Desert kites are constructions that consist of two long walls converging upon an enclosed space that has on its periphery small stone constructions called cells. Seen from the sky, their shape suggests that of a windborne kite; they were thus called kites by pilots who flew over the arid regions of the Near East in the time of the French and British mandates of the first half of the 20th century CE. These kites combine various characteristics, which in archaeology have been the object of particular research. However, most methods of investigation are useless because of the nature of these constructions.
In spite of many studies, and although it is possible to advance several serious hypotheses, no one can confirm with certainty today the age or function of these structures or the culture which they represent! (It is generally agreed that they served to gather animals together, but whether they were used for wild or domesticated animals is uncertain.) Moreover, recent access to high-resolution satellite images has revealed that there are many more kites than were thought a few years ago, over an area that extends from the Arabian Peninsula to the Aral Sea. Thus, piercing the mystery of the “kites phenomenon” involves avenues of research that have implications for questions as fundamental and diverse as animal economy, disappearance of species, development of subsistence territories, and even the development of urbanism.
Kites are composed of an enclosure of variable shape and size and more or less continuous walls that converge towards the entrance; these walls can sometimes be absent but are usually two in number and sometimes three, four, or more. Their length is commonly several hundred meters and can even reach several kilometres, while their height is no more than a few decimetres. The enclosures are variable in shape (circular, triangular, star-shaped…), and their size, larger than the majority of pastoral enclosures, varies from a few hundred square meters to more than ten hectares.
The small stone constructions or cells that are joined to the external part of the enclosure have walls that are often higher than those of the enclosure. They are circular or quadrangular in shape and their number varies from a single cell to several dozen. If several often-observed particularities are considered, such as a disposition of the cells near the entrance, the existence of cells at the extremity of pointed appendices and the particular shapes of the entrance, the variability among the kites makes it difficult to propose a typology. Kites are found in arid environments, steppes, and desert margins, and their topographical location is clearly the result of a definite choice in many cases. A break in the slope is very often observed at the position of the entrance and various topographic configurations were preferred to flat topography.
The principle of an enclosure at the extremity of converging walls appears to be universal in character, as constructions of this type are found in several regions of the world (North and South America, Scandinavia, etc.) in terrestrial as well as aquatic environments. However, kites are distinguished from other constructions by the presence of cells adjoining the enclosure.
The first kites identified, and the most numerous, are located in the Harrat-al-Sham, between Syria and Jordan. There are other zones of high density, but these are more circumscribed: in the Palmyrenides in Syria, in the Hejaz near Khaybar, and recently discovered in Armenia. Other regions contain kites that are more dispersed, although they are rarely isolated and are usually grouped together: in the regions of Damascus and Qaratein, in the Jebel al Has, and on the plateau of Hemma in Syria.
In Arabia, they are also found in the northern margins of the Nefud, in the prolongation of the Harrat al-Sham. An important group was recently discovered in the southern foothills of the Taurus in southern Turkey. Another important group, long known to Russian archaeologists, is situated on the plateau of Ustyurt, in the Aralo-Caspian zone. Finally, there are two small groups of related constructions which are generally called kites, but with very particular morphological features: one in the Negev, the other in the region of Marib in Yemen. In total, the most recent inventory (summer 2014) includes more than 4500 kites.
It is generally agreed that kites served to gather together animals. But opinions are divided on the question of whether the herds were wild or domestic. The hypothesis of hunting prevails, although the pastoral hypothesis has not been refuted. In favour of the first is the known use for hunting of the small traps of the Negev, particularly well-studied but not numerous and quite unusual. Moreover, several elements would appear to lend themselves to the practice of hunting, such as the presence of a break in the slope at the entrance to the enclosure which probably served to mask the latter from the animals before they entered it. Similarly, certain regions present kites that are organised in chains, all oriented in the same direction, which would correspond to the hunting of animals on migration.
Finally, a deposit of gazelle bones containing many individuals of different age and sex, indicating massive non-selective hunting, has been discovered some ten kilometres from a series of kites in north-eastern Syria. This discovery is intriguing, but proves nothing concerning the use of kites, even less their role in the disappearance of the great herds. Petroglyphs representing kites have also been found, but it is not clear whether these should be interpreted as hunting scenes or pastoral ones. In fact, we know nothing of how a kite functioned. In particular, we do not know the purpose of the little cells, although they appear to have been essential, to judge by their omnipresence and the care taken in their construction; they could have served as hides, as pits, or even as domestic spaces.
In spite of several studies on the subject of the age of the kites, only a few indices have been found. There are problems of methodology, as archaeological material is generally absent. Excavations have not produced the remains of tools, traces of use, or animal bones, while carbonised materials suitable for dating are rare. Material scattered on the surface can sometimes be recovered, but this rarely concerns a particular period or use and does not present a spatial distribution suitable to establishing a relationship with the kite.
There is one notable exception: a significant number of dates established (radiocarbon on charcoal, IRSL of sediments and examination of artefacts) for several traps in the Negev demonstrate use centred on the early Bronze Age. Unfortunately, these structures, of a very particular size and morphology, are few and relatively detached spatially from the other kites of the region; neither the age nor the function of kites can be established based on such particular examples.
For all the other kites, that is, almost all the corpus, we have only a few clues. In chronological order:
- Based on relative chronology and/or on artefacts found on the surface, two authors are in agreement that the kites of the Harrat al-Sham in Jordan correspond to the end of the Neolithic;
- In southern Syria, the excavation of a kite and cross-checking with relative dating has enabled its dating to the beginning of the early Bronze Age;
- On the basis of rock engravings depicting kites, those in north-eastern Syria could date to the early Bronze Age;
- In Armenia, based on a series of absolute (radiocarbon) and relative evidence, it could be established that the kites were used between the beginning of the Bronze Age and the change of era;
- The well-known Safaïtic engraving on the cairn of Hani suggests the use of kites in the Roman period;
- Based on various evidence (including recent radiocarbon dating), the use of some kites in the Aralo-Caspian zone goes back to the Iron Age and persisted to the sub-contemporary period;
- We have several travellers’ accounts of between the 17th and 19th centuries who describe collective hunting of gazelles in the Near East, but it is not certain that the structures described correspond to the kites we observe today.
This evidence, low in quantity and sometimes unsure, appears to indicate long-term use. However, these indications are very scattered across the area of distribution which besides shows a great morphological diversity. In the present state of the available data, it is not possible to propose a simple and clear chronology.