Ancient Funerary Avenues Discovered in Arabia

Keyhole-shaped tombs.

Keyhole-shaped tombs flanking a funerary avenue in the al Ha’it Oasis. (Image: via University of Western Australia)

Archaeologists from the University of Western Australia have discovered people who lived in northwest Arabia in the Early to Middle Bronze Age built “funerary avenues” — long-distance ancient corridors linking oases and pastures, bordered by thousands of elaborate burial monuments.

Dr. Matthew Dalton, from UWA’s School of Humanities, is the lead author of the findings published in the journal The Holocene. Dalton said:

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“Funerary avenues were the major highway networks of their day, and show that the populations living in the Arabian Peninsula 4,500 years ago were far more socially and economically connected to one another than we previously thought.”

The UWA team, working under the Royal Commission for AlUla, used satellite imagery, helicopter-based aerial photography, ground survey, and excavation to locate and analyze the funerary avenues.

Funerary avenues in Saudi Arabia

The team located avenues over an area of 160,000 square km, with more than 17,800 tailed “pendant” tombs recorded in their primary study areas of AlUla and Khaybar counties in Saudi Arabia, of which around 11,000 formed part of funerary avenues.

Pendant funerary tombs in Saudi Arabia.
Figure 8. (a) ‘Keyhole’ pendant built over ‘wedge-tailed’ pendants near al Ha’it Oasis. (b) A ‘cascading’ cluster of pendants near al Ha’it Oasis. (c) Large pendants and red rock ‘pavement’ by the start of a funerary avenue near al Wadi (IDIHA-0030546). (d) A funerary avenue comprising ‘tower tomb’ pendants (IDIHA-0029427) in Khaybar Oasis. N.B. similar pendant size. (e) Facing pendants (including two ‘segmented wedge-tailed’ types to left) near al Ha’it Oasis. (f) Part of the ‘keyhole’ pendant-dominated funerary avenue linking al ‘Ayn (shown here) and Khaybar oases (IDIHA-0030741). This is the densest known avenue segment. N.B. ‘gateway’ of large pendants at the avenue start (foreground). (g) Funerary avenue with pathway (visible top right) and pendants (IDIHA-0031732) partially overlaid by the Habir lava flow. (Image: via AAKSAU / AAKSAK and Royal Commission for AlUla)

They found the highest concentrations of funerary monuments on these funerary avenues were located near permanent water sources, with the direction of the funerary avenues indicating that populations used them to travel between major oases, including those of Khaybar, AlUla, and Tayma.

Funerary avenues discovered in Saudi Arabia.
Figure 1. (a) A dense funerary avenue with ‘wedge-tailed’ pendants and infilled ringed cairns (site IDIHA-0027955), emanating from Khaybar Oasis. (b) A sparse funerary avenue consisting of various pendant types oriented towards a series of pathways formed over sandstone terrain (IDIHA-0013832; IDIHA-0013645; IDIHA-0013643). (Image: via AAKSAU / AAKSAK and Royal Commission for AlUla)

Lesser avenues fade into the landscapes surrounding oases, suggesting the routes were also used to move herds of domestic animals into nearby pastures during periods of rain, Dalton said:

“These oases, especially Khaybar, exhibit some of the densest concentrations of funerary monuments known worldwide. 

“The sheer number of Bronze Age tombs built around them suggests that populations had already begun to settle more permanently in these favourable locations at this time.”

Project Director Dr. Hugh Thomas, also from UWA’s School of Humanities, said the research caps a tremendous year for the project, Dr. Thomas said:

“The papers published in 2021 have helped demonstrate that in ancient times AlUla and Khaybar were characterised by a rich and dynamic occupational landscape. 

“The archaeological finds coming out of these regions have the potential to profoundly change our understanding of the early history of the Middle East.”

Provided by University of Western Australia [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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