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Found: Tower Tombs in an Empty Desert

An archaeological project has found hundreds of gravesite cairns in Jordan.

About 80 miles east of Amman, Jordan, lies the basalt desert of Jebel Qurma. It doesn’t seem like there’s much to be found here—it’s a dry place, once described as a land of “dead fire,” and there’s little human presence here today.

But a long-term archaeology project has been investigating this area’s rich history, and as the project’s leaders write in Near Eastern Archaeology, they’ve found evidence of people living here millennia ago, including gravesites marked by mounds of stone, some with impressive constructions.

The archaeological evidence found so far indicates that people lived in this area during the first millennium B.C. and a thousand years before that, late in the third millennium B.C. with a gap in between, as LiveScience reports. Even 4,000 years ago, though, these communities buried their people on high plateaus and basalt hills, under cairns made of mounded stone. The archaeological team, which is based at the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands, has found hundreds of these cairns, including more complex tower tombs that date to the more recent period.

The tower tombs are made of flat rocks and show impressive constructions: they can be as large as 16 feet in diameter and 5 feet high. There’s little known about the culture surrounding these tombs, but they’re common enough that they likely weren’t just for elites. The team plans on coming back for many years and hopes to uncover more clues to the life people led in this beautiful, difficult place.