– Discovery of ancient ‘Chamber of Horns’ reveals rituals held in enigmatic stone structures of northwest Arabia

ALULA, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 11, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — Results from two recent archaeological excavations supported by the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) demonstrate that the Neolithic inhabitants of northwestern Arabia carried out “complex and sophisticated ritual practices “at the end of the sixth millennium BC.

These unprecedented findings open up unsuspected horizons for a broader understanding of the social, cultural, and spiritual background of the ancient peoples of northwestern Arabia.

The researchers highlight the probable communal nature of the ritual and the possibility that people specifically traveled to prehistoric stone structures known as mustatils to carry out the ritual, which would represent one of the first known pilgrimage traditions. Furthermore, the greater representation of domestic species among the animal offerings confirms the nomadic pastoral character of the community, whose members could have built the mustatils as a form of social link and/or marker of the territory.

Mustatils are large-scale, open-air, rectangular structures with low stone walls. Through aerial surveys, researchers have identified more than 1,600 across northern Arabia. Although the function of these structures was initially unknown, excavations conducted since 2018 have pointed to ritual significance and have provided increasing information about this practice.

The results of both studies have been peer-reviewed and recently published. The study led by Dr. Wael Abu-Azizeh, of the Archéorient Laboratory and Lyon 2 University in France, appears in the book “Revealing Cultural Landscapes in North-West Arabia”, edited by a team of experts led by Dr. Rebecca Foote, RCU’s Director of Archaeology. The study led by Dr. Melissa Kennedy of Australia’s University of Sydney appeared in March in the journal PLoS One.

Study of Abu-Azizeh

In 2018 Dr Abu-Azizeh began an excavation commissioned by Oxford Archeology which unearthed the “Horn Chamber” in a mustatil at site IDIHA-0000687, northeast of AlUla, dated to around 5300-5000 BC. The chamber measures 3.25m by 0.8m and is located at the western end of a 40x12m mustatil, smaller than most mustatils.

Inside the “Chamber of Horns,” he and his team made an exceptional discovery of horns and skull fragments, densely packed in a layer 20 to 30 cm deep that covered the floor of the chamber. It is, they write, “a unique and unprecedented assemblage in the Neolithic context of northern Arabia.”

Around 95% of the horns and skull fragments belonged to domestic species (goats, sheep and cows) and the rest to wild species (gazelles, Nubian ibex and aurochs, a now extinct ancestor of domestic livestock). Beneath the array was a thin layer of twigs that had been placed on the sandstone surface of the chamber in preparation for the ritual.

The researchers conclude that the horns and skull fragments were probably deposited during a single ceremony. In a provisional reconstruction of the ritual, they propose that nomadic pastoralists collected and carried the offerings as part of the ritual performance. To reach the solemn space of the small Chamber of Horns they entered one by one through a narrow door and a small antechamber with a stove to present this trophy on behalf of their social group. The collective treasury of consecrated offerings expressed a cohesive identity for the larger social group.

The researchers write: “Due to the number of remains, the diversity of species represented and the unusual state of conservation, this complex constitutes a unique and unprecedented discovery in the archaeological record of the region. This site is interpreted as a testimony of ritual practices complex and sophisticated…”

Kennedy Study

In 2019, the second study, carried out by a team led by Dr Kennedy, then of the University of Western Australia, began excavation of a mustatil deep in dense sandstone canyons east of AlUla, at the IDIHA site. 0008222. Like Abu-Azizeh’s team, they found a chamber containing horns and skull parts dated to around 5200-5000 BC, although not in such quantities. There are more differences: These bones appeared to have been deposited in three or four phases over one or two generations, rather than all at once.

Most of the horns and skull parts were from cattle, and several from goats. The researchers write that this find is “one of the earliest evidence of domesticated cattle and goats in North Arabia.”

In the center of the sanctuary is a vertical stone that is believed to have served as a focal point for the ritual. Most of the horns and parts of the skull were deposited around this standing stone, 0.8 m high. Researchers interpret this stone as a betyl, “a mediator between humanity and the divine, who acted as a proxy or manifestation of an unknown Neolithic deity/deities or religious idea, to which the faunal elements were deposited as votive offerings.” It would be one of the first betyls known in the Arabian Peninsula.

The researchers further note that the repeated use of the shrine over years “represents one of the earliest examples of ‘pilgrimage’ or visiting shrines currently identified in the Arabian Peninsula.”

Interestingly, the authors hypothesize that the mustatils’ placement might have an ecological basis. The Arabian climate was increasingly arid in the middle Holocene; the variety of microclimates made mobility essential and grazing viable. It is possible that the ritual was aimed at ensuring fertility and the continuity of the rains, and that the mustatils themselves were located near water sources, such as wadis. According to the authors, this is a key avenue for future research.

Dr Rebecca Foote, Head of Archeology and Cultural Heritage Research at RCU, said: “The RCU has embarked on one of the largest archaeological research programs in the world. At AlUla and Khaybar, the 12 surveys, excavations and specialist projects that are being carried out deepen our understanding of the environmental past, land use and human occupation of the region. Rich cultural landscapes are being discovered, such as funerary avenues, mustatils, ancient cities, inscriptions in 10 languages, rock art and complex agricultural practices. AlUla is a major center of archaeological activity, a position that will be reinforced by the AlUla World Archeology Summit.”

AlUla World Archaeology Summit

AlUla’s position as a hub of archaeological activity will continue to expand, as the RCU will host the inaugural AlUla World Archeology Summit, taking place from 13 to 15 September 2023.

The Summit is a platform for the advancement of archeology and cultural heritage management at its interface with other disciplines. This gathering of leaders from academia, government, non-governmental organisations, industry and young people who represent the next generation of archaeologists will not only enrich the archaeological community and help protect shared history, but will also open up reflection more broadly about what and how archaeology, and more broadly cultural heritage, can contribute to transformative changes in society.

For more information about the summit, visit https://www.worldarchaeologysummit.com.

About the Royal Commission for AlUla

The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) was established by royal decree in July 2017 to preserve and develop AlUla, a region of great natural and cultural importance in northwest Saudi Arabia. RCU’s long-term plan outlines a responsible, sustainable and sensitive approach to urban and economic development that preserves the natural and historical heritage of the area, while establishing AlUla as a desirable place to live, work and visit. It encompasses a wide range of initiatives in the fields of archaeology, tourism, culture, education and the arts, reflecting the commitment to meeting the Vision program’s priorities of economic diversification, local community empowerment and heritage conservation. 2030 of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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