Amazing Places

"The Works of The Old Men" Are Unexplained Structures in the Middle Eastern Desert

Imagine you're an airplane pilot flying over Jordan in the 1920s. You look down from your cockpit and see these strange lines of stones — hundreds of them, forming intricate geometric patterns measuring hundreds of feet across. The next time you land, you ask one of the Bedouin nomads what they are. "The works of the old men," he cryptically replies. If you're like us, you'd get out of there before any eldritch curses from the time before time get you.

Mysteries in the Desert

Lt. Percy Maitland wasn't the only pilot in Great Britain's Royal Air Force to spot the strange shapes on the ground, but he brought knowledge of them to the West when he published his experiences (including that enigmatic reference to the "old men") in the journal Antiquity. The works themselves have been compared to Peru's Nasca Lines — they're built at the same massive scale, and the shapes they form can only be seen from the air. But unlike the Nasca Lines, these structures don't seem to represent any specific figures or animals.

The works come in several different flavors. "Wheels" are a series of spokes emanating from a central point. "Pendants" are long lines of stone cairns. "Walls" are meandering lines that criss-cross the sands. And "kites" are ... kite-shaped. Though we aren't sure who built them, we know they're very old.

Ancient charcoal found in some of the works has been dated to 9,000 years ago (for comparison, the oldest Nasca Lines were built around 200 B.C.E.). Adding a further dimension to the mystery, there seems to be a sort of progression of the shapes. Where wheels are sometimes found built on top of kites, it's never the other way around. That suggests that the kites could be an older style of the works — but it doesn't give many clues as to their purpose.

Go Fly a Kite

But maybe they're not so mysterious after all. At least, not all of them. In 2011, a report suggested a purpose for the kites — and it's a purpose that might strike a familiarly sad note even today. These structures were likely used to facilitate the extinction of local and migrating game animals. Basically, prehistoric hunters would have herded their prey into the wide-open broad end and driven them towards the hemmed-in narrow part. Once the gazelles were packed in tightly, it would have been easy to pick them off en masse.

There are lots of good reasons to believe this is how things went down. For one thing, rock art found in some areas with a plentitude of kites depicts gazelles being slain in exactly that fashion, and researchers think that art suggests the slaughter wasn't purely for food. Instead, they may have been planned to commemorate spiritually significant events — you know, kind of like how you blow out candles on your birthday. Only it's an entire species of gazelle. Aren't humans great?

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For more ancient mysteries, check out "Archaeology: The Essential Guide to Our Human Past," edited by Paul Bahn. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 26, 2017

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