In Saudi Arabia, archaeologists found a 4,500-year-old highway system that was surrounded by beautifully preserved ancient graves.
Over the past year, researchers from the University of Western Australia have done a thorough inquiry that included ground survey and excavation, aerial surveys by helicopter, and analysis of satellite imagery.
They claimed that until recently, little research had been done on the extensive “funerary avenues” in the western Arabian counties of Al-‘Ula and Khaybar. Their findings were published in the Holocene magazine in December.
“The people who live in these areas have known about them for thousands of years,” researcher Matthew Dalton told CNN. “But I think it wasn’t really known until until we got satellite imagery that just how widespread they are.”
The funeral lanes, which Dalton had observed from a helicopter, were long perhaps thousands of kilometers and they were frequently traveled by people using today’s major thoroughfares.
“Often you’ll find main roads tend to follow the same routes as the avenues because they tend to be the shortest route between between the two places they’re going to,” Dalton said. “And actually, in some cases, the the tombs themselves are so dense that you can’t help but walk on the ancient route itself, because you’re sort of hemmed in by the tombs.”
The tombs themselves are mostly either pendant-shaped or ring burials. Pendant tombs feature “beautiful tails,” whereas ring tombs consist of a cairn encircled by a wall that can reach two meters in height.
The researchers utilized radiocarbon dating to establish that a concentrated set of samples originated between 2600 and 2000 BC, even though the tombs were reused up until about 1,000 years ago.
“These tombs are 4,500 years old, and they’re still standing to their original height, which is really unheard of,” researcher Melissa Kennedy told CNN. “So I think that’s what particularly marks Saudi Arabia out from the rest of the region just the level of preservation is unbelievable.”
The crew has seen about 18,000 tombs along the funerary pathways, and Kennedy estimates that either single people or small groups were buried in the tombs. Of those, 80 have been sampled or dug for investigation.
Although Kennedy cited earlier similar practices connected to land ownership in Greece and Rome in later history, the researchers believe that the use of the roads predates the tombs and are still unsure of the precise reason why the tombs were built along the route.
“A way of showing ownership perhaps, could be one reason the tombs were built,” Dalton said. “And there may be an element of, you bury your nearest and dearest alongside the route, because you’ll be passing them frequently, and you have a place to remember them.”
Prior to assessing their results, the crew will conduct additional radiocarbon dating and return to the field. Dalton predicts that there will be even more finds in the future, especially given that comparable tombs have also been discovered in northern Syria and Yemen.
“The third millennium is such an important period of time,” Kennedy said. “It’s when the Pyramids are built. And it’s where lots of different cultures are interacting with each other for the first time on a wide scale. So to see the appearance of this monumental funerary landscape in this period is really exciting. And huge new avenues of research to basically follow.”