A series of ancient reliefs carved into the desert rocks of northern Saudi Arabia depicting life-sized camels and equids are older than initially thought, it turns out. Much, much older. Far from dating to the Roman era as initially thought, they are prehistoric, a new study reveals.
Back in 2018, when archaeologists announced the discovery of nearly two dozen reliefs, they were at a loss as to who had created the so-called “Camel Site,” , why, and when. While rock art is common throughout the Levant, there was nothing in the region quite as spectacular as these monumental sculptures.
The initial theory was that the reliefs dated to some 2,000 years ago and were linked to the Nabateans, whose nomadic kingdom amassed great wealth and power during the Roman era. But a new scientific analysis of the time-worn sculptures of Camel Site shows that the early estimate was a bit off – by thousands of years. The data published Wednesday in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports suggests that the reliefs were carved during the Neolithic, and specifically in the 6th millennium B.C.E., or between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago.
This was a time when the Arabian peninsula was much less arid than it is today. The lush grasslands of this “Green Arabia” were inhabited by groups of hunters and herders who also built enigmatic stone monuments that still dot the desert landscape today.
The backdating of Camel Site marks the sculptures there the oldest preserved large-scale animal reliefs known in the world, the study notes.
The new research only adds to the fascination surrounding these life-sized sculptures and their purpose.
“Part of the difficulty in dating the site is that there are no parallels to it, so it was difficult to imagine what it was linked to,” says Maria Guagnin, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany and the lead researcher on the new study.
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While there are thousands of known Neolithic engravings in the region, these tend to be two-dimensional. The only other known three-dimensional life-size reliefs of camels are located in Petra, the famed capital of the Nabateans, which is why the researchers initially attributed the art to that culture, Guagnin says.
Since discovering Camel Site, located in the northwestern province of Al Jawf, Guagnin and colleagues have been trying multiple approaches to dating the sculptures. Rock art is notoriously difficult to date, particularly when it is exposed to erosion in dry desert climes.
At Camel Site, the first hint that the sculptures were older than assumed came when a stonemason was brought in to look at the tool marks left in the desert rock by the long-gone artists. The expert concluded that none of the marks had been made with metal tools, and the massive camel figures were all carved with stone utensils, Guagnin says. Soon enough, more data confirmed this hunch.
A test excavation under the carved panels uncovered Neolithic arrowheads and tools that showed wear patterns compatible with sculpting the reliefs. Radiocarbon dating of bones from the dig returned dates from the 6th millennium B.C.E., and showed there was no later occupation at the site.
A study of the rock varnish, the accumulation of dust and other particles on the stone surfaces, also returned similar dates for the carving of the rocks at Camel Site, the researchers note.
All of this makes them confident in their new dating of the site.
“Quite a few Neolithic depictions of fauna are equally life-sized, detailed and naturalistic but they are two-dimensional,” Guagnin says. “This made us think that the Camel Site is part of this wider tradition but has a special place within that because it’s the only spot where we have it so concentrated and where we have high relief to the point that it looks like the animal is coming out of the rock.”
A savannah in Arabia
The backdating of the site makes us marvel even more at the huge effort that carving these sculptures must have required. Back in the Neolithic, an entire community must have labored for days to make each figure. The tools uncovered at the site were made of chert, a hard sedimentary rock not found in the immediate vicinity, which had to be brought in from miles away.
Given that some of the panels are two or three meters above ground, the artists would have also had to construct scaffolding or rope rigging to reach their stone canvases, Guagnin notes.
Why someone would go to so much trouble to carve 21 figures of camels and equids in the middle of nowhere is unclear, but the site likely had a ritualistic or social purpose, the archaeologists believe.
The camels shown there were likely wild animals, as nothing marks them as domesticated, Guagnin says. The domestication of the camel is believed to have first happened in Arabia, but this occurred thousands of years later, possibly only around 1200 B.C.E., she says. The domesticated camel then made its first appearance in what is today Israel a couple of centuries later.
In the Neolithic, the pastoralist groups of Arabia herded cattle, sheep and goats in the savannah-like grassland scattered with lakes and trees. Wild camels and equids also roamed the area and were likely hunted for millennia.
These prehistoric nomadic groups are especially known for creating the so-called mustatils, thousands of stone edifices built throughout northwestern Arabia that look like giant animal pens. The purpose of these structures remains unclear but a recent study has suggested they may have served as ritual centers for a cattle-centered cult.
We don’t know if the people behind the mustatils were the same that carved the animal figures at Camel Site, or whether they were two different, neighboring groups, Guagnin says.
Meet and greet
But how can we interpret the meaning and function of the Camel Site?
While the animal figures are badly eroded, most of the recognizable ones depict male camels with bulging necklines, a feature that is typical of these animals in rut. They are also shown with a round belly, suggesting they are well fed, which is something one expects to see in wild camels at the end of the wet season, which is also when they mate.
This suggests that the symbolism and use of the site were somehow tied to seasonality or fertility.
One possibility is that Camel Site marked an important meeting place for the local tribes.
“Communities of hunters and herders tend to be very dispersed and mobile, and it’s important for them to meet at regular times during the year, to exchange information, spouses and so on,” Guagnin says. “So whatever the symbolism of the sculptures, this may have been a place to bring the whole community together.”