The Arabian Rock Art Heritage Project

The Arabian Rock Art Heritage Project began in 2010, when our team first entered the field in Saudi Arabia.   We returned in 2011 to some of the same localities, but also added many more, particularly ones that featured horse images.  This investigation of the figures, scenes and contents of Arabian rock art has several aims.   One of the major goals of the project is to accurately record and interpret the petroglyphs, using advanced imaging techniques such as GigaPan, Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) (also known as Polynomial Texture Mapping, or PTM), and three-dimensional laser scanning.  The applicability of these techniques to Saudi Arabian petroglyphs is being investigated with the hope that other archaeologists will also find them useful in their regions of study.

Because of the remoteness of and difficult access to many of the Saudi petroglyph sites, we aim for this website to make high-resolution images of these ancient scenes available to scientists, art historians, and the public worldwide.  We are committed to disseminating these data in order to accelerate the advancement of archaeology in Saudi Arabia and to educate a general audience about the rich cultural heritage of this region.

This project also aims to establish a reliable temporal sequence in each region, since petroglyphs cannot normally be dated directly.   Despite the lack of applicability of sophisticated chemical or physical dating methods, it is possible to develop a comprehensive chronology that is consistently reliable and aids in developing a time-line for reconstructing ancient cultural developments.

Another goal has been to identify the range of animal species that existed during the Holocene Wet Phase, when much of the Arabian Peninsula was covered in savanna.  It is important to document how people and the regional fauna were impacted, adapted, migrated or disappeared from areas as the climate shifted back to greater aridity and sources of water and vegetation disappeared.

Yet another significant goal is to assess when domestic animals, including dogs, sheep, goats, cattle, horses, and camels, entered the Arabian Peninsula and how pastoralism supplanted hunting in the economies of the nomadic Arabian cultures.   The horse and camel in particular had wide-ranging effects, including their critical roles in the transportation of people and goods, as well as in warfare.

All of these aspects and many more are fortunately reflected in Arabian rock art.  However, it is also recognized that artists do not depict every plant or animal species in their environment.  Nor is every activity reported in rock art.  Some topics would have been too trivial to be reproduced in stone, some would have been considered taboo, but others clearly carried sufficient import or even magical or religious power to merit expression in art. Chiseling stone is time-consuming and labor-intensive, so the effort would have had meaning behind it. Further, an individual artist’s work would have been evaluated by peers in their society, and certain regional and temporal styles and canons were clearly adhered to. Therefore, the subjects the artists deemed important enough to record in such a lasting medium are the very things that archaeologists consider to be of great interest.

Rock art is one source of data for archaeologists, but ground surface surveys and excavations provide other, complementary evidence.  Actual bones, particularly those derived from tightly controlled excavations of undisturbed archaeological features, are considered more reliable indicators of the presence of a species than etchings on stone.   However, preservation of faunal remains is often poor in Arabia, so rock art is valuable in supplementing the osteological data.   The art also reveals details that the bones do not, including breed and species characteristics, like the pointed ears and curly tails of the hunting dogs, adipose deposits in the fat-tailed sheep, and the horn shape and color patterns on a range of species.  Behavior of both animals and humans is shown in rock art in much greater detail than can be gleaned from artifacts or settlement patterns discovered through excavation and survey.  The same is true for clothing, hairstyles, and other perishable data rarely preserved through the millennia by other means.  The thorough study of rock art then is critical to fleshing out ancient cultures, especially when added to other lines of archaeological evidence.