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19 April 2023

Gary sent in a link to https://news.artnet.com/art-world/mustatil-excavation-alula-saudi-arabia-2271897 … the excavation of a stone monument in Al Ula in Saudi Arabia has come up with some interesting finds – although the elaborate claim is they have found evidence of a Neolithic cultic practice. What struck me was the similarities with cursus monuments in Britain. The shape of the enclosure is a long rectangle – although cursus are not necessarily rectangular. They are long and and roughly rectangular. The head of the mustatil is aimed at the eastern sky. There are  around 1600 of these monuments across northern Arabia and they are in some way related to Arab pastoral activities. An Australian university has been given a five year project to investigate one of them, the Al Ula example. They are thought to go back to around 7000 years ago = 5000BC. Large slabs of sandstone are used  as the perimeter of the enclosure – in what is now a desert, and sandy environment. It was a wet and wooded place in the early Holocene – and probably not too denuded 7000 years ago. Its length is 460 feet – a pretty impressive size. Archaeologists have dug up 260 fragments of animal remains – skulls, horns, teeth etc. They belonged to domestic cattle, goats – and gazelles. The latter were numerous at the time, and a favoured prey of hunters. The bones were found clustered around a central upright stone known as a betyl = house of God. In other words, animal slaughter or sacrifice might have taken place, and probably did so. Interesting to note that animals with horns were chosen rather than sheep, which they herded. Rams have horns, for example. Were the heads of the animals important in some way?

The pre-Islamic religion of Arabia has been described as a ‘cult of the betyl’ – which, involved blood sacrifice. What was the connection with hunting – or feasting? Even 7000 years ago a large  area of northern Arabia was marked by ritual constructions, as well as pilgrimage activity. They did of course have sheep which were sold to the surrounding sedantory  regions, from the Levant and Syria to Sumeria/Babylonia. These were also used as blood sacrifice – although evidence of this 7000 years ago has yet to surface. During the city era of great temple complexes the supply of sheep was massive – as sacrifices made to the gods. The big question – what was the nature of these gods that demanded blood sacrifice? Why was prominent horns necessary? What was the connection with the bull god Enlil – and other Sumerian deities?

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