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Introduction into Saudi Arabian Rock Art & Petroglyphs

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female dancers & male & typical long horn cattle with body marks representing tribal ownershipfemale dancers & male & typical long horn cattle with body marks representing tribal ownership

Until ten years ago Saudi Arabia did not even figure on the Oxford University World Rock Art Atlas, a global registrar for antique petroglyphs. Today the Arabian Kingdom counts as one of the top four petroglyph sites in the world together with Australia, India and South Africa. And it might not end in a 4th place as experts have only started documenting all local rock art sites and each time they go out they find more new areas covered with multiple rock art and petroglyphs. So far the Saudi Arabian count stands at over 4,000 pre-historic rock art sites. It was believed that the highest concentration of rock art is situated in the Kingdom’s south around Najran, but recent research found that more sites are actually in the country’s northern areas around Jubbah northwest of Hail.

 

Stone Tool Correlation

Ancient Saudi rock art is wide spread across the Kingdom and on average can be dated between 9,000 to 8,000 years ago. Recently the oldest Saudi petroglyph site was discovered and dated to approximately 13,500 to 10,500 BP falling into the Ice Age and Final Pleistocene Period. Several hundred Palaeolithic and Neolithic stone tool sites are situated in Saudi Arabia. These include Bir Hima north of Najran, which is an Early Lower Palaeolithic or Oldowan site with added discoveries of chopper or pebble tools used for carving. Close to the Saudi capital Riyadh we have some Lower Palaeolithic or Acheulean sites with bifacial tools and finally the new famed Jubbah area, which is a Middle Palaeolithic or Mousterian site having used crude carving tools. All the carving tools were produced out of three different stones, quartzite, andesite and flint. But most interestingly, no Upper Palaeolithic tools were found in the Arabian Peninsula so far. It is not reasonable to assume that during this period there was no human activity on the Arabian Peninsula, but it might be that the respective sites have not been discovered yet, as they might be covered by sand. For comparison, if we look at other types of tools, Middle Holocene arrowheads that have been discovered can be dated to 10,000 years ago.

 

hunter at jubbahhunter at jubbah

famous "malik" king figure at jubbahfamous "malik" king figure at jubbahhunter with ibexhunter with ibex

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Petroglyph Dating

Let’s look now at an interesting question: what is a normal rock art life span? Petroglyphs carved on softer sandstone surfaces have a taphonomic threshold average age of 8,000 years, but if they were carved on hard granite their life span increases up to 50,000 years. For comparison I have looked at some rock art in Kazakhstan and the results are interesting. The stone surfaces are much harder and all have multiple cracks, produced by much colder temperatures and ice. The petroglyphs there are much younger than our Saudi Arabian rock art, but look older due to their extreme weathering. Saudi petroglyphs are mainly carved in softer sand stone and due to arid weather condition are much better preserved and often look like produced just a hundred years ago. The only give away are the desert varnish covered surfaces which ancient creators of desert rock art seem to have preferred due to the astonishing colour effects.

 

Desert Varnish

Those visitors who were able to visit the so-called Graffiti Rock One and Two sites near Riyadh will remember the blackish rock surface coverage called desert varnish. It is produced over a long period of time of up to 50,000 years by iron and manganese oxide particles present in the rock reacting with wind transported clay dust and some organic matter normally on the wind-opposite side of rock surfaces. This biochemical reaction needs high desert temperatures plus some morning condensed water dew. A big unanswered question for experts still is the fifty times higher concentration of manganese in desert varnish compared to the much lower average concentration of 0.12 % in the rock itself. What we do know is that lots of bacteria use manganese for growth and they also play a part in the production process of desert varnish. Dark, dull desert varnish colours indicate a dominant bacteria growth whilst light, shiny surfaces are proof of dominant clay accumulation. Black surfaces are created by manganese domination and reddish desert varnish shows higher concentration of iron particles. Ancient humans loved desert varnish surfaces as rock art working platforms, as it was very easy to simply scratch figures and signs with any type of stone scraper tool exposing the lighter coloured stone surface beneath.

unknown motif at bir hima possibly tribal sign wusumunknown motif at bir hima possibly tribal sign wusum male figure at bir himamale figure at bir himaanother unknown motif above script sign at bis himaanother unknown motif above script sign at bis himaunknown motif above sc ript sign at bir himaunknown motif above sc ript sign at bir hima

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

High Variety of Rock Art Motifs

Compared to other countries Saudi Arabian petroglyphs offer possibly the widest variety found on earth. Imagine a first study which indicates that humans are depicted in seventy two different poses or forms. Some even show dancers with masks and shoes, both female and male depictions. Hunting scenes are another important motif, but surprisingly animals are never shown wounded or pierced by arrows. Possibly these scenes are more of a religious nature showing the dance or ritual before the hunt. Different to European sites, hand prints are rare in the Arabian Peninsula and found in an area northwest of Tabuk. Foot prints were first discovered at Shuwaymis close to Jubbah and were dated 11,000 to 9,000 BP. During my desert travels, I often heard the term wusum, when Bedouins point to rock faces with few carved signs looking like ancient script. These are actually tribal signs to mark desert areas as well as free roaming clan animals belonging to a specific tribe.

 

Human Immigration into the Arabian Peninsulamale hunters with large chest pectorals & female dancer & male masked dancer possibly shamanmale hunters with large chest pectorals & female dancer & male masked dancer possibly shaman

Now let’s take a step back and look at the human immigration of the Arabian Peninsula. The important question which experts try to answer taking new discoveries into account is the following: did homo sapiens migrate onto the Arabian Peninsula only via Sinai or also by crossing the Red Sea at its southern tip from Ethiopia via Bab al Mandab to Yemen? Today we know that the first human made knapped stone tools found outside Africa in the Levant corridor at Ubaydiya are dated around 1.5 million years ago. But the first proven maritime

hunters encircling cheetah with bow & arrow & boomerang type throwing clubhunters encircling cheetah with bow & arrow & boomerang type throwing clubcrossing was done only about 60,000 years ago from New Guinea to Australia. The first archaic Lithic industries on the Arabian Peninsula were discovered at Shuwayhitiyah with sixteen sites of choppers, polyhedrons, flakes which could be dated 1.3 million years ago. Other sites with similar tools are situated at Wadi Fatima, Dawadmi and Bir Hima. Again similar surface finds were recorded at Bir Hima northwest of Najran, Bab al Mandab and Hadramaut, both in Yemen. But the first untouched Palaeolithic site on the Arabian Peninsula was found only in 2006 in the Tihama area in Yemen, which is calledhunter with two dogs chasing wild cathunter with two dogs chasing wild catShi’bat Dihya and dates 80,000 to 70,000 BP featuring so-called Levallois debitage industries. Similar

Palaeolithic sites were discovered in the Saudi Arabian Tihama on the Red Sea coast, as well as on the Farasan Islands in the Red Sea. They surfaced various bifacial and crude tools, end and side scrapers, denticulates all from the Middle Palaeolithic period comparable to certain Jubbah items found. But we have an unsolved mystery - no evidence of any Upper Palaeolithic sites between 40,000 to 10,000 BP has yet been found on the Arabian Peninsula.

 

Cultural Development

The last warming period with ample monsoon rains over the Arabian Peninsula took place around 12,000 years ago, which lead to a spread of population, the first domestication of animals, plants as well as the first settlements parallel to the Neolithic hunter gatherer societies. From 10,000 BP, the first domestication of cattle, sheep, donkeys and goats introduced from the East took place. Tool making was done by with two basic techniques, using a hammer stone and pressure flaking. Our ancestors also used obsidian tools from the lava fields on both sides of the Red Sea and knapped cutting edges by percussion. Coastal fishing was developed already about 9,000 to 8,000 years ago including the important preservation of fish. New results show that the Arabian Peninsula was inhabited by 12,000 BP by various developed diverse and dynamic cultures with long distance trade ties to the Levant area, Mesopotamia and even Africa.

 

Riyadh Province Sitesdetail of dedan script close al'uladetail of dedan script close al'ula

The Umm Asba’ site lies 85 kilometres west of Riyadh and three kilometres from Umm Asba’ village. It features a six metre high mushroom shaped column, which is well visible on a hill. It is covered with wusums and pre-Islamic inscriptions, but is not very old with a dating of 500 BC. Al Usayla, or the well known Graffiti Rock One site, is situated 115 kilometres southwest of Riyadh and four kilometres north of the Makkah highway. The site offers a four metre high and seven metre wide rock panel surface covered with a thin patchy typical black desert varnish coating. There are approximately over two hundred morphic and anthropomorphic carvings and early written characters plus wusums as tribal propriety signs. It is assumed that all figures were carved over a short period of 250 years and between 5,000 to 3,000 years old. The Arwa site is located 270 kilometres west of Riyadh on the Taif road in the Dhulay small mountain range at Bin Nasr, eleven kilometres west of Arwa. It consists of three rock art sites and Kufic or first Islamic inscriptions. The first site offers human and animal depictions of camels and deer which are dated to 1,000 to 500 BC. The second site shows human images, mainly female, possible goddesses. These female figures are often found in the Najran area and dated about 500 BC. The third Arwa site only has some wusum signs. Closer to Riyadh, we have also the sites of Wadi Maleeh close to the Malham village and Wadi Hanifa, south of Dirriyah.

 

camel depiction close al'ulacamel depiction close al'ulacamel image close al'ulacamel image close al'ula primitive direct pecking camel image al'ula areaprimitive direct pecking camel image al'ula area

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Greater Jubbah Area

The new Saudi treasure area close to Jubbah consists of over 250 sites in total including Jabal al Manjour and Shuwaymis. This area includes a range of hills with huge numbers of human and animal rock art. This area was inhabited during Early to Mid-Holocene and also includes some interesting burial sites with related stone structures dated from 2,000 to 1,000 BC. But no Neolithic permanent housing structures or foundations were found compared to discoveries in Jordan. Petroglyphs here are carved in low relief about five to ten millimetres deep. The enormous amounts of petroglyphs suggest that these sites have been in use for over 2,000 years or more. Just imagine that in total over 4,000 pieces of human and animal rock art is recorded to date including over 600 human figures, 1,300 camels and close to 2,000 other animal depictions.

 

Wusum tribal signs and over 350 Thamudic Bedouin inscriptions must be added to these numbers. In summery Jubbah is the largest and oldest rock art site in Saudi Arabia. The carvings demonstrate highly advanced skilled works of art with unique large sized human figures carved into rock using low and bas relief techniques. Oxen are always depicted together with humans and sometimes also with dogs. Camel depictions make up one third and ox about twenty percent and human figures around fifteen. These rock art is dated between 9,500 to 8,500 BP in the Early Neolithic Period. A panel with fifteen large cup holes is the oldest rock art carving and dated to the Early Holocene Period.

 

Animals Depictionsdedan script al'ula areadedan script al'ula area

Animal depictions include many camels, ibex, ostrich, bulls, cows, goats, gazelle, deer and even the African giraffe. Dogs were domesticated early and used for long distance casing and hunting. Horse carvings in this area are not that old and were done since 3,000 to 2,000 years ago. But please the fascinating article about the discovery of Al Magar. Here horses were domesticated 4,500 years earlier than previously believed. Donkeys were used for transport before camels were domesticated about 5,000 years ago. Lions as another African animal seemed to have been wide roaming across the Arabian Peninsula and were used as representations for kings and as god symbols. Snakes were a typical guardian and protection symbol more used in cities for houses, temples and graves, but seldom depicted on desert rock faces.

 

Famous Shuwaymis Sites

Jabal al Manjour has many rock art sites free of any recent inscriptions or graffiti. It offers numerous man-sized animal and human depictions with cows, bulls, ibex, gazelle, deer and dogs, but no camels and ostrich. Dogs found at Jubbah and Shuwaymis were the most important domesticated animal in Neolithic times dating 7,500 to 6,500 BC in the Early Neolithic Period. Shuwaymis is special because only here cheetah and leopards are depicted and human figures outnumber those of animals. Here you will find also the famous human male and female dancing scenes. Special again in that females are never depicted alone but always in company with men. These interesting rock art scenes are dated to the same period as Jabal al Manjour - the Early Neolithic Period around 7,500 to 6,500 BC. The Shuwaymis main site is a remote area far to the west of Shuwaymis and today seen as the number one petroglyph site in Saudi Arabia. The area is covered by Pleistocene lake beds and widely spaced eroding cliffs and also contains numerous megalithic burial sites. On the slopes there are many rock boulders covered with thousands of rock art motifs. Some are well orchestrated compositions and scenes with detailed well carved human and animal figures. These boulders were engraved over a very long period of time possibly 2,000 years, so when they rolled down hill new petroglyphs were added when the older work ended up on the bottom surface. Here you find the before mentioned oldest petroglyphs from Late Pleistocene period depicting fifteen cupules plus some archaic circles and rare hoof prints. The other petroglyphs are dated around 7,000 to 5,000 years ago with no additions being created after 3,000 BP. Therefore there are no camel and date palm motifs here, which became common only after 3,000 BP, which was around the time camels were domesticated.


Umm Samman Sites so-called grafitti rock near riyadh covered with hundreds of animal images created over 2,500 yearsso-called grafitti rock near riyadh covered with hundreds of animal images created over 2,500 years

The Umm Samman main rock art complex near Jubbah is extending along the foot of a five kilometre long escarpment and is today fenced with a caretaker guard and well managed to avoid any new graffiti carvings being added. Archaeologists also found some Neolithic stone tools. The sites petroglyphs are carved in the so-called Jubbah style with large elongated and detailed anthropomorphic human figures dated around 4,000 BC. A few kilometres to the north there are other petroglyph clusters with different motifs carved high up on the cliffs. These consist of over 200 morphs and anthropomorphic, but not of the large Jubbah style figures.  Some Thamudic inscriptions are also found here and the site is 2,000 years younger and dated around 2,000 BC.

 

Hail Area Sitescamel images near shuwaymiscamel images near shuwaymis

The unique Janin Cave is one of the few caves with rock art and situated thirty kilometres east of Hail and north of the Buraydah highway. It is the only north Saudi cave art site and fenced for protection including a caretaker guard. The light coloured sandstone cave is about two hundred metres high, but only ten metre wide and hundred metres deep and narrowing towards the end. Numerous petroglyphs plaster the walls on both sides. A few kilometres east of the Janin Cave you will find a major concentration of petroglyphs at the foot of a cliff and also covering many fallen boulders. There are also some faded red pictograms. Here a group of a dozen large cupules are worked out on upper side of boulders, they are fully patinated and much older compared to other rock art in the area.  A panel measuring three by two meters contains over fifty interesting patinated petroglyphs.

 

Yatib is situated about twenty kilometres east of Hail and is another spectacular petroglyph site with over 1,000 motifs. A six metre high hill is covered with rock art and petroglyphs on cliffs and boulders over a length of one kilometre. This important site is fenced and guarded today. The rock in this area is very hard and therefore twenty percent of the work was first done using metal tools. Qal’at al Hisan is located 225 kilometres southwest of Hail just outside of the Hayeed township. It is a volcanic area and only has minor petroglyphs and inscriptions done on volcanic tuff stone. Jabal al Bargh south of Shuwaymis is another minor petroglyph site with two meter high date palm motifs including some cattle and ibex animal depictions dated approximately 4,000 BP.

 

Najran Sites

Next to Hail with the main rock art area around Jubbah, Najran with Bir Hima is the other petroglyph treasure area in Saudi Arabia. In total over 100 sites are recorded, including those at Tathlith, Al Fau, Namas highlands, Wadi Nagha, Shasa in the Qara area, the Umm Rigaibah mountains and Shagar in Al Kaukab area. Other sites close to water sources offer next to rock art also many petroglyphs, which are found at Galatata Shiab, Al Waheed and Sawadha. Animal depictions include camels, cattle, deer, ostrich, gazelle, lion, horses and dogs. In addition the country’s south rock art offers many female figures, which are rare in northern part of Saudi Arabia. The female figures are shown normally with their arms upraised, male depictions are shown holding spears and shields instead. For the first time we can see hunting scenes with spears and arrows piercing animal bodies, which in the northern part of the country are absent. Ritual dancing and fighting scenes are found at Jebel al Kaukab and Jebel al Qara area northeast of Najran. Both sites are the richest rock art sites in the Najran area. In total the Najran area offers over 6,400 human and animal depictions including over 1,800 camels and 1,300 human representations.

 

 domesticated cattle with body markings & various script created much laterdomesticated cattle with body markings & various script created much latercamel hunter with dog chasing gazelle towards themcamel hunter with dog chasing gazelle towards them

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summary

This article is only a first introduction into Saudi Arabia’s pre-historic rock art and petroglyph treasures. The last ten years have yielded an enormous amount of new archaeological information and be assured that more sites will be discovered and documented over the years to come, as Saudi Arabia is just discovering it’s pre-historic past. In addition the Arabian Peninsula’s arid climatic conditions help to preserve those petroglyphs, which are an important part of our world heritage. And we are lucky that these treasures were created by mankind in antiquity when the Arabian Peninsula was populated by humans during a wet period with many animals to hunt and wild plants to add to the hunter gatherer diet, before the start of domestication of animals and first farming settlements in the Neolithic period. The author has published various articles on petroglyphs and ancient scripts including one about the interesting Nabataean script as well as one about a dozen ancient Arab scripts and languages.

 

Old Arabian Scripts

These include Dedanic and Hagaric two old Arab scripts specific to Saudi Arabia and used in the ancient capitals of the Dedan, Lihyan and Gerrha kingdoms. Qatabanic and Hadramitic were only used in these Yemeni kingdoms. The most wide spread script in the Arabian Peninsula was Sabaic. Minaic was also used in Yemen and today’s Saudi Arabia. A lesser wide spread script was Safaitic used in al Safa hills area in Syria and parts of northern Saudi Arabia. Have you ever heard about Hismaic used in Hisma area in Jordan? If you are a pre-historic script aficionado you might have read about Taymaic used around Tayma in Saudi Arabia or Thamudic used by Thamud tribal group and many Bedouins throughout the Arabian Peninsula. The last important script in this region is Aramaic of which two versions were spread the Imperial Aramaic and the Nabataean script which were the first to write letters together and became the basis of the Arabian script. This is of particular interest as these ancient scripts were used by pre-historic tribes and caravan leaders to leave messages on many rock panels and boulders across the Arabian Peninsula. So far we were able to decipher most of them, but as they only use consonants and no vowels it is not that easy to get the correct meaning.