4,500-year-old network of funerary avenues discovered in Saudi Arabia

Vast 4,500-year-old highway network of ‘funerary avenues’ stretching for thousands of miles and lined with Bronze Age tombs is uncovered in Saudi Arabia

  • Experts at University of Western Australia report ancient tombs in the desert regions of the Arabian Peninsula
  • These tombs form part of ‘funerary avenues’ – disused corridors many miles long linking oases and pastures
  • They’re described as ‘pendant’ tombs because they resemble circular pieces of jewellery attached to a chain 

A vast 4,500-year-old network of ‘funerary avenues’ lined with well-preserved Bronze Age tombs has been uncovered in Saudi Arabia.

In a new paper, researchers detail the arrangement of around 18,000 tombs, spanning thousands of miles in the Saudi Arabian counties of Al-‘Ula and Khaybar.

They consist of small piles of stone arranged in elaborate shapes, marking the spot where either single individuals or small groups were buried, experts say.  

The burials are described as ‘pendant’ tombs because they resemble circular pieces of jewellery attached to a chain, or ‘tail’.  

University of Western Australia archaeologists describe ancient highways in their new paper. Pictured is a dense funerary avenue with ‘wedge-tailed’ pendants and infilled ringed cairns, emanating from Khaybar Oasis in Saudi Arabia

The tombs as described as ‘pendant’ because they resemble circular pieces of jewellery, or ‘heads’, attached to a chain, or ‘tail’

Small piles of stone arranged in elaborate shapes (pictured) mark the spot where either single individuals or small groups were buried


Funerary avenues are long-distance ‘corridors’ linking oases and pastures.

They get their name because they’re bordered by thousands of elaborate burial monuments. 

Funerary avenues in the AlUla and Khaybar counties in Saudi Arabia have been detailed in a new study. 

Pendant tombs are already known to have yielded human remains dating to as early as the mid-third millennium BC, during the Bronze Age. 

In total, the experts have observed around 18,000 tombs along ‘funerary avenues’ – long-distance ‘corridors’ linking oases and pastures lined by burials – only 80 of which have been sampled or excavated. 

It’s thought that the tombs may have been built as memorials (‘cenotaphs’) or for other, as yet unclear symbolic or ritual purposes. 

Dr Matthew Dalton, from the University of Western Australia’s School of Humanities, is lead author of the findings.

He and his team used satellite imagery, helicopter-based aerial photography, ground survey and excavation to locate and analyse the funerary avenues.

‘The people who live in these areas have known about them for thousands of years,’ Dr Dalton told CNN. 

‘But I think it wasn’t really known until until we got satellite imagery that just how widespread they are.’

Desert regions of the Arabian Peninsula and Levant are known to be criss-crossed by innumerable pathways, flanked by stone monuments, the vast majority of which are ancient tombs. 

Thousands of miles of these paths and monument features, collectively known as ‘funerary avenues’, can be traced across the landscape, especially around and between major perennial water sources. 

Funerary avenues were the major highway networks of their day, according to Dr Dalton. 

Their existence today shows that the populations living in the Arabian Peninsula 4,500 years ago were more socially and economically connected to one another than previously thought.  

Researchers found that the highest concentrations of funerary monuments on these avenues were located near permanent water sources. 

The direction of the avenues indicated that populations used them to travel between major oases, including those of Khaybar, Al-‘Ula and Tayma.

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.

The researchers used satellite imagery, helicopter-based aerial photography, ground survey and excavation to locate and analyse the funerary avenues

A funerary avenue with pendants and burial cairns. Here, the avenue descends from the Harrat ‘Uwayrid towards Saq, a spring near Al-‘Ula, Saudi Arabia

‘These oases, especially Khaybar, exhibit some of the densest concentrations of funerary monuments known worldwide,’ Dr Dalton said.

‘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.’  

Continued excavation and analysis of human remains within these monuments will be essential going forward, according to the researchers.

‘Primary inhumations, where identifiable and suitably preserved, may reveal the demographics of those for whom avenue monuments were originally constructed, allowing better reconstructions of these societies and their funerary practices,’ they say. 

The findings have been published in the journal The Holocene. 


Hundreds of stone monuments scattered across northwestern Saudi Arabia may represent the oldest known ritual site on Earth.

Researchers at University of Western Australia studying mustatils, courtyards made from sandstone blocks, date them to about 7,000 years ago, making them millennia older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids at Giza. 

Surveying the region by helicopter, the team found over 1,000 mustatils, more than twice the previous estimates. 

The theory is that the structures were used during ritual by members of a cattle cult, who sacrificed cows, goats and sheep to their unknown god.     

Typically, a mustatil had long walls around a central courtyard, with an entry at one end and rubble platform, or ‘head,’ at the other.

They may also include an orthostat, or upright stone, in a central chamber.

Some entranceways were blocked up with rubble, suggesting the structures were decommissioned at some point.          

Read more: 7,000-year-old structures may be part of Neolithic cattle cult

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