Life-sized camel sculptures dating back 2,000 years have been found at an inhospitable site in the Saudi desert.
While artistic depictions of camels have existed in the region going back eras, the latest discovery is described as ‘unprecedented’ in its scale.
Located in the province of Al Jawf in north-west Saudi Arabia, Camel Site, as it is known, was explored by a Franco-Saudi research team.
The sculptures, some unfinished, were carved into three rocky spurs, and the researchers were able to identify a dozen or so reliefs representing camels.
However, why the artists chose to carve these animals in such a remote area remains a mystery.
Scientists suggest the area may have once been a place of worship, or that the camels were used as boundary markers.
The study was conducted by researchers based at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France and colleagues from the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH), who explored the Camel Site in 2016 and 2017.
Archaeologist Guillaume Charloux, a research engineer at CNRS in France, said: ‘Though natural erosion has partly destroyed some of the works, as well as any traces of tools, we were able to identify a dozen or so reliefs of varying depths representing camelids and equids.
‘The life-sized sculpted animals are depicted without harnessing in a natural setting.
‘One scene in particular is unprecedented: it features a dromedary meeting a donkey, an animal rarely represented in rock art.
‘Some of the works are thus thematically very distinct from the representations often found in this region.
‘Technically, they also differ from those discovered at other Saudi sites – frequently simple engravings of dromedaries without relief – or the sculpted facades of Al Ḩijr.
‘In addition, certain Camel Site sculptures on upper rock faces demonstrate indisputable technical skills.
‘Camel Site can now be considered a major showcase of Saudi rock art in a region especially propitious for archaeological discovery.’
According to the study, engraving and, less often, painting were the most frequently used techniques in Arabian rock art, whereas sunken reliefs and sculptures in high-and-low relief were reserved for architectural decoration.
As such, Arabian rock art from the Neolithic period (10,000 BC) to modern times tends to be linear and two-dimensional.
The most common themes in the Arabian Peninsula are scenes of war, hunting, processions of animals (dromedaries, ibex, wild goats, cattle), mysterious symbols and geometric, zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures engraved among graffiti and monumental rock-cut inscriptions.
The researchers wrote in their study that the ‘relative scarcity of ancient Arabian rock reliefs has been a significant barrier to understanding the development, function and socio-cultural context of such art’.
The researchers said that, though the site is hard to date, comparison with a relief at Petra in Jordan leads them to believe the sculptures were completed in the first centuries BC or AD.
They said its desert setting and proximity to caravan routes suggest Camel Site – ill suited for permanent settlement – was a stopover where travelers could rest or a site of worship.