Professor David Kennedy, a researcher at The University of Western Australia has used Google Earth imagery to identify almost 400 previously undocumented stone structures known as ‘Gates’ in Saudi Arabia. Kennedy, who researches classical and ancient history, said while most people think of Saudi Arabia as largely barren mountains and desert of infernal temperatures, it was also home to an immense number of archaeological sites that were yet to be identified, recorded and mapped. At one time, the climate in the region was more hospitable.
“You can’t see them in any intelligible way at the ground level but once you get up a few hundred feet, or with a satellite even higher, they stand out beautifully,” Professor Kennedy said. Back in 2015, Kennedy told Live Science why he dubbed the structures 'gates.' "I coined the term 'gate' for no better reason than that I needed a convenient label to describe them and they reminded me of the sort of field gates I saw all around in my rural childhood in Scotland," said Kennedy.
The researchers found that gates tend not to be located near kites (which were used for hunting). Indeed, some of the gates were built in places, such as barren volcanic slopes, which were unlikely to support large animal herds. Archaeologists found "five [gates] on the outer slopes of the bowl of one of the volcanoes [called Jabal al-Abyad]" in Saudi Arabia, they wrote in the Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy journal article.
His findings are described in a research paper to be published next month in the journal Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy.
Kennedy said he was baffled when he first saw this particular site type on the satellite images – despite some 40 years working on the archaeology of ‘Arabia’, they were unlike anything he had seen before. “I refer to them as Gates because when you view them from above they look like a simple field gate lying flat, two upright posts on the sides, connected by one or more long bars,” he said. “They don’t look like structures where people would have lived nor do they look like animal traps or for disposing of dead bodies. It’s a mystery as to what their purpose would have been.”
Since 1997, Kennedy has flown in helicopters over Saudi Arabia’s neighbour Jordan, photographing tens of thousands of stone-built structures scattered over its lava field or ‘harrat’. Shapes range from giant circles of stone that may be 400m across to Kites (animal traps), Pendants (funerary monuments), Wheels (unknown) and many more.
Not much is known about the people who built the edifices, but they are thought to have constructed them 2,000 to 9,000 years ago, according to Professor Kennedy. They are believed to be the ancestors of the modern-day Bedouin in the region who describe them collectively as ‘The Works of Old Men’.
A group of Saudis, members of the Desert Team association, went on site to map the places. But the analysis of these astonishing structures is just beginning and it will probably take some time before we fully unlock the mystery.
Thanks to a succession of generous grants from The Packard Humanities Institute (2008-2017), Professor Kennedy’s team has recorded thousands of archaeological sites in Jordan and the Middle East. The Oxford-educated academic specialises in the Near East and aerial archaeology. He established the Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East (APAAME) in 1978, and has jointly directed the Aerial Archaeology in Jordan (AAJ) project since 1997.
Professor Kennedy was founding director of the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project.The EAMENA team is working to record a heritage that has been threatened over many years by development and is now in the firing line of civil and foreign wars and the victim of looters.
Thousands of stone structures that form geometric patterns in the Middle East have been known for nearly a century. Some of the giant designs in Jordan's Azraq Oasis seem to have an astronomical significance, being built to align with the sunrise on the winter solstice. RAF Flight Lt. Percy Maitland published an account of what he saw from the air during the First World War in 1927 in the journal Antiquity.
The "works of the old men" include the wheels, which often have spokes radiating out from the center, kites -- stone structures used for funnelling and killing animals. pendants (lines of stone cairns) and meandering walls. The latter are mysterious structures that meander across the landscape for up to several hundred feet. They occur throughout the entire Arabia region, from Syria across Jordan and Saudi Arabia to Yemen. While they are difficult to discern by observers on the ground, they become much more apparent from the air. They have been likened to the mysterious Nazca lines in Peru, whose purpose has yet to be discovered.
Research on the structures appeared in 2015 in the Journal of Archaeological Science and the journal Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy. Live Science also got an advance copy of an article set to be published in the journal Antiquity.
Tests indicate that some of the wheels date back around 8,500 years, a prehistoric time when the climate was wetter in parts of the Middle East. Using a technique called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), archaeologists dated two wheels at Wadi Wisad, in the Black Desert of Jordan. One of them was dated to 8,500 years, while the other wheel had a mix of dates that suggest it was built about 8,500 years and was remodeled or repaired around 5,500 years ago. When they were built, the Black Desert climate was wetter, and Wadi Wisad was inhabited. Charcoal from deciduous oak and tamarisk [a shrub] were recovered from two hearths in one building dated to ca. 6,500 B.C, according to a 2015 issue of Antiquity.
Spatial analysis of the wheels showed that wheels located in the Azraq Oasis have spokes with a southeast-northwest orientation that may align with sunrise during the winter solstice. Whether this alignment was intentional is unknown.