Mysterious ‘Funerary Avenues’ Reveal 4,500-year-old Highway Network in North-west Arabia

Archaeologists from the University of Western Australia (UWA) have determined that the people who lived in ancient north-west Arabia built long-distance ‘funerary avenues’ – major pathways flanked by thousands of burial monuments that linked oases and pastures – suggesting a high degree of social and economic connection between the region’s populations in the 3rd millennium BCE.

Publication of the findings in the journal The Holocene caps a year of tremendous progress by the UWA team, working under the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), in shedding light on the lives of the ancient inhabitants of Arabia.

The existence of the funerary avenues suggests that complex social horizons existed 4,500 years ago across a huge swathe of the Arabian Peninsula. The finding adds to the steady progress by archaeologists working under the auspices of RCU in understanding the hidden story of the ancient kingdoms and earlier societies of north Arabia.

Amr AlMadani, CEO of RCU, said: “The more we learn about the ancient inhabitants of north-west Arabia, the more we are inspired by the way our mission reflects their mindset: they lived in harmony with nature, honoured their predecessors, and reached out to the wider world. The work done by our archaeological teams in 2021 demonstrates that Saudi Arabia is a home for top-flight science – and we look forward to hosting more research teams in 2022.”

Dr. Rebecca Foote, Director of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Research for RCU, said: “Projects that have been conducting fieldwork in AlUla and Khaybar for over three years, such as the UWA team, have started publishing their results, and it is terrific to see how analyses of the data are elucidating so many aspects of life from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age in north-west Arabia. These articles are just the beginning of the many publications that will advance our knowledge of prehistoric to modern times and have significant implications for the wider region.”

The UWA team’s latest research, with Dr Matthew Dalton as lead author, used satellite imagery analysis, aerial photography, ground survey and excavation to locate and analyse funerary avenues over an area of at least 160,000 square km in north-west Arabia. They recorded more than 17,800 ‘pendant’ tombs in their primary study areas of AlUla and Khaybar counties, of which around 11,000 formed part of funerary avenues.

It is noteworthy that the densest concentrations of funerary facilities in these corridors were concentrated near permanent water sources, whether in the basaltic plains or mountain corridors.

The direction of the corridors indicates that many of them were relied upon to move between the main oases, including Khyber, Al-Ula and Tayma, while other corridors fade through the landscape surrounding the oases, indicating that they were used to transport herds of domestic animals to nearby pastures during periods of rain.

Dr. Hugh Thomas, project director, said: “The research by the UWA team and our colleagues working across AlUla and Khaybar shows how important the archaeology of this region is for our understanding of the Neolithic and Bronze Age across the Middle East.”

He continued, “Our findings demonstrate that these structures linked various populated oases, situated across a vast area, and that the funerary avenues were established around 4,500 years ago. They are especially dense around Khaybar, which is one of the densest visible funerary landscapes anywhere in the world.”

The archaeological research in AlUla and Khaybar counties by teams from Saudi Arabia and abroad is deepening and nuancing The Journey Through Time narrative of the region and providing a foundation for the Kingdoms Institute, a world-class centre for archaeological and conservation research with a focus on AlUla’s 200,000 years of human history.

Sources:

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/09596836211060497

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00934690.2021.1892323?journalCode=yjfa20