An ancient landscape of stone circles, alignments and possible tombs lies out in the Syrian Desert, according to a Royal Ontario Museum archaeologist who has dubbed the mysterious structures "Syria's Stonehenge."
"These enigmatic arrangements are not especially imposing, they are not megaliths or anything like that, but they are very intriguing and clearly deliberately aligned," Robert Mason of Canada's Royal Ontario Museum told Discovery News.
Uncovered in 2009 near the monastery of Deir Mar Musa (Saint Moses the Abyssinian) some 50 miles north of Damascus, the strange features are likely to remain a desert mystery since the conflict tearing apart the Middle Eastern nation is preventing archaeologists from investigating the site.
Analysis of fragments of stone tools scattered in the area may date the formations to the Neolithic Period or early Bronze Age– 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.
According to Mason, the stones are arranged to stand out from the empty landscape.
"There is nothing that seems to exhibit evidence of occupation – no houses or occupation at all. This is unusual for the Neolithic in that typically people lived where they buried their dead and worshipped," Mason said.
"As such it may reflect the development of the concept of a 'land of the dead' distinct from a 'land of the living' which has been hypothesised for Neolithic ritual sites in Europe. However it may also reflect a seasonal population that left very limited occupation evidence," he added.
The only building in the area is the monastery, which was built in the late 4th or early 5th century and decorated with 11th and 12th century frescoes depicting Christian scenes and Judgment Day.
According to Mason, the monastery was originally a Roman watchtower that was partially destroyed by an earthquake and then rebuilt.
The archaeologist was looking for lost Roman watchtowers when he stumbled across the strange features.
"The centre of the complex that I found is a natural rock formation that had been the site of quarrying for chert," Mason said.
Built against the quarry face were corbelled constructions about 7 feet across that would have been originally closed over in beehive-like structures.
"These have every appearance of being tombs. Radiating out from this rock were alignments of stones — nothing big, but deliberately aligned and typically ending in one or more corbelled structure," Mason said.
He noticed that those distal tombs were associated with small circles of stones, about 20 feet across.
"Desert kites" — walls used to corral and trap migrating gazelle – were also present in the area.
"It looked like one of the corbelled structures had been robbed of stone for construction of the kite. This would possibly suggest three phases on the site: quarry, tombs and alignments, and kite," Mason said.
Similar structures have been found near Palmyra and Northern Syria in the desert, but researchers could not find any associated dating evidence.
"The highlands of Western Syria also feature structures like this. However, they were later joined by tombs of the Bronze and Iron Ages, and of the Roman, and so later material obscures any dating evidence for the early structures," Mason said.
According to the archaeologist, more research is required to understand the mysterious stone arrangements.
"I really never had a chance to investigate them fully, and now I am not sure when I ever will," he said.
Photos: A corbelled structure (pile of rocks) with an associated circle. Credit: Robert Mason;
- A typical corbelled structure ("tomb"). Credit: Robert Mason;
– The monastery of Deir Mar Musa . Credit: Bernard Gagnon/wikimedia Commons;
– The rock at the centre of the complex: perhaps a "high place" of some significance to the people at the time. Credit: Robert Mason.