Mysterious Stone Structures Discovered in Saudi Arabia


Thanks to satellite imagery, archaeologists have uncovered nearly 400 ancient, previously undocumented stone structures in the Arabian desert. (New York Times)

How do scientists identify ancient structures with satellite imagery? Our own “space archaeologist” can help answer that!

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

Satellite imagery courtesy Google Earth. Navigate the ancient Saudi “gates” here!

Discussion Ideas

  • Huge, ancient stone structures were just discovered in the Arabian Desert. How did they hide in plain sight for thousands of years?
    • landscape. The deserts of Saudi Arabia are forbidding and still largely uninhabited.
    • technology. The overall structure of the stone walls is only apparent from an aerial viewpoint—a plane, drone, or satellite. Although similar structures have been studied in nearby Jordan, Saudi Arabia has traditionally been hesitant to allow planes to fly in its airspace.
    • lack of access. The structures were first discovered and identified not by archaeologists at all, but by citizen scientists! The Desert Team is a group of enthusiastic “amateur Saudi travelers and researchers who are interested in Arabian desert and its history, geography, and archeology.”


  • Archaeologists report that the stone structures were discovered in a “harrat.” What is a harrat?
    • A harrat describes an ancient lava plain. Rocky harrats spill across the Middle East.
      • The harrat associated with the newly discovered stone structures is Harrat Ash Shamah, which stretches about 25,200 square kilometers (5,869 square miles) between Jordan and Saudi Arabia.



  • What are the gates made of?
    • They’re carefully piled rocks. The rocks are basaltic lava, common in the harrat.


  • What were the gates used for?
    • No idea! This is a true archaeological mystery. Scientists have some ideas of what the gates were probably not used for:
      • not pens or animal traps. The gates do not resemble previously identified “kites”, which ancient cultures used to corral and pen animals. (Guess what the “kites” look like …)
      • not dwellings. The gates do not look like houses or temples. They’re enormous, with no obvious “doors” or points of entry.
      • not necropolises. Archaeologists are very, very familiar with burials, funerary structures, and “cities of the dead.” The gates don’t look like they were used for disposing of dead bodies.


  • Who built the gates?
    • We really don’t know, although archaeologists studying the sites think they may be ancestors of today’s Bedouin communities.
    • Scientists think the builders were likely nomadic, tribal communities active in the area during the late Neolithic and Bronze Age, between 2,000 and 9,000 years ago.
      • When studying history, it’s always fun to put events in perspective:
        • about 9,000 years ago: Communities began to permanently settle the cities we now know as Aleppo, Syria, and Amman, Jordan.
        • about 7,000 years ago: The wheel was invented, probably in Mesopotamia.
        • about 6,000 years ago: People in Northern China developed what many consider the first proto-writing system.
        • about 5,500 years ago: Egyptians began to mummify their dead.
        • about 4,500 years ago: The Maya civilization began to develop in Central America.
        • about 2,800 years ago: Ancient Greeks composed the Iliad and the Odyssey.
        • about 2,500 years ago: The Buddha was born in India.
        • about 2,000 years ago: The Roman Empire was established under Julius Caesar.


  • Many archaeologists consider the Saudi gates to be geoglyphs. What are geoglyphs? Use our fun study guide for some help.
    • A geoglyph is a large design (glyph) produced on the ground from earthen (geo-) materials, such as dirt and rocks.
      • The Saudi gates are positive geoglyphs. This means their creators used earthen materials to build up the glyph. Negative geoglyphs are produced by removing earthen materials to carve channels or canals.





New York Times: Hundreds of Mysterious Stone ‘Gates’ Found in Saudi Arabia’s Desert

Forbes: 400 Mysterious Stone ‘Gates’ Discovered In Remote Saudi Arabia

Google Earth: Zoom in on Saudi “Gates”

Nat Geo: Space Archaeology

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