The Ancient Architects of Stone Circles in Northwest Arabia

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Standing Stone Circles

Dust swirls through the lonely landscape of Harrat Uwayrid, a volcanic plateau towering above AlUla’s sandstone valleys in Saudi Arabia. Across the flat expanse, hues of gray-brown earth are broken up by patches of dark basalt rocks and a distinctly arranged circle of stones. Evidently the work of human hands, its low outer perimeter consists of two circular rows of erect stones with a singular standing stone in the center. Built approximately 7,500 years ago by a civilization we scarcely comprehend, these structures, known as “standing stone circles,” were initially misunderstood. They are referred to as the creations of “the old men” among the Bedouin people.

The volcanic terrain of Harrat Uwayrid in AlUla, Saudi Arabia, is scattered with perplexing stone circles. Archaeologists are slowly piecing together their story.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF AERIAL ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA – ALULA (AAKSAU) AND ROYAL COMMISSION FOR ALULA

In 2019, funded by the Royal Commission for AlUla, archaeologists from the University of Western Australia started excavating these standing stone circles, abbreviated as SSCs by researchers. They proposed that Neolithic nomads constructed these circles as cultic structures for forgotten rituals. After excavating multiple sites, they uncovered domestic waste – remains of hearth fires, discarded animal bones, everyday tools, and even jewelry. This discovery resulted in redefining the standing stone circles as domestic residences, puzzling since early AlUlans were assumed to be nomadic. Spread across AlUla and neighboring Khaybar, these standing stone circles are challenging previous historical narratives of the region.

Standing stone circles seem to have appeared abruptly, dating back to around 5,800 to 5,500 B.C. This period aligns with a climatic shift that brought increased rainfall and a savanna-style environment, optimal for the cattle and goats these Neolithic people owned. The favorable conditions led to the establishment of permanent structures. The plateau’s plethora of flat basalt stones likely enticed the nomads to settle temporarily and construct homes.

Nearly all standing stone circles share one of two designs that exhibit little variation over time. The concentric outer stone wall likely acted as a trench to sustain a timber frame covered by skins or vegetation. The central standing stone probably served as a support for the roof. Each dwelling had a small entrance and an open hearth. Most stone circles were located in clusters with the largest sites containing up to 25 dwellings, indicating the emergence of Neolithic communities.

Aerial photographs reveal the close proximity of stone circles, suggesting the establishment of Neolithic communities in northwest Arabia.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF AERIAL ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA – ALULA (AAKSAU) AND ROYAL COMMISSION FOR ALULA

Excavation of these settlements is offering insight into the lifestyle of these people. They kept cattle and goats for meat, supplemented their diet with hunted and gathered food, and used tools and jewelry crafted from local materials. Despite their permanent settlements, these Neolithic communities likely migrated between locations in response to weather variations.

Simultaneously, monumental Neolithic structures known as mustatils began to emerge. These massive stone rectangles, some extending up to 2,000 feet, were probably constructed by the standing stone circle people for rituals. With over 1,600 mustatils across northwestern Saudi Arabia, these sites signify a large, organized community with shared beliefs.

Distinctive shapes and sizes of mustatils and other structures add intrigue to the region’s prehistoric narrative.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF AERIAL ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA – ALULA (AAKSAU) AND ROYAL COMMISSION FOR ALULA

Around the fifth millennium, the climate became drier, forcing the Neolithic people to adapt. By 4,500 B.C., the standing stone circles were largely abandoned. Doorways were sealed, likely to secure the homes while the inhabitants were away. Although they intended to return, they kept moving. Their descendants did return, not to inhabit the homes but to build tombs, often within the settlements and along paths known as “funerary avenues.” This suggests a collective memory of these significant locations.

Even after their abandonment, the stone circles continued to serve as burial sites, indicating their continued significance.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF AERIAL ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA – ALULA (AAKSAU) AND ROYAL COMMISSION FOR ALULA

We are just starting to understand the significance of these millennia-old sites. The realization that standing stone circles were homes disrupts our existing assumptions about Neolithic AlUla. The revelation that they were a more settled, more advanced, and more socially integrated civilization than previously thought is altering our understanding of early AlUla.

The enigmatic stone circles of AlUla hold numerous secrets. They have already reshaped the narrative of early Arabia and shed light on the region’s ancient inhabitants.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF AERIAL ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA – ALULA (AAKSAU) AND ROYAL COMMISSION FOR ALULA

Imagine a herder guiding his flock of goats across the savanna, the animals’ bleating carrying over the land towards a cluster of round huts – the family’s home. Smoke rising from an open fire outside a doorway, the scent of roasting meat in the air, children at play, a woman grinding grain, and a man crafting an arrowhead from stone. In the distance, other fires hint at similar dwellings. The herder senses the warmth of the breeze against the dry grass, a sign that it might soon be time for his people to move on.

Take a journey through time and uncover the rich history of AlUla here.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Standing Stone Circles

What are the standing stone circles in AlUla, Saudi Arabia?

Standing stone circles are ancient structures located in AlUla, Saudi Arabia. Initially thought to be religious or cultic structures, archaeologists have since discovered that these stone circles served as domestic dwellings for Neolithic communities, as evidenced by household debris found on site.

Who built the standing stone circles in AlUla, Saudi Arabia?

These stone circles were built by Neolithic people approximately 7,500 years ago. The builders were initially nomadic, but due to changes in climate that made the land more hospitable, they began to construct these permanent dwellings.

What were the standing stone circles used for?

The standing stone circles in AlUla were primarily used as homes by Neolithic communities. Archaeologists have found remains of domestic life, such as hearth fires, discarded animal bones, and household tools, within these circles. They also suggest a larger community organization, as they often appear in clusters.

What are mustatils, and how are they related to the standing stone circles?

Mustatils are monumental Neolithic structures that also appear around the same time as the standing stone circles. They are large rectangular structures, probably built by the same communities, and are believed to have been used for rituals, potentially including animal sacrifices.

What happened to the people who lived in the standing stone circles?

Around 4,500 B.C., as the region’s climate became drier, the people living in these stone circles likely became more nomadic again due to the necessity of moving their herds more frequently. They stopped using the standing stone circles as dwellings, but they continued to hold significance, serving as locations for burials and “funerary avenues”.

More about Standing Stone Circles

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4 comments

ExplorerJane July 24, 2023 - 11:14 pm

Stunned by how the climate change shaped these peoples life… from nomadic to settled then back to nomadic again.

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ArcheoFan July 25, 2023 - 12:23 pm

Whoa! I’m a sucker for stuff like this! Need to put AlUla on my travel list, would love to see these standing stone circles in person.

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SarahB July 25, 2023 - 12:27 pm

Wow, this is really fascinating. didn’t know about these stone circles at all! It’s like a glimpse into a forgotten time…

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JohnD1987 July 25, 2023 - 12:48 pm

Mankind’s history is incredible isnt it? Amazing how far we’ve come…

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