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In the November issue of Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, researchers examining the Saudi Arabian desert have found around 400 unreported stone structures likely built by nomadic tribes thousands of years ago. Most of them are clustered in Harrat Khaybar, a region in west-central Saudi Arabia known for its now-extinct volcanic domes. Neurologist Abdullah Al-Saeed, who now leads a group of amateur archaeologists in Saudi Arabia, first found the sites in person in 2004 as three-foot-high stone walls among lava domes. In 2008, Al-Saeed began looking at Google Earth because of government restrictions. It was then he that realized the extent of the stone structures.

Harrat Khaybar, from Google Earth

Harrat Khaybar, from Google Earth

David Kennedy, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia, was intrigued by the pictures. Kennedy signed on to help. Over a decade, the archaeologist began searching for and documenting the gates including one that is 1,600 feet long, using Google Earth. Nicholas St. Fleur at The New York Times covered this story, quoting Kennedy,

“We would have loved to fly across into Saudi Arabia to take images. But you never get the permission.. They don’t look like structures where people would have lived nor do they look like animal traps or for disposing of dead bodies,” he says. “It’s a mystery as to what their purpose would have been.”

It is hard to date these structures, they may date as far back as 7,000 years. Some of the area’s lava flows also cover the gates, meaning the structures are older than some of the lava domes in the area. These areas could have been part of the Green Arabia, like the Green Sahara, where the area has swung between wet and dry periods for over a million years.  To learn more about the gate structures, archaeologists will need to travel to the area to survey the walls and try to date the lava flows and look for any artifacts associated with them.

This find, along with 2,000 tombs found by Kennedy in 2011, is shedding new light on human habitation in the Arabian deserts. Google Earth has been used extensively in Saudi Arabian archaeology and we have commented on its utility often. And there’s more to be found. Kennedy invites us all help identify more objects by scouring this area, and others, on Google Earth.

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