The mysterious ‘Big Circles’ of Mideast deserts

Australian archeology professor says purpose of 12 structures across region is still unclear.

First explored in the 1920s, the public’s fascination with the ‘Big Circles of the Middle East’ has been renewed by Prof. David Kennedy’s quest to photograph and investigate the structures (photo credit: DAVID KENNEDY/APAAME)
First explored in the 1920s, the public’s fascination with the ‘Big Circles of the Middle East’ has been renewed by Prof. David Kennedy’s quest to photograph and investigate the structures
(photo credit: DAVID KENNEDY/APAAME)
Deep in the deserts of Jordan lie a series of giant circular stone structures – dubbed “Big Circles” – baffling archaeologists as to their precise history and possible purpose.
First reported by the website Live Science, Prof. David Kennedy’s continued quest to photograph and investigate these Big Circles of the Middle East has been spreading virally across the media.
Although the first exploration of the circles began in the 1920s, research on the phenomenon was shelved for decades. Kennedy, a professor specializing in Roman Near East archeology at the University of Western Australia, is now bringing these mysterious structures back to the public eye.
Since he began taking aerial photographs of the structures a decade ago, Kennedy has identified 12 Big Circles in Jordan, one in Syria, and two in southeastern Turkey. Kennedy and his colleagues make the photographs available on their Aerial Photographic Archive for Archeology in the Middle East (APAAME) website.
While often crude in construction shape, many of the circles are “clearly intended to be geometrically precise,” Kennedy wrote in a 2013 article published in the German journal, “Zeitschrift für Orient- Archäologie.”
Containing low walls of uncut boulders, most of the circles are between a few meters and about 50 meters in diameter, though some are as big as 100 meters in diameter, Kennedy wrote. A few surround some sort of megalithic structures, but most are empty in the middle and “their purpose is unclear,” the article said.
Dating the circles remains problematic since there is often material present from the Early Bronze Age (4500-2000 BCE), though many have material from the later Roman period (1st century BCE to 7th century CE). Most of the circles are found in desert or semi-desert conditions, but three were discovered in areas with clear evidence of ancient agriculture, Kennedy wrote.
Describing in great detail the varying properties of each Big Circle, the professor concluded that there is “little doubt of a pattern involving large enclosures of a very similar size, often set out with great precision and without any apparent breaks in the low surrounding walls.” The precision in the wall structure indicates that the circles likely were not used as animal pens and probably were not associated with hunting, according to Kennedy.
He pointed out, however, that all of the Jordanian Big Circles are associated with major routes – either the north-south routes of western Jordan or the route from the Hauran through Azraq to the interior of northern Arabia.
While an aerial reconnaissance can discover previously unidentified sites, provide accurate mapping information and allow some degree of interpretation, Kennedy concluded that such photography cannot substitute for ground work.
“This discussion is inevitably inconclusive,” he wrote.
Though Jordan’s Big Circles are spread throughout the country, some sit relatively close to Israel, with circles J5 and J6 just east of Jordan’s ancient city of Petra and J8 due south, according to a map in Kennedy’s article. Petra is about 30 kilometers directly east of the Israeli Arava Desert moshav of Paran.
With this in mind, as well as the fact that one circle was discovered some 300 kilometers away in Syria, The Jerusalem Post asked Kennedy whether such circles also might exist in Israel’s deserts.
“Until just a few years ago, the only Big Circles known were in Jordan,” Kennedy said. “The discovery of one in west-central Syria and of a certain example in southeast Turkey raises the prospect of there being more in that same wider area.”
But, he said, while there is “no reason why there should not have been a Big Circle in Israel or in Palestine, Israeli archaeologists have explored the landscape more thoroughly and would have found any if they survived.”
He added, however, that he “would not be surprised to hear of the discovery of others in at least the Hedjaz and probably more in Syria.”
Circular structures do exist in Israeli archeology, such as the Rujm el-Hiri megalithic monument of several concentric circles in the Golan Heights, but it remains unclear if any such empty, lone “Big Circles” have ever been identified throughout Israel’s history.