RIYADH, November 14, 2017 – It’s hard to find examples of humans settling around volcanoes. This is what makes Saudi Arabia an exception.
Hundreds of mysterious stone structures have been spotted on the edge of volcanoes in the remote Harrat Khaybar region, in the west-central part of the country, which have been reported recently. They have been dubbed “gates of hell” as they resemble field gates when viewed aerially.
Yet, very little could be understood from the satellite images obtained initially with the help of Google Earth. But recently Dr David Kennedy of the University of Western Australia, who spotted the site, was able to photograph the area from a lower altitude from a helicopter. The pictures reveal stunning details of the ancient work never seen before.
One photograph (Image A), for example, shows a gate, the fifth largest – 373 metres x 80 meters – among hundreds documented so far. It has four bars. It has been partly bulldozed and is in danger of being destroyed. No such gates have been discovered outside of Saudi Arabia, says Dr Kennedy, who has spent almost two decades studying the “Works of the Old Men”, as they were named by the area’s Bedouin population.
Another one (Image B) shows a triangle-shaped stone structure pointing towards a bullseye. To date, about 260 triangles have been identified in Saudi Arabia, says Dr Kennedy. Triangles can usually be seen pointing towards a bullseye. Sometimes, a row of cairns (rock piles) connects the triangle to the bullseye. The triangles range from 15 to 30 metres in size.
In another picture (Image C), a bullseye can be seen on top of a gate that is surrounded by a lava flow. Bullseyes and other stone structure can often be seen on top of gates, suggesting that the gates were built before the volcanic eruption.
Image D shows a keyhole pendant, the largest of the group. It is about 31 metres long and contains a cairn that is 3.5 metres in diameter within the circular portion. The detailed aerial view also shows that the walls of the triangular section consist of coursed blocks in straight lines, rather than heaped boulders, a feature seen in another pendant a few hundred meters to the northeast.
Image E shows a “kite” on lava field. Archaeologists generally agree that structures like this were used for hunting animals in the Middle East. Animals could be chased in, trapped and killed. This kite stretches over 600 metres from tip to tail.
Long ago, hunters could wait within the “hides” of a kite before making their kill (Image F). The hides of the kites in Saudi Arabia seem to be remarkably well preserved.
Dr Kennedy is enthusiastic about Saudi Arabia’s archaeological potential. Even though he has never visited the country before, he is aware that the potential to find many more archaeological treasures is huge. Only a few have been identified and mapped so far.
“My impression is that – like every other country in the region, Saudi Arabia has a vast range and number of archaeological site types,” Dr Kennedy says.
“Aerial reconnaissance in western countries has been regarded for 100 years as the most cost-effective way of finding, recording and monitoring sites,” he says. “Now, together with Google Earth and other satellite-imaging systems, and subsequent selective ground survey, there is possibility to make rapid and very significant advances.”
Since the country is very large, Dr Kennedy thinks focusing on these sites one by one is the best way forward.
“A successful project in the Al-Ula region could provide valuable lessons and help establish best practice for the far larger task of mapping the archaeology of the country as a whole, something that may be done in partnership with the complementary Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project at Oxford,” he says.