Archaeologists in planes help to reveal ancient ‘highways’ in Saudi Arabia’s AlUla

Team from the University of Western Australia use aerial photography and satellite imagery to survey 160,000 square kilometres of desert

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Archaeologists in Saudi Arabia have discovered a 4,500-year-old highway network of “funerary avenues” suggesting interaction between regions’ populations in the third millennium BC.

A study published in the journal The Holocene determined that the people who lived in ancient north-west Arabia built the major pathways between oases and pastures, and surrounded them with thousands of burial monuments.

Most of the 17,800 “pendant” tombs found in the study were near permanent water sources, and researchers say the direction of the funerary avenues suggests that many were used to travel between major oases, including those of Khaybar, AlUla and Tayma. Other pathways led away from the water to open areas, suggesting use for herding livestock.

The team of archaeologists from the University of Western Australia used aerial photography and satellite imagery to assess the 160,000 square kilometre area of AlUla and Khaybar from above, before conducting ground surveys and excavations.

“The research by the UWA team and our colleagues working across AlUla and Khaybar shows how important the archaeology of this region is for our understanding of the Neolithic and Bronze Age across the Middle East,” project director Dr Hugh Thomas said.

"Our findings demonstrate that these structures linked various populated oases, situated across a vast area, and that the funerary avenues were established around 4,500 years ago. They are especially dense around Khaybar, which is one of the densest visible funerary landscapes anywhere in the world.”

The discovery is part of a 15-year project, known as The Journey Through Time, to regenerate AlUla and Khaybar, with the aim of making them global hubs for cultural and natural heritage.

“The more we learn about the ancient inhabitants of north-west Arabia, the more we are inspired by the way our mission reflects their mindset: they lived in harmony with nature, honoured their predecessors and reached out to the wider world,” said Amr AlMadani, chief executive of the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), which oversaw the UWA excavations.

"The work done by our archaeological teams in 2021 demonstrates that Saudi Arabia is a home for top-flight science – and we look forward to hosting more research teams in 2022.”

The discoveries should keep coming.

“There is much more to come in 2022 and the years ahead as we reveal the depth and breadth of the area’s archaeological heritage, which for decades was underrepresented but which will finally have the showcase it deserves in the Kingdoms Institute,” said José Ignacio Gallego Revilla, RCU’s archaeology, heritage research and conservation executive director.

Updated: January 11, 2022, 3:45 AM