat Uwayrid, a volcanic plateau standing tall over AlUla’s sandstone valleys in Saudi Arabia. The otherwise monotone landscape of grayish-brown earth is interrupted by patches of dark, basalt rock and a distinct circle of stones. This unmistakably man-made arrangement features a low exterior wall made of two circular rows of vertical stones, with a lone standing stone positioned centrally. Crafted some 7,500 years ago by an almost unknown group of people, its original purpose has been long misconstrued. Termed as “standing stone circles” by archaeologists, the local Bedouins refer to these constructs as the handiwork of “the old men.”

The Harrat Uwayrid volcanic terrain of AlUla, Saudi Arabia, is dotted with these cryptic stone circles. At last, archaeology is illuminating their tale.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF AERIAL ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA – ALULA (AAKSAU) AND ROYAL COMMISSION FOR ALULA

In 2019, an archaeological team from the University of Western Australia, sponsored by the Royal Commission for AlUla, initiated excavations of these standing stone circles, or SSCs. Their initial conjecture pointed towards these being sacred edifices created by Neolithic nomads for forgotten ceremonies. Excavations across various sites revealed unexpected findings—domestic waste. Traces of ancient fires, discarded animal bones, ordinary tools, and even jewelry have redefined these stone circles as Neolithic residences. The fact that these massive, enduring structures were built by supposedly nomadic early AlUlans remains an enigma. Scattered across AlUla, and some found in neighboring Khaybar, these standing stone circles are reshaping our understanding of the region’s past.

These stone circles seemingly materialized out of nowhere, beginning around 5,800 to 5,500 B.C. This period coincides with a climate shift in the region, leading to increased rainfall and a savanna-like environment teeming with grasses and acacia trees. These conditions were perfect for the domestication of cattle and goats, as we know was the practice of these Neolithic people. The favorable weather also allowed for the construction of permanent structures. Increased vegetation lessened the need to continually move herds to new pastures, thereby incentivizing home-building. The plateau’s ample supply of flat basalt stones likely influenced these nomads to settle down and construct these structures.

Nearly all the standing stone circles conform to one of two design blueprints. Interestingly, these designs show almost no signs of evolution or progression. It is now hypothesized that the concentric circular stone wall acted as a ditch to support a timber frame covered with skins or vegetation. The solitary standing stone at the center of the circle probably served as a brace for roof support, with larger structures incorporating multiple internal stone supports. Each house included a small doorway and an open hearth, either inside or outside. While a few stone circles stand alone, the majority are grouped together, with the largest clusters containing up to 25 dwellings. This suggests that these Neolithic individuals were not only constructing homes for their families but also building communities.

Aerial imagery clearly discloses the clustering of stone circles, often located in close proximity, signifying the rise of Neolithic communities in northwest Arabia.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF AERIAL ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA – ALULA (AAKSAU) AND ROYAL COMMISSION FOR ALULA

Excavations of these settlements are shedding light on the lifestyle of this ancient people. Evidence suggests that they raised domesticated cattle and goats for slaughter, but also supplemented their diets with hunting and gathering. Wild ibex, oryx, and hare, as well as foraged foods including fruits, nuts, and grains, would have been part of their meals. The multitude of grinding stones found on these sites suggests a routine practice of milling grains. These grains were most likely gathered, not farmed. Furthermore, the discovery of tools made from materials from the sandstone valleys and jewelry crafted from shells from the Red Sea suggests these Neolithic individuals led a complex culture involving travel and likely trade.

Despite constructing these enduring structures, Neolithic communities likely shifted from one location to another on a rotational basis, adjusting their stay at each site depending on seasonal weather variations. During favourable conditions, they would guide their herds down from the plateau to the sandstone valleys. Here, the near absence of stone circles suggests they adopted a different lifestyle. These were a people proficient in adapting to their environment and the resources it provided.

Simultaneously, monumental Neolithic structures known as mustatils started to emerge. These vast stone rectangles, some extending up to 2,000 feet, were undoubtedly built by the same people who built the standing stone circles. Likely used for rituals, these practices seem to have revolved around the placement of the top portions of the skulls of horned animals, such as domesticated cattle and goats, perhaps as offerings or sacrifices. With around 1,600 mustatils across northwestern Saudi Arabia, their unprecedented distribution makes them one of the earliest and most widely spread uniform ritualistic sites in the world, predating Stonehenge by approximately 2,000 years. The construction of mustatils would have required a significant human labor effort, possibly serving as territorial markers, indicating ownership of the surrounding land by a particular group, the standing stone circle communities. They provide evidence of exceptional social cohesion—large populations with strong shared beliefs and the capability to collaborate for common objectives.

A group of mustatils and other structures built closely on the terrain: Their unique shapes, monumental size, and widespread occurrence across northwest Arabia contribute to the region’s fascinating prehistoric narrative.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF AERIAL ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA – ALULA (AAKSAU) AND ROYAL COMMISSION FOR ALULA

It’s theorized that the regional climate became arid during the fifth millennium. As the grasslands dwindled and water sources became scarce, Neolithic people had to migrate their herds more frequently, eventually ceasing cattle rearing in favor of hardier species adapted to the drier conditions. By 4,500 B.C., the standing stone circles seem to have fallen into disuse. Numerous doorways were sealed, likely to safeguard the homes during the inhabitants’ absence. Although they intended to return when conditions improved, they kept moving instead. Their descendants did come back, but instead of reoccupying the houses, they built tombs for their deceased. For hundreds of years, these tombs were constructed within the settlements, on and adjacent to the standing stone circles. These new structures extended along well-traveled paths between these settlements, forming what are now referred to as “funerary avenues.” The recurring visits to these sites suggest a form of collective memory—an inherent recognition of the importance of these places.

Even after the Neolithic people ceased residing in the stone circles, the sites continued to serve as burial grounds, implying their sustained significance.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF AERIAL ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA – ALULA (AAKSAU) AND ROYAL COMMISSION FOR

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Standing Stone Circles

What are the standing stone circles in Northwest Arabia?

The standing stone circles in Northwest Arabia, particularly in the Harrat Uwayrid region of AlUla, Saudi Arabia, are ancient structures believed to have been domestic dwellings of Neolithic societies. They were built around 7,500 years ago and are notable for their concentric design with a central standing stone. The structures were previously misunderstood but recent archaeological research has identified their residential nature.

Who built the standing stone circles?

The standing stone circles were built by ancient people from the Neolithic era, about 7,500 years ago. These people, whose exact identity remains unknown, are considered among the oldest builders in Northwest Arabia.

What was the purpose of the standing stone circles?

The standing stone circles were initially thought to be structures used for ancient rituals. However, recent archaeological excavations have found remnants of domestic life such as household tools, jewelry, and animal bones, suggesting these structures were actually used as homes by the early inhabitants of AlUla.

How did the Neolithic people live in these stone circles?

The Neolithic people are believed to have lived in communities in these stone circles. They raised domesticated animals, engaged in hunting and gathering, and also had a complex culture that involved travel and exchange. They were highly adaptive and would move their herds and rotate their dwelling locations depending on environmental and weather conditions.

What are mustatils?

Mustatils are large rectangular structures that also appear in the same era as the standing stone circles. Thought to be used for rituals, these structures display a distribution unprecedented in the archaeological record, predating even Stonehenge by around 2,000 years. The mustatils suggest a high degree of social cohesion and shared belief system among the ancient communities.

What happened to the stone circles over time?

Around 4,500 B.C., as the regional climate became drier and grasslands started to diminish, the Neolithic communities needed to move their herds more frequently. This shift led to the abandonment of the stone circles. While there are signs that the inhabitants intended to return, the structures were eventually used as tombs rather than dwellings. These sites are now being rediscovered and studied, leading to new insights about the ancient societies of Arabia.

More about Standing Stone Circles

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6 comments

Layla_M July 24, 2023 - 8:33 pm

As a Saudi, reading about my country’s ancient history is incredibly interesting and humbling. Proud to see our heritage being researched and shared with the world.

Reply
HistoryBuff101 July 25, 2023 - 12:24 am

this article is a fantastic read, but i wish it went a bit more in-depth on the rituals conducted at the mustatils. does anyone have more info on that?

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Jason_W July 25, 2023 - 2:20 am

Those old societies sure knew how to adapt to their environment. Truly impressive to see how they built these permanent structures & thrived for so long.

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ExplorinEdd July 25, 2023 - 1:05 pm

These structures are truly remarkable! Wud love to visit AlUla someday, the history there must be palpable.

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Sarah Parker July 25, 2023 - 1:56 pm

How come I’d never heard of these standing stone circles before? They sound fascinating. And they predate Stonehenge by so much!

Reply
Ahmed N. July 25, 2023 - 2:00 pm

wow, I never knew there was such a rich history in my home country. makes me want to learn more about the neolithic period and these stone circles!!

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