Material Remains Allow Archaeologists to Learn About History

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Archaeology is not exactly a “hard” science, but material remains provide a means through which scholars can piece together fragments of the past to understand a history that has been long forgotten.  Prehistoric rock art throughout the world is a significant resource for understanding cultures that thrived and declined throughout human history.  Rock art may exhibit societal, political, economic, and especially, religious information about the peoples who created the art.  The interpretation of rock art is never exact, and without ethnographic information or relevant artifacts for comparison, it is up to archaeologists, art historians, etc. to translate these ancient images.

In the case of the Arabian Peninsula, rock art is some of the only information currently available for understanding pre-Islamic history.  The history and archaeology of the region has been left unacknowledged until relatively recently.  Fortunately, the peninsula contains a rich assemblage of petroglyphs from the Neolithic to the Islamic era, especially in Saudi Arabia.  Sites are continuing to be discovered, and archaeologists working in the region are catching up with this unexamined history.  The petroglyphs of Shuwaymis, in particular, are some of the richest and most magnificent images discovered so far.  It is the intention of this paper to attempt to place Shuwaymis in the wider context of prehistoric Arabia and approach an interpretive analysis of the rock art.  This will begin with a discussion of the Neolithic environment that the artists lived and worked in and the climatic changes that occurred over the millennia.

Next, will be an examination of current scholarship regarding Neolithic populations in the Arabian Peninsula.  In addition, general features and motifs of the rock art throughout the region will be presented in order to approach an understanding of the Shuwaymis petroglyphs.  Shuwaymis is located in the northern part of Saudi Arabia and significant cultural differences can be detected in the eastern and southern parts of the peninsula; thus, this paper will primarily focus on evidence from the northern region.  The site contains several phases, but it is the Neolithic images of Shuwaymis that will be examined.  Finally, a few approaches to interpreting the rock art will be attempted.

The archaeology of the Arabian Peninsula has been largely ignored until the past few decades.  The lack of archaeological research is, in part, due to difficulties in surveying the huge landmass with its extreme heat and inaccessible terrain.  Magee (2014) argues that Near Eastern archaeologists have a history of prioritizing the rise of complex societies.  This bias has promoted a fundamental emphasis on the progressive histories of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Christian Europe.  Meanwhile, the history of Arabia is traditionally unapproached until the Islamic era.  The environment of the Arabian Peninsula is often viewed as harsh and inhospitable, while the indigenous Bedouin of the region are perceived as economically, socially, and culturally stagnant (Magee 2014).

This massive gap in the exploration of the region has left widespread archaeological materials undiscovered.  Extensive fieldwork in Saudi Arabia only began in the 1970s when the government directed a comprehensive archaeological survey of the country.  The Comprehensive Archaeological Survey of the Kingdom was conducted by the Department of Antiquities and Museums from 1976 to 1984.  In 1984, they initiated a specialized and systematic rock art and epigraphic survey for the entire country (Khan 2008).  This resulted in the recording of more than 5,000 archaeological sites and over 1,400 rock art sites (Khan 2008).  The extensive rock art assemblages throughout the country provide an invaluable resource for piecing together the long and overlooked history of Arabia.

The Holocene Wet Phase and the Neolithic in Arabia  The setting for Neolithic rock art in Arabia beings with a period of warming in the region, beginning in the 7th millennium BCE.  Following the Pleistocene, the Holocene Wet Phase was a period of more humid climatic conditions, when the Arabian Peninsula probably contained more savanna than desert.  This climate phase brought increased rainfall, fertile grasslands, freshwater lakes, and a variety of wild animals.  Arabia’s environment during this period may have supported unique social formations as prehistoric populations adapted to the changing ecosystem.  Magee (2014:45) explains, “Spatial and chronological variation in the availability of water, vegetation, and other resources characterizes Arabia throughout the Holocene.

This variation created both temporal and geographical niches that provided abundant resources for human settlement.”  The occupation of Arabia was shaped by variations in available resources, and highly adaptive resource procurement strategies were developed to guarantee success in this environment.  Magee continues, “Once established in the early Holocene, these cultural systems were renegotiated and reconfigured through subsequent millennia as the inhabitants of Arabia further adapted to a changing landscape containing eversharply defined resources” (2014:45).  As will be discussed later, the rock art of Shuwaymis provides a record of evolving cultural and subsistence practices in the northern region.  The artists depicted their society’s relationship with the environment over the course of several millennia.

Most archaeologists studying Neolithic Arabia agree that the economy was a likely a combination of hunting and pastoralism.  It appears as though early hunter-gatherer societies initially emerged in the northern region and eventually migrated south.  The origin of pastoralism in Arabia is debated, and it is unclear whether stone tools and animal domestication was introduced to the region or developed locally.  Several archaeologists have identified a Levantine origin, but archaeological evidence may support both views.  Archaeozoological remains from the eastern and southern regions of the peninsula indicate that cattle, sheep, and goat may have been introduced during the 7th millennium BCE (Drechsler 2007).

Domestication in the Levant predates the earliest occurrence of domestic animals in the Arabian Peninsula, and the archaeological sites where faunal remains were found lie outside the natural range of wild predecessors of domestic sheep and goat (Drechsler 2007).  This transition to herding happened in conjunction with a shift from arid to humid conditions and a widespread expansion of vegetation.  Meanwhile, the climatic conditions of the Levant remained drier during the early Holocene.  Thus, it is assumed that Levantine population groups entered the region from the north and moved into environments that were rich in resources (Guagnin et al. 2015).  Drechsler (2007:102-103) clarifies, “During the Levantine PPNB [Pre-Pottery Neolithic B], there is a southward diffusion of economic and cultural elements detectable in the southern Levant, which successively penetrates the north-western part of the Arabian Peninsula.

At the end of the PPNB, a mobile herding economy was established at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Levant.”  Pastoralists migrated across the Arabian Peninsula, and by the 6th millennium BCE, nomadic herders populated the coasts, deserts, and inland plains of the peninsula (Drechsler 2007).  The Holocene Wet Phase was eventually interrupted by another climatic change between 6,500 and 6,000 cal. BCE, which may have halted the dispersal of Neolithic populations from the Levant and “forced the dispersing Levantine Neolithic herders to withdraw to environmentally more favorable areas, where interaction between these herding groups and indigenous Arabian hunter-gatherers must have taken place” (2007:104).  Considering that archaeological investigations have only begun fairly recently, material remains from these groups are scarce and largely undiscovered.  The lithic industry found in Arabia from the Neolithic period is known as the Arabian bifacial tradition, and occupations with flint scatters have been found at numerous sites throughout the northern region of Arabia (Magee 2014).

Neolithic tools included simple bows and arrows, throwing sticks/spears, projectile points, scrapers, and burins (Khan 2008).  The rock art at Shuwaymis supports this transition from hunter-gatherers to hunter-herders, as well as provides evidence for the use of Neolithic tools. The Neolithic Rock Art of Northern Arabia  Humans have been present in the Arabian Peninsula since the Acheulian period; however, rock art was not created until the early Neolithic.  This rock art currently provides the main source of cultural evidence.  Thousands of rock art panels are located throughout Saudi Arabia, suggesting that the prehistoric populations were fairly large, yet sparsely distributed (Khan 2013).  The Neolithic images demonstrate well-developed and skilled artistic activities, and Khan (2013) suggests that North Arabian art may have developed independently.

The northern region contains a plethora of rock art where the exposed sandstone edges of the Arabian Shelf provides plenty of space for engravings (Magee 2014).  Almost all sites are open air and pictographs are extremely rare (Bednarik & Khan 2017; Magee 2014).  Khan (2013:449) finds, “The Neolithic rock art of Saudi Arabia reflects a quite significant cognitive system in which all the social groups, tribes, or clans appear to have shared a common cosmology in which a single animal species, the cattle, was particularly, and overwhelmingly depicted.”  The indigenous Bedouin of the region have been aware of the rock art for centuries, but they do not know who created the images.

During the Neolithic period, human-like figures were associated with animals, especially oxen and dogs that were apparently domesticated and part of daily life (Khan 2008).  The most common motif during this phase in the northern region involved these anthropomorphs and domesticated dogs in hunting/herding scenes with various animals.  The prey depicted in hunting scenes include aurochs, onagers, ibex, bezoar goats, oryx, addax, and gazelles.  The hunters are portrayed in a set style with rectangular heads, tassels, and penis sheaths.  Their faces are always ambiguous, possibly indicating that they are supernatural beings.  Khan (2008:113-114) explains, “The ancient artists of the Arabian Peninsula, like artists of other parts of the world, adopted the same practice of depicting some animals from their environment and neglecting others.  The artists were apparently selective, restricted, or controlled by their society and were not free in their artistic creativity.”

Thus, the same animals and similar anthropomorphs are depicted in almost identical styles from c. 9,000 BCE to 7,500 BCE.  The meaning and purpose of these hunting scenes is unknown.  It has been suggested that they were created for sympathetic magic, records of an event, or rituals performed at the sites (e.g. for successful hunting or increasing the number of animals) (Khan 2013).  Other petroglyphs involve hand and footprints, geometric motifs, and cupules.  Footprints are found throughout Saudi Arabia, but often lack any association.  The antiquity of the footprints, however, suggest that they were possibly symbolic of religious or cultural ideology.  These are more frequent in the northern region (Khan 2008).   No absolute dating techniques have been applied to the rock art of Saudi Arabia (Arabian Rock Art Heritage).  Relative dating of the rock art has been approached through analysis of manufacturing techniques, patina covering the art, superposition, style, and content (Arabian Rock Art Heritage).  Khan (2007) has identified four key phases in the rock art: Neoltihc, Chalcolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age.

There are also Arabic inscriptions associated with the Islamic era.  Differences in style are fairly obvious and help distinguish multiple, overlapping phases.  The Neolithic petroglyphs are carved or pecked deeply into the sandstone surfaces.  It is observed that that artists created these deep images so that the sunlight would cast shadows defining the outlines of figures.  These older images are typically coated with desert varnish that is evenly dispersed over the images and the background.  In subsequent phases, the artists scratched through the varnish, revealing the lighter colored sandstone beneath.  This created bold images with high contrast between the subject and background.  With this new technique, the artists were able to produce engravings relatively quickly; however, these shallower petroglyphs tend to fade more easily (Arabian Rock Art Heritage).

Changes in content are also rather obvious.  Al-Talhi (2012:97) states, “The human-animal relationship in the desert environment and human behavior and adaptation to the harsh dry climate of Arabia are witnessed in the appearance of two different animals, cow and camel, representing two different environmental and climatic conditions.”  Cattle were present in Arabia during the Holocene Wet Phase (i.e. 3rd to 2nd millennium BCE), when grasslands were abundant.  With the return of a drier climate, cattle disappeared from the rock art and camel motifs became more common (Al-Talhi 2012).  During this later Holocene Arid Phase, rock art also became more schematized (Khan 2008).

Also, the hunter-herder subsistence strategy may have shifted to fulltime pastoralism, and the arrival of domesticated dromedary camels were possibly a contributing factor during the 1st millennium BCE (Arabian Rock Art Heritage).  Images depicted during the late Bronze Age to early Iron Age include chariots, horses, wagons, and camels.  The earliest date for Arabic writing (Thamudic B) comes from the northern region during the mid-6th century BCE; thus, inscriptions must have been created after that point.  Calvary and battle petroglyphs were created during the 1st millennium BCE and the 1st millennium CE (Arabian Rock Art Heritage).  The Petroglyphs of Shuwaymis  The Shuwaymis petroglyph site is located in the Ha’il province in the northern part of Saudi Arabia (fig. 1).

Local Bedouin first revealed the site to a school headmaster, Mamdouh al Raheedi, in 2001.  Raheedi then contacted the Saudi General Commission of Tourism and Antiquities (Arabian Rock Art Heritage).  The landscape is marked by Cambrian sandstone protruding from basaltic lava fields atop the Arabian Shelf.  The tectonic nature of the site suggests that the terrain was possibly much different than it is today.  The site hosts two areas of rock art (Shuwaymis East and Shuwaymis West) that each overlook what used to be a river valley.  The wadi was probably a lush grassland and an important area for hunter-herders during the early Holocene (Jennings et al. 2014).  The site contains a massive assemblage of Neolithic (and later) rock art—thousands of petroglyphs cover the sandstone escarpments.  The oldest component of Shuwaymis appears to be the petroglyphs of human footprints, deeply pecked onto the sandstone surface and attributed to the end of the Pleistocene or the early Holocene (fig. 2) (Bednarik & Khan 2002, 2005; Khan 2013).

The site also contains the hunting/herding scenes discussed earlier, with many species of game and carnivores depicted (fig. 3).  In 2013, part of the Shuwaymis site was recorded on the request of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities by a team from the University of Oxford’s Paleodeserts Project using high-resolution geospatial surveying techniques.  They used a form of Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) known as Real-Time Kinematic Global Navigation Satellite System (RTK-GNSS) to produce highly detailed and accurate geospatial data.  A total of 254 individual rock art panels were recorded during this survey (Jennings et al. 2014).  The anthropomorphic petroglyphs at Shuwaymis match the style of the other rock art sites in the northern regions, with rectangular heads, angular headdresses or hairstyles, ambiguous faces, penis sheaths, and sometimes a bracelet or rattle on both ankles (fig. 4).  The hunting scenes undeniably dominate the rock art panels.  The hunter is usually shown poised to fire his weapon, and hunting dogs engage the prey by surrounding the animal, jumping, and biting (fig. 5).  In at least one scene, the hunter has his dogs on leashes.

The weapons depicted include bows and arrows and throwing sticks/spears.  These scenes usually only contain a single hunter, but sometimes multiple hunters appear on the same panel.  Additionally, the depiction of women is rare, but one panel shows a group of women apparently dancing in close proximity to cattle (fig. 6).  This may be an indication of the ritual significance of the site (Arabian Rock Art Heritage).  The dogs appear to be medium-sized, with erect ears, curly tail, average length legs, and a sturdy build.  In some images, markings representing coat patterns show a different color on the throat and chest.  This combination of traits matches the Canaan or Bedouin Dog, which was a feral animal in the Sinai, Negev, and Arabian deserts (fig. 7).  The Bedouin would capture and tame young males.  They are known for being guarding and herding dogs, and they are capable of surviving in arid environments (Arabian Rock Art Heritage).

A variety of prey and other wild animals are also depicted.  The wild equine in one of the hunting scenes could have been either the African wild ass or the Near Eastern onager (fig. 5).  Other prey species include oryx, wild goats, gazelles, and ibex (fig. 8).  At least three felines are depicted at Shuwaymis: the lion, leopard, and cheetah.  The cheetah is rare in Arabian rock art, but there is one clearly depicted at the site (fig. 9).  Leopards are known climbers, so they are shown with their body in a vertical position.  Lions are more common in the later phase petroglyphs and tend to appear in close proximity to camels (Arabian Rock Art Heritage).  The petroglyphs of domestic cattle co-occur with the hunting scenes.  They are similar in appearance to those shown in Egyptian art from the New Kingdom, with relatively long, lyreshaped horns, small ears, and a minor bump at the shoulders reflecting elongated thoracic spines (fig. 10).  The bodies are depicted with various designs, which may be an attempt to indicate coat patterns or possibly patterns actually painted on the living cattle (Arabian Rock Art Heritage).

The cattle motif at Shuwaymis is suggested to have been superimposed onto the earlier hunting scenes.  Guagnin et al. (2015:12) states, “The analysis of the content and stratigraphy of the rock art at Shuwaymis indicates that the images can be grouped into earlier hunting scenes, which are dominated by the depiction of equids being hunted, and later herding scenes with domestic cattle.  Hunting continues to be depicted after the introduction of domesticates, although the rock art only shows the hunting of ibex.”  This indicates that hunting continued to be a significant part of the Neolithic economy after the adoption of pastoralism, corresponding to the archaeological record of PPNB and PN (Pottery Neolithic) in eastern Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula.  The cattle are placed behind the back of the hunters and are never shown being hunted.  Guagnin et al. continues, “The rock art of Shuwaymis does not reflect the imagery of a single hunting and herding population.

Stratigraphic relationships, hunted animal species, and depictions of domestic long horn cattle all point towards a body of hunting rock art into which herding was integrated at a later point” (2015:12).  This integration of new motifs into earlier scenes is profuse throughout the Shuwaymis site.  The Neolithic inhabitants clearly occupied and utilized the site through several millennia.  Guagnin et al. confirms, “This degree of cultural continuity, where older rock art panels still carry meaning for the engravers.  In particular the re-use of hunting panels to create herding scenes, the re-engraving of hunting figures into herders, and the re-carving of hunting dogs into pastoral scenes all suggest that the engravers of herding panesl still identified with the depicted hunters” (2015:12).   As mentioned in the previous section, there are assumed links between the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula regarding the adoption of pastoralism.

However, a comparison of the rock art of Shuwaymis and the rock art of the Negev in eastern Jordan reveals profound differences.  The rock art of Shuwaymis depicts interaction and narrative between humans and realistically depicted animals, while the rock art of the Negev contains more schematic animal-like engravings.  The ibex motif, however, is common throughout Arabia and the Levant.  In any case, while the Levant remained arid during the Holocene, caprine herding was the dominant subsistence practice.  On the other hand, the wadis of Northern Saudi Arabia were better suited for a specialized from of cattle herding (Guagnin et al. 2015).  Lithic materials found throughout the norther region, including Shuwaymis, suggest that humans occupied the area continuously from the Middle Paleolithic to the pre-Islamic periods and numerous megalithic structures indicate that the population may have been relatively dense in late prehistory.

Theses tombs and monuments have not been investigated and archaeological excavations are still needed to understand the context of the site in the wider landscape (Bednarik & Khan 2002; Jennings et al. 2014). Interpretations  The absence of a well-defined archaeological context makes interpreting the rock art of Shuwaymis a fairly difficult task.  The prominence of hunting scenes and particular animals may be understood at face value as symbols of subsistence and daily life, but they likely had a more profound meaning for the artists and inhabitants.  Whitley (2005:105) explains that one of the characteristics of symbolic systems is that “all aspects of human social life, including behavior, artifacts, and art, not only have symbolic meaning, but also have multiple levels of meaning.”

For example, the rock art panels of Shuwaymis could be understood as both a significant landmark that denoted an important location, as well as representations of ritual behavior.  Although (Khan 2013) suggests possible continuity between the dancing women at Shuwaymis and contemporary Arabian dances, ethnographic research has not formed a solid connection between modern Bedouin and their prehistoric predecessors; thus, other approaches must be utilized to understand what the artists were attempting to represent or communicate.  The frequently used neuropsychological (N-P) model for the mental imagery of trance does not seem have a relevant application at Shuwaymis either.  There is no clear evidence for shamanic activity in Arabia and no entopic patterns have been identified by researchers.  That is not to say that certain iconic images do not relate to the metaphysical or supernatural, but the images of Shuwaymis do not seem to fit the model.  There are numerous geometric motifs, and a closer examination may prove that there is, indeed, a correlation.

Footprints, as well as the handprints that become a more common symbol in later phases, may suggest an idea of crossing boundaries.  Another approach to interpreting the rock art is considering whether it was meant to be public or private.  Whitely (2005:158) states, “These formal landscape studies consider not so much the iconography (and what it may symbolize or mean), but the physical properties of the sites themselves, where they are located, how they may have been seen, and what this might imply about who may have created and used them.”  The location of the Shuwaymis panels and the way that they overlook the wadi seems to suggest that the site was designed to be a public space.  The panels are both visible and recognizable, as similar styles of rock art are placed in areas where Holocene grasslands were possibly densely inhabited.

Moreover, Jennings et al. (2013) suggests that 82 percent of late prehistoric rock art in Saudi Arabia overlooks paleolakes.  Considering the formalized style of Neolithic rock art in the northern region and its placement in important avenues for hunter-herders, it is possible that the rock art may have played a role in territoriality.  The return to more arid conditions after the Holocene Wet Phase may have increased the importance of these freshwater lakes and river valleys.  In consequence, rock art sites may have communicated ownership of resources or established tribal boundaries, perhaps.  The religious or ritual significance of the rock art is not obvious, but there are a number of clues that may assist in determining a cosmological meaning.  A genetic analogy may be helpful here to compare the rock art to religious ideologies that emerged after prehistory.  Whitely (2005:133) writes, “In the direct historical approach, genetic analogies are directed backward in time.  Genetic analogies can also be used across space, from one cultural group or site to another.”

For example, the crescent moon and the lunar calendar are fundamental components of modern Islam.  In his discussion regarding religion before Islam, Rippin (2005) indicates the moon god was an important deity in the Arabian Peninsula during the 1st millennium CE.  The ibex motif that is represented in rock art throughout the region was later associated with the moon god, as well (Arabian Rock Art Heritage).  This may be taking genetic analogy too far, but there does seem to be some continuity over time.  It is also interesting to note the relative proximity of Medina and Mecca to the Shuwaymis site.  Rippin (2005:13) elaborates, “The religious character of the region, as far as the data allow us any solid evidence, reveals a polytheistic system having basic features in common with Semitic religion in general; this includes worship of gods associated with the astral cults and beliefs in spirits inhabiting rocks, trees, and the like.  The role of Mecca as a sanctuary is fairly evident.”

It has been the intention of this paper to attempt a placement of Shuwaymis in the wider context of prehistoric Arabia and approach an interpretive analysis of the rock art.  The extensive rock art assemblages throughout the Arabian Peninsula provide an invaluable resource for piecing together the long and overlooked history of Arabia.  The rock art of Shuwaymis provides a record of evolving cultural and subsistence practices in the northern region.  The artists depicted their society’s relationship with the environment beginning in the Neolithic period.  In addition, the subject matter of the petroglyphs supports the prehistoric transition from huntergatherers to hunter-herders, as well as provides evidence for the use of Neolithic tools.  The continuation of archaeological surveys and excavations is necessary in order to better understand the context of the Shuwaymis petroglyphs and the prehistoric populations that created them.

The last section of this paper provided a few approaches to interpreting the rock art.  These are certainly not the only approaches that can be utilized, but these approaches proved helpful to the author in developing a framework for understanding the ancient images.  The attempt to interpret the rock art through ethnographic analogy and trance imagery did not prove to be effective.  However, this is not meant to deny the usefulness of ethnography or entopics/iconics in the study of Arabian rock art.  Approaching the rock art in terms of its placement on the landscape, on the other hand, did prove useful.  The location of the rock art at Shuwaymis and other sites in the northern region (e.g. Hanakiya, Jubbah, Wadi Damm, Tabuk, Janin, Alumulihiah, and al-Misma) was an important factor for the artists and the other humans that moved through the area.  Continued investigations and discoveries of other rock art sites will hopefully advance the understanding of the prehistoric cultural landscape.

Also, approaching the rock art through genetic analogy proved very motivating, as well.  There does appear to be some continuity through space and time (i.e. from the Levant to Arabia and from the Neolithic to the Islamic era).  Continued research of the petroglyphs in the Arabian Peninsula will generate more data and contribute to the developing portrait of Neolithic Arabia.

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Material Remains Allow Archaeologists to Learn About History. (2022, Oct 09). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/material-remains-allow-archaeologists-to-learn-about-history/

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