Arabian Rock Art Heritage Project

Lead researcher: Sandra Olsen

The Arabian Peninsula is seen by much of the world as terra incognita, particularly concerning its ancient history. Yet, as research begins to penetrate deeper and the archaeological record is more fully documented, it is clear that this region has an extremely rich cultural heritage.  In 2010, the Arabian Rock Art Heritage team, led by Senior Curator Sandra Olsen, initiated the documentation of petroglyphs in Saudi Arabia.  Also on the team were Dr. Majeed Khan, the world’s expert on Arabian rock art and Archaeologist in the Saudi Antiquities Department; Chris Beard, KU Biodiversity Institute Senior Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology and Foundation Distinguished Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; and award-winning photographer Richard T. Bryant.

Exploration in 2010 and 2011 traversed the north, central and southwestern regions of Saudi Arabia.  In the north, petroglyphs around the modern towns of Al Ula, Tayma, Ha’il, Jubbah, and Al Ha’it were recorded.  In the center, near Riyadh, images were documented at Qaryat al Asba, popularly known as Graffiti Rock.  And, in the southwest, near the city of Najran, the archaeologically rich area around Bi’r Hima was explored.

The application of advanced imaging techniques to Saudi rock art permitted the development of a high-resolution image database, the book Stories in the Rocks: Exploring Saudi Arabian Rock Art, and the Arabian Rock Art Heritage website (http://Saudi-Archaeology.com).  The methods that were employed were Gigapan gigapixel panoramic photography, night photography, reflectance transformation imaging (RTI), and 3 D digital laser imaging.  

One of the aims of this project was to establish a reliable temporal sequence in each region, using relative dating, since the ages of petroglyphs cannot typically be obtained from chronometric methods.   The time-line that was established based on the petroglyphs documents a rich record of 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.  How the indigenous people and fauna were impacted, and how they adapted, migrated or disappeared as aridity increase is reflected in the petroglyph record.

Yet another significant objective has been 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 and in warfare.

More detailed information and images can be found at http://Saudi-Archaeology.com.