Very few of you will have heard of a mustatil. It sounds a little like a variety of grape. Yet it is, in fact, the Arabic word for rectangle. However, this Middle Eastern word has another meaning that may turn out to be of world importance.
Mustatil is the name now given by archaeologists to a mysterious series of stone structures recently uncovered in the vast sandy deserts of northwest Arabia.
These mustatils are huge, man-made stone platforms that sit in the sun-parched, sandy desert region of the north-west Arabian landscape. Scientists have known about them for the past decade or so because they are so large that they are clearly visible in satellite photographs taken from space.
But these same scientists have not had an opportunity to study these structures in any depth, until now.
And what they have discovered is truly remarkable. The structures are evidence of a long-lost pastoral society that once inhabited what is now modern-day Arabia, an enigmatic culture that relied on animal grazing for its survival.
Dr Huw Groucutt, leader of a European research organisation known as the Extreme Events Research Group from the Max Planke Society in Germany, has completed the first study of these mustatils, revealing their findings in the latest issue of the scientific journal The Holocene.
The scientists have identified at least 100 new mustatils around the southern margins of the great Nefud Desert, between the cities of Ha’il and Tayma. These structures join the hundreds previously identified from studies of Google Earth imagery, particularly in the Khaybar area.
The team found that the structures typically consist of two large platforms, connected by parallel long walls, sometimes extending over 600 m in length. The long walls are exceptionally low, have no obvious openings and are in diverse landscape settings.
It is also interesting that little in the way of other archaeology – such as stone tools – was found around the mustatils. Together, these factors suggest that the structures were not simply utilitarian entities for something like water or animal storage.
At one locality the team were able to date the construction of a mustatil to 7,000 years ago, by radiocarbon dating charcoal from inside one of the platforms. Animal bones were also recovered from the site, including wild animals and what may be either domestic cattle or a species of auroch which were the wild ancestors of domestic cattle. The team also found a rock with a geometric pattern painted onto it at another mustatil.
“Our interpretation of mustatils is that they are ritual sites, where groups of people met to perform some kind of currently unknown social activities,” says Groucutt. “Perhaps they were sites of animal sacrifices, or feasts.”
The fact that sometimes several of the structures were built right next to each other may suggest that the very act of their construction was a kind of social bonding exercise.
Northern Arabia 7,000 years ago was vastly different to today. Rainfall was higher, so much of the area was covered by grassland and there were scattered lakes. Pastoralist groups thrived in this environment, yet it would have been a challenging place to live, with droughts a constant risk.
The team’s hypothesis is that mustatils were built as a social mechanism to live in this challenging landscape. They may not be the oldest buildings in the world, but they are on a uniquely large scale for this early period, more than 2,000 years before pyramids began to be constructed in Egypt.
Mustatils offer fascinating insights into how humans have lived in challenging environments and future studies promise to be extremely useful at understanding these ancient societies.