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The North Arabian Desert oases were inhabited by sedentary populations in the 4th and 3rdmillennia BCE. A fortification enclosing the Khaybar Oasis—one of the longest known going back to this period—was just revealed by a team of scientists from the CNRS1  and the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU). This new walled oasis is, along with that of Tayma, one of the two largest in Saudi Arabia. While a number of walled oases dating back to the Bronze Age had already been documented, this major discovery sheds new light on human occupation in north-western Arabia, and provides a better grasp of local social complexity during the pre-Islamic period.

Cross-referencing field surveys and remote sensing data with architectural studies, the team estimated the original dimensions of the fortifications at 14.5 kilometres in length, between 1.70 and 2.40 metres in thickness, and approximately 5 metres in height. Preserved today over a little less than half of its original length (41%, 5.9 km and 74 bastions), this colossal edifice enclosed a rural and sedentary territory of nearly 1,100 hectares. The fortification’s date of construction is estimated between 2250 and 1950 BCE, on the basis of radiocarbon dating of samples collected during excavations.

Digital reconstruction of the rampart network from the northern section of the Khaybar walled oasis 4,000 years ago

While the study confirms that the Khaybar Oasis clearly belonged to a network of walled oases in north-western Arabia, the discovery of this rampart also raises questions regarding why it was built as well as the nature of the populations that built it, in particular their relations with populations outside the oasis.

This archaeological discovery, published on 10 January in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (JASREP), paves the way for major advances in understanding the prehistoric, pre-Islamic, and Islamic past of the north-western Arabian Peninsula.

Written by CNRS

Image by Khaybar Longue Durée Archaeological Project, M. Bussy & G. Charloux

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