Saudi Arabia: Hundreds of Mysterious Ancient Stone Structures Discovered on Lava Domes

A "Kite" stone structure used to trap migratory animals. APAAME

Hundreds of huge, mysterious stone structures have been discovered on ancient lava domes in Saudi Arabia. Using Google Earth, Australian archaeologist David Kennedy has documented around 400 stone walls believed to date back thousands of years clustered in the Harrat Khaybar region of the country.

Kennedy's interest in the arid lands of the Middle East began in the late 1960s, when he traveled through the region. A decade later, he set up the Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East—an initiative to map the area that now has more than 140,000 aerial images.

With the development of Google Earth and Bing Maps, he has been able to expand this database and, in his latest research, has used it to find the previously undiscovered stone structures. His analysis, which will appear in the forthcoming issue of Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, indicates the structures are known to the Bedouin as "Works of the Old Men"—and that they may be the earliest example of such archaeological remains.

Gates satellite
Map showing the locations of some of the Gates. Wiley/Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy/Douglas Kennedy

The wall-like structures are similar to others found in the Middle East that have been dubbed "Gates." These were short, thick connecting walls that, from above, resemble an old-fashioned barred gate. Their purpose, however, is unknown. Furthermore, the newly discovered Gates are unlike any other previously found.

The Harrat Khaybar Gates vary greatly in size. The longest measures 1,700 feet in length, while the shortest is just 42 feet. Most appear in clusters—groups of two or more—and the spacing between them varies widely. Some isolated Gates are tens of miles from the next, while others are "almost touching."

"Identification, mapping and preliminary interpretation imply an early date in the sequence of the works—perhaps the very earliest—but no obvious explanation of their purpose can be discerned," the study says.

Other prominently studied "Works of the Old Men" are "Kites." These stone structures were hunting traps early humans used to catch migratory animals. Another regular features are "Wheels," which are named so for their shape. Both Kites and Wheels are often found to be built on top of Gates—which Kennedy believes helps narrow down the age of the newly discovered structures—potentially back as far as 9,000 years.

"It is impossible at the moment to date these Gates except relatively. I have argued in the article that they are the earliest of the so-called 'Works of the Old Men', the stone-built structures found widely in 'Arabia' from northern Syria to Yemen, but esp. common in the lava fields," he tells Newsweek in an email.

"The Works known as Kites—which are certainly animal traps, may be as old as 9,000 years before present in some cases and there is one example of a Kite overlying a Gate—i.e. the Gate is older. So Gates may be up to or more than 9,000 years old, which takes one back to the Neolithic (Age)."

Drawing showing the Gates recently discovered. Wiley/Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy/Douglas Kennedy

Many of the Gates are located on the site of lava domes—the remains of volcanic lava flows. The volcanoes are no longer active, but some of the Gates bear traces of lava, indicating they were still active after construction. This could also provide scientists with a way of dating the structures. However, they will need to visit the site to take samples for this to happen.

In the study, researchers say fieldwork will be essential to find out more about the Gates. "It is crying out for close examination on the ground to see if there are associated artefacts," Kennedy says. "Then excavation. Ideally including dating of buried rock surfaces to try and get absolute dates."

Concluding, the study said: "What were they for? Nothing...suggests any obvious explanation for these strange and often very large structures. With almost 400 now known and found in profusion in some areas, they were plainly of significance to the builders."