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Yemeni Megaliths December 10, 1997
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image] Gigantic stones in Yemen's desert (Courtesy Edward Keall) [LARGER IMAGE]

A chance discovery of a group of megaliths on a coastal plain in western Yemen has sent scholars scrambling to explain why and how people were living there between ca. 2400 and 800 B.C. Known as al-Tihamah, the plain was thought to have been uninhabited until the eighth or ninth century A.D.

After a season studying a ninth-century A.D. mound outside the village of al-Mutaynah, Edward Keall, director of the Canadian Archaeological Mission of the Royal Ontario Museum, was directed to the new site by a local date farmer. "It was like going back to the nineteenth century in terms of the wonderment of discovery," says Keall, who found five 20-ton granite megaliths, three of which stood upright and measured eight feet tall. Another, more than 20 feet long, lay slanting out of the ground. Keall and his team investigated the adjacent areas and discovered more than a dozen other monoliths arranged in no obvious pattern.

The giant stones at the main site appear to have been set shallowly in the sandy soil. A cache of copper-alloy tools found where a stone originally stood dates from between 2400 and 1800 B.C., suggesting that the stones were erected during the same period. Surface finds include obsidian and chert scrapers and blades, implying the survival of an archaic lithic industry in the Yemeni Bronze Age. Some of the standing stones at a second site appear to have been reused as pilings for a large building, whose purpose is unknown. Potsherds found in the vicinity date between 1200 and 800 B.C., evidence that the area was either occupied for at least 1,500 years or settled twice.

"We don't know what was keeping people in this terribly marginal desert area," says Keall. "Was it a natural resource or a strategic position that prompted these people to invest such effort in erecting these remarkable monuments?" The absence of any archaeological materials in the region between 800 B.C. and A.D. 800 is also a conundrum. Keall is planning further surveys this winter.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America