Well-Preserved, 9,000-Year-Old Shrine Discovered in Jordan Desert

Researchers uncovered two standing stones featuring anthropomorphic carvings and a model of a “desert kite” used to trap wild gazelles

Shrine
The anthropomorphic carvings represent one of the earliest examples of artistic expression in the Middle East. South Eastern Badia Archaeological Project

Archaeologists digging in the deserts of Jordan have unearthed a well-preserved Neolithic religious site believed to be around 9,000 years old, reports Omar Akour for the Associated Press (AP).

Located in the Khashabiyeh Mountains, in the eastern Al-Jafr Basin, the shrine features two large standing stones carved with anthropomorphic figures, as well as an altar and hearth. The team also found almost 150 marine fossils and a small-scale model of a “desert kite,” or trap used to capture and slaughter wild gazelles.

“The site is unique, first because of its preservation state,” Wael Abu-Azziza, co-director of the South Eastern Badia Archaeological Project (SEBAP), tells the AP. “It’s 9,000 years old and everything was almost intact.”

According to a statement from the state-run Jordan News Agency, the shrine is part of a Neolithic campsite that contains multiple full-size desert kites. As Matthew Traver wrote for BBC Travel in 2020, the V-shaped traps consist of two or more rows of stone walls that converge on an enclosure. Neolithic hunters probably worked in teams to herd animals into the enclosed cells and slaughter them. An estimated 5,800 such structures are scattered across the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

Desert kites can measure more than a mile in length, notes SEBAP in a separate statement. Royal Air Force pilots flying over the region in the 1920s gave the structures their name due to their kite-like shape.

Overhead view of the religious site
Overhead view of the religious site South Eastern Badia Archaeological Project

British archaeologist T.E. Lawrence—better known as Lawrence of Arabia—spotted the stone kites during a survey of the Negev Desert in 1914 but was unsure of their purpose. Reflecting on the structures, he described “long and puzzling walls which ... appear to start and go on and end so aimlessly,” per Paul Salopek of National Geographic.

In the SEBAP statement, the researchers posit that the site’s Neolithic occupants used the shrine’s altar and hearth for sacrificial offerings.

“The sacral symbolism and ritual performance evidenced were most likely devoted to invoke the supernatural forces for successful hunts and abundance of preys to capture,” the archaeologists explain. “It sheds an entire new light on the symbolism, artistic expression as well as spiritual culture of these hitherto unknown Neolithic populations.”

The people who built the shrine and desert kites probably viewed the traps as “the center of their cultural, economic and even symbolic life in these marginal zones,” according to the statement. Specialized hunters, they lived in semi-subterranean circular huts. Comparatively, residents of the neighboring Fertile Crescent survived largely by farming and herding.

Dated to around 7000 B.C.E., the shrine predates Stonehenge by some 4,000 years. But it’s far from the oldest known religious site: Göbekli Tepe, in southeastern Turkey, dates to between roughly 9500 and 8000 B.C.E., making it around 11,000 years old.

“This is the first human-built holy place,” Klaus Schmidt, a German archaeologist who spent more than a decade excavating Göbekli Tepe, told Smithsonian magazine’s Andrew Curry in 2008.