Back in October, it was revealed that around 400 clustered stone structures, all built atop an ancient volcanic plateau in Saudi Arabia, had been spotted via satellite imagery. It’s not clear who built them or why, but they appeared to be gates – the “oldest man-made structures in the area”, according to the University of Western Australia’s ancient history professor, David Kennedy.
Now, using some additional aerial photography, Kennedy has offered his thoughts on the enigmatic features. He highlights that they are far more numerous and extensive than many have recognized, with hundreds of thousands of them peppered across the entire peninsula – but still, no one is sure what they are.
Writing to Live Science, he refers to the tales of the Bedouin, who first came across such structures back in the 1920s. They referred to them rather poetically as the “Works of the Old Men”, and Kennedy has in fact been studying these structures, and those like it, for 20 years now.
Saudi Arabia has been fairly resistant to aerial surveys for some time now, but the international media coverage Kennedy’s research has generated seemed to change their minds, at least temporarily. Flying over some of the most prominent stone structures above the Harrat Khaybar volcanic field, he snapped some new shots and captured them in incredible detail.
Within Harrat Khaybar, there are at least 400 of the wall-like “gates”, countless “wheels”, 917 “kites” – objects used to help trap animals – and plenty of “keyhole pendants”, which look exactly what they sound like, and appear to be designed for funereal purposes.
Importantly, they aren’t just found in this one location. They’re found in southern Syria, across the Jordanian Panhandle, and all down the western seaboard of the Arabian Peninsula. The reason those in Saudi Arabia have got so much attention as of late is because of the sheer variety of novel structures found there.
Although the wider mysteries remain, the opportunity to see these structures in such breathtaking detail has helped to open the door on future work, in this harrat and plenty of others nearby.
Although the archaeology of the region is fairly old and mysterious, the volcanic history of Harrat Khaybar itself isn't that ancient, with the last known historical eruption occurring between 600 and 700 CE. Before then, a line of volcanic features were formed on a north-south axis over the course of around 5 million years, according to NASA.
The kinds of volcanic edifices present here imply that a type of volcanism known as phreatomagmatism took place there for some time - where water and magma explosively interact. This means that the area was one far more wet and habitable than it is now, which partly explains the presence of these enigmatic structures.
The exact who, when and why eludes academics, though, which is why this fresh research is so valuable.
Working with the Saudi authorities, the Riyadh-based Desert Team group of travelers and academics, and regional archaeologists, Kennedy hopes an upcoming, extensive project will finally begin to answer some of these burning questions.
Incidentally, the 6,000 aerial photographs venture was, according to Kennedy, “probably the first systematic aerial reconnaissance for archaeology ever carried out in Saudi Arabia,” something that “was only possible because of the publication of the Live Science feature.”
If anyone asks you why science communication is important, look no further than this stunning collaboration between researchers and journalists.