Life-Size Camel Sculptures in Saudi Arabia Are Older Than We Think

Published September 15th, 2021 - 11:02 GMT
Saudi Arabia camel carvings
Saudi Arabia camel carvings (Twitter)
Camel carvings in Saudi are the world's oldest of their kind.
Life-size camel sculptures in Saudi Arabia that were thought to be 2,000 years old actually date back 8,000 years.

The camels that stand gazing over the arid deserts of northern Saudi Arabia can remember when it was all lush grassland. 

Why would anybody go to the trouble of carving camels into the rock in the middle of nowhere? 

About a dozen life-sized stone sculptures and reliefs of camels have been found in 2018 in a markedly inhospitable site in northern Saudi Arabia. While camelid art has existed in the region going back millennia, nothing quite like this has been found before.

The pieces include 11 unharnessed camels and two equids—donkeys, mules, or horses—grazing in natural environments. Notably, the carvings are distinct from other rock art found in the region, and they show a level of skill unseen in other carvings seen in the Saudi desert. 

A series of ancient reliefs carved into the desert rocks depicting life-sized camels and equids are older than initially thought, it turns out. Far from dating to the Roman era as initially thought, they are prehistoric, a new study reveals. 

Sculptures that were originally thought to be 2,000 years old actually date back 8,000 years, new analysis has revealed. The discovery makes them almost twice the age of Britain's Stonehenge, where stones were hauled into their unique circle around 2500 BC.

Back in 2018, when archaeologists announced the discovery of nearly two dozen reliefs, they were at a loss as to who had created the so-called “Camel Site,” why, and when. 

The works were carved into three rocky spurs, and though erosion has taken a heavy toll on the pieces, researchers are still able to discern many of the artworks.

At Camel Site, the first hint that the sculptures were older than assumed came when a stonemason was brought in to look at the tool marks left in the desert rock by the long-gone artists. The expert concluded that none of the marks had been made with metal tools, and the massive camel figures were all carved with stone utensils.

Scholars believe that the dromedary was likely domesticated on the southern Arabian Peninsula, where they helped humans travel across unforgiving desert landscapes for millennia. 

Considering the harsh desert setting, what compelled these anonymous individuals to visit Camel Site and carve not just one, but a dozen or so of these four-legged beasts into solid stone? A major clue might lie in the site’s proximity to caravan routes. Perhaps Camel Site was a significant rest stop, and the camels would have served as a sort of ancient roadside attraction, whether for travelers to simply admire or even to pray beside.

The new research only adds to the fascination surrounding these life-sized sculptures and their purpose.

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