Archaeologists Discover Worship of Unknown Gods at Ancient Desert Monument

Mustatils, huge stone monuments concentrated in northern Saudi Arabia, were the site of rituals and early pilgrimages according to new research.
Archaeologists Discover Worship of Unknown Gods at Ancient Desert Monument
Images: Kennedy et al., 2023, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0 
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Researchers discovered the first mustatils, which are monumental stone structures dating back to the Late Neolithic period, in the 1970s. Since then, 16000 mustatils have been discovered, primarily in northern Saudi Arabia. Despite excavations and intensive research, no one was able to determine the precise function of these structures—until now.

In a paper published on Wednesday in PLOS, researchers from the University of Western Australia demonstrate that these monuments were likely used for ritual purposes. 


Mustatils are rectangular, low-walled, stone structures that range from 20 to 600 m in length. The researchers identified 7000 year-old fragments of animal skulls and horns, primarily from domestic cattle, found close to a large upright stone that is part of a 140 meter-long mustatil located 55 miles east of the city of AlUla. The authors argue the close proximity likely indicates the area is a site of animal offerings.

“We believe these remains are offerings to an unknown deity or deities represented by the central stone,” lead author Melissa Kennedy of the University of Western Australia wrote in an email to Motherboard. “We speculate that the mustatil were built as a form of community bonding, with multiple groups coming together to construct them. We also suggest that there may be an association with water, as most mustatil point towards areas that hold water. As such, there may be a link with ancient climate and environmental change as Arabia gradually became increasingly arid, like it is today.”

The discovery also suggests that these mustafils could have been the destination of repeated pilgrimages, and migration across the land.

“The fact that people appear to have journeyed to these structures suggests we have an early form of pilgrimage in the region,” Kennedy wrote. “Prior to this, it was believed that there was not much interaction between the different parts of northern Arabia during this period, we now know that is not the case. The fact that the similar religious belief appears may spread across a huge area is unparalleled anywhere in the world at this early date.”

As part of a new archeological project, the Prehistoric AlUla and Khaybar Excavation Project (PAKEP), the researchers will be excavating more mustatil in order to gather more detailed environmental and climatological information for the region between the Neolithic and Bronze Age. The researchers hope that this will help us better understand the development of civilization in ancient Saudi Arabia.  

 “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,” Kennedy wrote.