Visualize a desert oasis and images of flowing water and lush palm trees might come to mind.
Archaeologists in northern Saudi Arabia have discovered an oasis of a different kind. It’s smack-dab in the middle of an arid desert and one made of tumbling sandstone tablets carved with life-sized depictions of camels and horses. It’s also 2,000 years old.
Though it might look like just a pile of rocks to the casual viewer, the aptly-named “Camel Site” is home to a dozen life-sized stone sculptures and reliefs made from three rocky spurs – a design that makes up profiles of camel silhouettes easily recognizable from a distance.
The discovery sheds light on the cultural and social significance of art during this time.
Camel Site’s arid climate and lack of a water source suggest it was unlikely a human settlement but rather a stopping point for trade or ceremonial purposes. The discovery could go so far as to uncover the ancient trade routes and how sites like this might have been used.
From grazing horses to a procession of camels, the scenes reflect varied themes relevant to the time but it’s the amount of care and precision carvers took that make researchers believe the animals – who were carved in likeness of their natural settings – were highly revered and respected.
Rock reliefs differ from petroglyphs or hieroglyphs, which are two-dimensional because they are carved on solid or “living rock”. This gives the carvings a realistic three-dimensional look that resembles a statute.
Researchers surveyed the more than 300-meter (980 feet) area by foot and used a kite to create 3D images and a digital model of the terrain.
While it’s difficult to estimate exactly how much time it took to carve the giant sculptures, it is likely it took several days for each animal. Carvers would probably choose a space in the rock based on its natural contours and use tools like picks and chisels to proportionately carve out images.
From Egypt and Iran to Mesopotamia and Turkey, carving rocks was an artistic technique for ceremonial and commemorative purposes, but it wasn’t as prevalent in the Arabian Peninsula. Camel Site is the first example of “dynamic and realistic monumental art” and lends a better understanding of the importance of Arabian rock art.
Certain parts of the carvings – such as the genitals, heads, and horns – are more polished than others, which suggests the area was visited several times and was probably the place of rituals against sterility.
In 2010, 56 sites in the Jawf Province were located near ancient lakes and trade routes. Carved on sandstone, these depictions can weather and erode. That, paired with the threat of vandalism and future construction, is the biggest threat to preserving Camel Site.
They hope this discovery will generate awareness of endangered cultural heritage and ensure it is preserved and protected by the Saudi state.