A long-lost civilization in Saudi Arabia

Ancient monument in the deserts of Al Ula, Saudi Arabia © Richard Hargas Wikipedia Creative Commons

An international team of more than 60 experts is working on a two-year project to survey 3,300 sq km in north-western Saudi Arabia. Archaeologists and other specialists are surveying the rock-strewn deserts of Al Ula – an area roughly the size of Belgium – in search of a long-lost civilisation which once lived there.

The Nabataeans are best known for the stunning ruins of the city of Petra in Jordan with its temples and tombs carved out of the rock cliffs. From here they ruled their empire, but they made Hegra (the modern Mada’in Saleh) in Al Ula their second capital and here they also erected massive stone monuments. The area is now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site but many of the sites in this desolate area remain unexplored.

Map of Saudi Arabia showing the location of Al Ula ( Google Maps)

Excavations have been carried out for some time in and around Mada’in Saleh and other recognised Nabataean sites by a group of Saudi archaeologists, including Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, a lecturer at the King Saud University in Riyadh. The establishment of a Royal Commission for Al Ula now means that funding is available for a much larger investigation by an international team. One immediate benefit is that the archaeologists now have access to the latest technology such as light aircraft equipped with specialist cameras. While Google Earth and the trained eye can often distinguish natural and man-made features, the cameras and drones can capture hitherto unknown archaeological features.

Rebecca Foote is the American archaeologist in charge of the survey: “A great deal is known about ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia but comparatively little has been discovered about the Arabian peninsula in ancient times”. Foote, who spent many years working in Petra, says that aerial archaeology will be key to exploring the culture’s funerary architecture, standing stones and more unusual sites that would otherwise take years to investigate … Nothing like this has been done before on this scale.”

The air survey group is led by Oxford Archaeology’s Jamie Quartermaine. She explains “We are using several different methods of photography including drones, cameras and cutting-edge aerial orpho-photography.” This technique provides an adjusted image every two to three seconds and the thousands of pictures are adjusted for topographic relief to measure true distances. Specialist software combines these into a high-resolution, detailed model of the landscape”. Discoveries so far include burial sites, Bronze Age funerary landscapes and burial structures.

Following up on the aerial images, specialist team members are then sent out into the field on foot to carry out more detailed studies. One member of the team is rock art expert Maria Guagnin, who explains “Our knowledge of the prehistoric distribution of animal species in this area is  largely dependent on the location of excavated archaeological sites. Many species have been assumed to have been absent from the Arabian peninsula, but rock art panels have shown otherwise.” The presence of previously undocumented mammal species in Al Ula provides new information regarding their distribution, as well as the types of habitat and vegetation that were present in prehistoric landscapes.

Animal depictions also help with dating. It is considered unlikely, for example, that horses or camels with riders existed before 1,200 BC. Domesticated cattle, sheep and goats, on the other hand, were introduced to the Arabian peninsula between 6,800 and 6,200 BC. They were domesticated in the Levant and brought to Saudi Arabia.

Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani says the scope of the work is such that it will take generations to get to grips with the results: “What makes this work so important on the world stage is that it will provide an account of not just Mada’in Saleh and Petra but earlier civilisations that are largely unknown to us.” As a university lecturer he is already training tomorrow’s experts to carry on the work. As he says “Today’s students may well make discoveries that we can’t even imagine today.”


Based on an article on the BBC News website on 3 October 2019, written by Sylvia Smith, BBC News, Saudi Arabia,


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