Ancient Rock Carvings Discovered in Saudi Arabia Hint at Artists From Faraway Lands

A rock with a life-sized camel depicted on it. You can see the legs. CNRS / MADAJ / R. Schwerdtner

A rocky outcropping in the sandy desert of Saudi Arabia holds ancient carvings of historically important creatures—camels.

In 2016, archaeologists discovered a site in what appears, at first glance, to be the middle of nowhere. There isn't much else around for miles—the surrounding desert is bleak and inhospitable—which is why archaeologists were surprised to find at least 11 carved dromedary camels protruding from stones at what they call "the camel site." The international team of archaeologists has now published their analysis of the site in the Cambridge journal Antiquity.

The archaeologists haven't discerned the exact purpose of the carvings, but the art helps tell a story of life around Saudi Arabia roughly 2,000 years ago. During this time, reliefs were common in the near east, Haaretz reports. But they weren't common in Saudi Arabia, meaning that it's possible that carvers from faraway lands had stopped at the "camel site" and left their marks. Some of the carvings have different styles than others, indicating that there was more than one artist.

Many of the pieces are life-sized reliefs, protruding slightly from their stone background. None of the animals appear to be wearing tack—or gear—like halters and saddles, but some have designs on them. There are also two animals that might be horses or donkeys, which are other beasts of burden from antiquity.

Damage from erosion and vandalism makes interpreting the art more difficult. But Haaretz reports that archaeologists determined that these sculptures were of individual camels, perhaps trusted friends on the road. The carvings depict anatomically well-proportioned animals, but each one had different physical characteristics, perhaps special to individual camels.

Some of the sculptures were so high up the rock that they must have required ropes or scaffolding. They had journeyed for miles and carved deep lines in the rock to depict their traveling companions.

The face of a camel, carved into rock. Credit: Antiquity - CNRS / MADAJ / C. Poliakoff / Drawing by Dr. Guillaume Charloux

However, as a rocky spot is along a caravan route, the camel site could have been a resting place where travelers created images and reliefs of their four-legged friends who carried them and their goods from place to place.