2,000-year-old camel carvings found in Saudi Arabian desert

ANCIENT ARTISTRY — These life-size, creative carvings are thought to have had an important use for nomadic peoples. (Smithsonian)


Ancient stone carvings of camels and donkeys have been found in the Al Jawf province of Saudi Arabia.

A nation with a regional history many thousands of years old, archeologists are still uncovering multiple hidden gems of ancient artwork and architecture in the Middle Eastern nation, from ancient gates scattered across the deserts to old carvings in rocks.

Yet over the last two years, archaeologists have come across and recorded numerous carvings of a different nature, specifically about a dozen carvings of camels, a few donkeys and mules.

Aged to be about 2,000 years old, these camel carvings are not uniform in style but are all relatively the same in size. They are life-size relief carvings of these historically relevant beasts of burden.

As impressive and promising as these pieces may be, they have created quite the historical conundrum in who made them, when they were made, why they were made, and how to protect them long enough to try and answer the remaining questions.

Since archaeologists were able to identify the age of the carvings as at least 2,000 years old, they theorized that they may have been the work of Nabateans, a nomadic people known for many ancient stone reliefs. In time, this would lead to the founding of the city Petra.

The carvings may have served as border markers or as “rest stops” for traveling merchants and caravans. The artists behind the camels of this site may have taken creative ideas from the works of the Parthians of modern Iran. Strangely enough, the life-size carvings featured not only camels, but donkeys and mules, whose appearances are not common in ancient carvings. Unfortunately, there is no remaining evidence of the carving tools used, making the task of connecting the known tools of the Nabateans hard to solidify.

Other issues have arisen from erosion, vandalism and construction efforts, such as bulldozing, in the area. In efforts to preserve the carving for future analysis, archaeologists are asking that Saudi Arabia put the “camel site” under state protection.

Because of the many issues affecting what is currently known about the carvings and what we may be able to learn from them in the future, experts cannot say whether they are older than the 2,000 year estimate. They need more time to figure this out.

Hopefully action can be taken to protect the ancient carvings long enough for artists and historians alike piece together an accurate history of the carvings. Then they will have more relief than just the carvings themselves.

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