Ancient highway network from the Bronze Age discovered in Arabia

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PERTH, Australia — Archaeologists have discovered an ancient network of highways on the Arabian Peninsula that dates back nearly 5,000 years. Researchers from the University of Western Australia say these Bronze Age “funerary avenues” appear to connect the various oases and fertile lands in the area at that time.

As for why researchers are calling them “funerary” highways, they discovered thousands of elaborate burial monuments lining these roads. Study authors add that the discovery shows ancient civilizations had already started to settle into more permanent communities during this time.

“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,” says lead author Dr. Matthew Dalton, from UWA’s School of Humanities, in a university release.

Bronze Age societies followed the water

UWA researchers worked with the Royal Commission for Al-‘Ula to gather satellite and helicopter images of the ancient avenues. They also conducted ground surveys and excavated the area in north-west Arabia, eventually uncovering funerary avenues over an area of more than 61,000 sqaure miles!

The team also discovered over 17,800 pendant-like tombs in the Al-‘Ula and Khaybar counties in Saudi Arabia. Study authors add 11,000 of these “pendants” formed part of the highway system. Most of these monuments along the avenues sit near permanent water sources.

The direction of the avenues also points to ancient civilizations using them to travel between major water sources in the modern-day Khaybar, Al-‘Ula, and Tayma regions. Some of these roads fade into the surrounding landscapes, suggesting that ancient farmers moved herds of animals back and forth between green pastures and highways leading to the water.

“These oases, especially Khaybar, exhibit some of the densest concentrations of funerary monuments known worldwide,” Dr. Dalton reports. “The sheer number of Bronze Age tombs built around them suggests that populations had already begun to settle more permanently in these favorable locations at this time.”

2021: the golden age of ancient discoveries

Project director Dr. Hugh Thomas notes that the discovery of the ancient highways caps off a tremendous year for archaeologists.

“The papers published in 2021 have helped demonstrate that in ancient times Al-‘Ula and Khaybar were characterized by a rich and dynamic occupational landscape,” Dr. Thomas concludes.

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

The findings are published in the journal The Holocene.

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