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Update on the Arabian Rock Structures: Intelligent Design in Action

Harrat Khaybar

Here we are in 2018, and we still don’t know who, when, or why ancient people left their marks in the Arabian desert in the form of large stone structures, some of them hundreds of meters long. But as we observed back in November, “All we know is that they were designed.” It’s a good example of intelligent design in action — the design science of archaeology. It’s one of many active areas of design-based research that clearly are propelling science forward.

Live Science lit the fuse on this story on October 17 and it quickly went viral. Since the initial report came out, David Kennedy of the University of Western Australia received the approval of the Saudi government to fly over the Harret Khaybar area. It was a historic opportunity:

In the past few weeks, a huge opportunity opened up in this field after Live Science published an article about my research, sparking a deluge of international media coverage. Ultimately, I was invited to visit the country that has been least open to any form of aerial surveys, or even to archival aerial images: Saudi Arabia. Last month, they lifted this veil of sorts and allowed me to fly over the country’s vast array of archaeological sites for the first time. [Emphasis added.]

He returned with almost 6,000 pictures. What he saw was really astonishing, he reported in Live Science again on November 12 after our article came out.

Hundreds of thousands of stone structures that date back thousands of years and dot the deserts and plains of the Middle East and North Africa are, in many cases, so large that only a bird’s-eye view can reveal their intricate archaeological secrets: gorgeous and mysterious geometric shapes resembling a range of objects, from field gates, to kites, to pendants, to wheels.

You can see a few of the photos he brought back in a Live Science slide show. What’s interesting is that there are very stunning natural structures in the same area: perfectly round volcanic craters that stand out vividly from their surroundings. So what’s the difference? We all know if we follow the Design Filter: we can observe natural causes forming craters, but we never see unguided natural processes forming gates, pendants, and wheels.

One prediction of intelligent design is that purposeful objects will often show more design the closer you look. Indeed, that is the case here. One figure caption says:

The aerial photo reveals that the connecting wall between the pendant’s bullseye (the circle with the cairn in the middle) and triangle is, in fact, a series of rectangular platforms. The aerial photo also reveals that the triangle, platforms and bullseye are carefully built with coursed stones.

This particular pendant-shaped structure is about 100 meters long, indicating that whoever made it did a “monumental” amount of work to fulfill whatever purpose they had in mind. Additionally, it indicates a great deal of cooperation and leadership for the project. The next photo shows a dozen similar structures side by side. Think of the work creating 100,000 of these!

The function of some structures can be guessed at. The “kites,” for instance, might have been pens for capturing animals. But what were the circles with cairns in the middle, and the parallel rectangles? Archaeologists are wont to attribute unknown patterns to religious ritual, or burial mounds for powerful leaders, but aesthetics also qualifies as a function.

There are immense numbers of them (at least hundreds of thousands), and each one can be huge (hundreds of metres across). Often, they are enigmatic, as there is no consensus on the purpose of several types of these structures. And they are almost entirely unrecorded and barely acknowledged; the extensive archaeological landscapes were first reported in the 1920s (for Jordan and Syria), but only now are they coming into sharp focus in terms of scale and significance.

Who would have thought it was even possible to find such things in the 21st century?

Although these stone structures are found extensively in the northernmost harrat — the Harret al-Shaam, stretching from southern Syria across the Jordanian Panhandle and into Saudi Arabia — they appear in equally large numbers in most of the harrat stretching down the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula. It is those harrat in Saudi Arabia that have attracted much recent attention, in part because of their unfamiliarity and the astonishing numbers and types of sites that have emerged, some quite different from those long known in Jordan.

Kennedy has twenty years of experience studying the geoglyphs in Jordan and Israel. Many of the other lands of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) were closed off to aerial surveillance since the countries gained independence. Since 2008, though, Google Earth has steadily improved global satellite imagery so that now anyone with a computer can engage in armchair archaeology.

In September 2016, Live Science posted a slide show of “25 Strangest Sights on Google Earth,” proving that many amateurs and professionals have taken up the challenge of doing ID on the planet. One mound with a square top in Egypt might be an unexcavated pyramid. Regarding such structures, the writer uses implicit ID reasoning, saying, “there is a debate as to whether they represent natural features or artificial structures.” In other words, everyone knows that intelligent causes can be distinguished from natural causes.

It’s almost as if we have the opportunity to look for signs of intelligent life on another planet. If you don’t know who made the structures, then for all practical purposes, you can’t rule out any intelligent cause. Indeed, slide 11 of the gallery, an elegant spiral in the Egyptian desert 100,000 meters in area, might get a believer in space aliens excited! It might, till he or she learns that it was a work of art created in 2007 by two people whose names we know. Few would attribute to space aliens a couple of large “mapvertisements” of Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken visible on Google Earth.

We might be tempted to think that intelligent design only deals with long-ago things: the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of Cambrian animals. Here’s an example of hot news about intelligent design research concerning mysterious evidence within human history.

The new discoveries by David Kennedy’s team, “probably the first systematic aerial reconnaissance for archaeology ever carried out in Saudi Arabia,” were partly due to another form of intelligent design: the willingness of the young crown prince “to open up his country to development and innovation.” Kennedy is certainly pleased with the opportunity to look for more evidence of design. Full speed ahead!

Because the area is so immense — encompassing some 10,000 square miles, or 27,000 square km — this is a task for remote sensing. This method will be combined with several techniques: the interpretation of Google Earth imagery systematically, the cataloging of the sites located, complementary low-level aerial reconnaissance and photography, and associated ground investigation. We have been interpreting Google Earth imagery for some years. The ground investigation, by contrast, is in its infancy. The aerial reconnaissance part has made a good start over the past few weeks and deserves to be pursued urgently.

Intelligent causes can be good or evil. Some intelligent minds seek to close off understanding. There are countries that have prevented archaeologists from entering, and societies that have destroyed priceless artifacts, leaving the ruins to return to the natural dust.

Sadly, there are still too many intelligent minds that censor intelligent design, keeping the idea from getting a fair hearing. When we found Wikipedia had deleted references to Günter Bechly, it took some forensic research (another form of ID science) to find out what designs were performed against him. That’s ironic, isn’t it? Intelligent design against intelligent design, but ID nonetheless.

Photo: Harrat Khaybar, by Expedition 16 Crew Member on the International Space Station, NASA (NASA Johnson Space Center (direct link)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.