How Do Archaeologists Determine the Purpose and Meaning of Ancient Monuments?

By David NaarLast Updated Jun 1, 2021 5:59:11 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: BANARAS KHAN/Getty Images

We all know that archaeologists have a knack for discovering ancient monuments and structures that were built thousands of years ago — it’s their life’s purpose, after all. But have you ever wondered how they figure out exactly what they're looking at? How they can tell whether the remains of a 7,000-year-old structure were a temple of devotion to an animal god or a simple livestock corral?

The answer involves quite a bit of literal and figurative digging, which is why it’s time to unearth some of the ways archaeologists piece together hints from dig sites to reveal what happened — along with what people were like and what was important to them — in ancient times. By taking a look at real-life examples from actual excavation sites, it’s easier to see just how researchers arrived at various theories about different locations’ pasts.

The Mysterious Mustatils of the Arabian Peninsula

The past few decades have been fascinating for archaeologists who are interested in the history of the northwest quadrant of the Arabian Peninsula. While the area was long believed to have been more or less uninhabited until around 1200 to 500 B.C., discoveries that first came to light in the 1970s began turning this assumption upside down.

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Photo Courtesy: Arab News/YouTube

Thousands of ancient stone structures have since been discovered in the area, some of which date back to between 6500 and 2800 B.C.. Among these discoveries are a series of puzzling structures that researchers have since dubbed "mustatils," which means "rectangles" in Arabic.

While mustatils can vary a bit in their dimensions, they’re generally massive rectangles that feature platforms on each end connected by two walls. Some of them also have entranceways, upright stone slabs called orthostats and chambers in their open centers.

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Recently, a team of archaeologists dug deeper into studying mustatils in an attempt to piece together what purpose these large formations might have served and why there were so many of them. In the report on their findings, which was published in the academic archaeology journal Antiquity, they arrived at the following conclusion: "These structures can now be interpreted as ritual installations dating back to the late sixth millennium B.C., with recent excavations revealing the earliest evidence for a cattle cult in the Arabian Peninsula."

Building Blocks of the Cattle Cult Theory

So how does a group of researchers arrive at the theory that over 1,000 7,000-year-old rectangles are evidence of an ancient cattle cult? Examining the hints they had to work with and can help us better break down their logic.

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Hint #1 — Cattle Bones

While many of the mustatils had undergone the normal wear and tear that comes from existing in a searingly hot desert climate for thousands of years, the team was able to hit the jackpot when they found a totally undisturbed mustatil in 2019. Inside, they discovered a large number of cattle bones and horns, as well as the remains of other livestock like sheep, gazelles and goats.

Why didn’t they assume that the mustatils were ancient meat markets of some sort? This part goes back to where the bones were discovered. They were unearthed in the center of a stone-walled chamber inside the mustatil itself, right beside a large upright stone. This kind of setup is highly similar to that of other, better-known ancient temples, and it’s what led the researchers to believe the animals may have been sacrificed in a ritualistic manner.

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Hint #2 — Artwork

Researchers tend to have their work cut out for them when dealing with structures that pre-date writing. The archaeologists did have a bit of luck, however, as they were able to confirm that ancient rock art had been found in the same area as the structures. It depicted "scenes of both cattle herding and hunting." This gives credence to the idea that cattle and livestock were an important part of the livelihood of the people living in the area.

Hint #3 — Size

The sheer size of many of the mustatils, some of which were over 1,900 feet long, provided interesting contrast to the fact that the walls were no higher than about 1.5 feet. This makes it much less likely that the structures were used as large animal corrals, given that their short height wouldn't have done much good as far as keeping livestock inside was concerned.

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Archaeology Isn't for Fans of Open-and-Shut Cases

Given the team's theory, are the mysteries of mustatils solved once and for all? Hardly. While it's possible that their cattle cult theory holds water, it’s also possible that mustatils had nothing to do with cattle worship. When studying ancient structures that predate writing, archaeologists have to accept that there may be no solid answers to their questions until more evidence is uncovered years — or even centuries — down the line. All they can do is give their best guesses based on the information they have available. Whether those guesses are right or wrong may remain up in the air.

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Imagine a team of archaeologists unearthing our own civilization several thousand years from now. If they didn't have access to written records or the technology we now use, they might surmise we all worshiped a green goddess who appeared on signs and buildings throughout the world. With no other evidence to go on, there'd be no way for them to know that it was merely the Starbucks logo and that it symbolized nothing more than our collective love of coffee or affinity for recognizable branding.

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The point being that, without historical records, archaeologists are often in the dark, and that's a reality they accept. That said, while we may not know exactly what mustatils were, their discovery does tell us certain things about the area they were discovered in. First of all, it was definitely inhabited at a time no one believed it to be. Secondly, there may have been more water around than previously assumed due to the fact cattle were kept alive there.

The Many Theories Surrounding Stonehenge

If archaeologists know that their theories may not ever be proven or that they may be disproven, why form them at all? Because it's an important part of the process. Theories serve as starting points that provide other researchers with ideas about what to look for when searching for confirmation that they're right.

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Take Stonehenge, for instance, a prehistoric landmark in Wiltshire, England, that was built in stages from around 3000 to 1520 B.C. Few other ancient sites in the world have spawned more origin theories than the circle of massive stones that's been standing for 5,000 years. What was their purpose, and how could people so long ago have possibly arranged them without modern tools?

In the 17th and 18th centuries, antiquarian John Aubrey and archaeologist William Stukeley both believed the site to be an ancient Druid temple. Further research, however, revealed that Stonehenge was built about 2,000 years before the Druids arrived on the scene.

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More recently, in 2008, British archaeologists Tim Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright suggested that Stonehenge might have been a sort of healing place for ancient people. Further excavation of the area, however, provided little evidence to support the theory.

One of the latest theories is that Stonehenge was an ancient burial ground, probably for royalty or elites. This theory is supported by bones found around the site, some of which appear to have been cremated — a formal ritual that was performed out of respect to the deceased.

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While theories are still evolving, those that didn't quite work out have been just as important for the process of narrowing down the possibilities as those that show more promise. Archaeology may not always come with an explanation of each site carved neatly into a couple of ancient stone slabs. But the mystery that results is part of the excitement and often inspires studies that lead to other discoveries.