In January this year, the UAE Origins Project team undertook an extensive fieldwork programme along the cliff sections and hinterlands of Qarn bint Sa’ud (also known as Bidaa bint Sa’ud), a small limestone escarpment that lies to the north of the city of Al Ain and forms part of the northern limit of the Al-Hajar Mountains. The project was set up to identify and record sites and rock art that date from the Palaeolithic through to the proto-historic periods. Our focus was to explore the caves, rock shelters, overhangs, and ancient land surfaces located in inlets that naturally cut into this isolated landmark, while searching for evidence of early symbolic behaviour and settlement patterns. The UAE Origins Project team also explored additional areas along the Jebel Hafeet and the limestone escarpments along the Omani border further to the east of Al Ain.
The Qarn bint Sa’ud is a limestone outcrop orientated northwest–southeast and measuring 520m on its northwest–southeast axis by 245m east–west. The summit rises above an arid desert area that was at various times in prehistory slightly wetter and lusher than at present. Exposed around the outcrop among a dominant dune system is a series of ancient land surfaces that have revealed extensive flint scatters, which possibly date from the Middle Palaeolithic through to later prehistory.
The caves, rock overhangs, and rock shelters that contain evidence of prehistoric archaeology are located within three naturally formed semi-circular enclaves. Each enclave contains evidence of Bronze/Iron Age burial-ritual activity, in the form of denuded stone cairns. Up to 23 burial cairns stand close to the eastern lower slopes of the rock outcrop and date between the 2nd and 4th millennia BC. Locally, these monuments are referred to as Hafit type tombs.
The UAE Origins Project team explored the majority of the accessible rock shelters within the eastern flank of the rock outcrop where prehistoric rock art can be found. This amounted to 18 or more engraved and painted panels in total. The resulting rock-art assemblage is substantial and varied, and probably represents at least four phases of artistic endeavour, extending over 7,000 years of prehistoric and historic activity. On the summit of the outcrop are several Iron Age stone monuments that have been reconstructed.
Inspection by the team revealed that each enclave contains identical drift geomorphology, made up of a windblown dune system that extends some distance up-slope, towards three exposed limestone cliffs. These windblown deposits mainly cover a mass of scree (shattered stone fragments and boulders of varying sizes) that has tumbled from the cliffs above. In turn, this scree deposit overlaid a laminated limestone bedrock. It is within the hinterlands, where the Bronze Age cairns are located, that the exposed former land surfaces yielding prehistoric flint and chert can be found.
Archaeology in transit: regional context
On the strength of fragmentary evidence from around the nearby city of Al Ain and the impressive anticline of Jabel Hafeet, the local archaeological record extends as far back as the Middle Palaeolithic. It has been previously observed that the Arabian Peninsula has, since ancient times, been a major land bridge between Africa and Asia, with nomadic and semi-nomadic communities using the eastern side of the Al-Hajar mountain range in Oman as a guide to move north and eastwards, towards Jabel Hafeet and the coastal regions of Abu Dhabi.
During the myriad human migration and expansion events, our ancestors have settled and moved across this part of the Arabian Peninsula for many thousands of years. Unsurprisingly, there has tended to be a focus on the various wadis where resources were most abundant. Based on palaeoenvironmental evidence, the region would have been wetter and the climate less arid at various intervals throughout the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs. At such times, a radically different landscape would have existed in the region; one that was affected by dynamic sea-level and climatic change. Both factors would have had profound effects on the overall environment and the plants and animals living in the vicinity of Qarn bint Sa’ud.
A walk-over survey by the team indicated the presence of flint stone tools, which could be identified thanks to the specific artefact morphologies. While the Qarn bint Sa’ud limestone escarpment has a relative abundance of naturally occurring chert of medium quality, the value of this commodity was diminished during the tectonic uplift of the Al-Hajar Mountains, which resulted in the stone being fractured in situ. This process rendered the chert unsuitable for controlled flint knapping and stone-tool manufacture. As a consequence, all of the lithic artefacts that have been found at the base of Qarn bint Sa’ud were made of non-local flint. This is to say that the raw materials used for stone-tool manufacture by ancient communities were imported to the site from some considerable distance.
A standard methodology was used to analyse the flint artefacts, which included both description and photography. The assemblage comprised cores, flakes, chips, bladelets, and a small number of retouched tools. A lack of typical Neolithic arrowheads and associated production waste was notable. The bladelet assemblages included small (that is, less than 10mm in width) and symmetrical elongated blanks, which had been struck from flint cores. The microlithic character of the flint assemblage, coupled with the great variety of raw materials used, may be held indicative of a highly mobile human population. Retouched tools included a variety of ad hoc implements such as notches, retouched blanks, and small end scrapers. The appearance and variability of the artefacts, coupled with their relatively fresh character, indicate that most have not been left at the mercy of the elements for a protracted period, suggesting a possible origin in the mid to late Holocene (i.e. in later prehistory). However, two flakes that were made from non-flint materials and display advanced stages of weathering appear to be considerably older and possibly Palaeolithic in date.
Looking for art
It has been known for some time that prehistoric engraved and painted rock art is present within several caves in the east-facing cliffs of Qarn bint Sa’ud; this intriguing imagery has been recorded, albeit with limited results. This is partly due to the limited technology available to archaeologists back in the 1950s, when interest in this art was first piqued, as well as the inaccessibility of some of the panels. To make sense of this unique assemblage, a preliminary photographic record was made in each cave, overhang, and rock shelter, as well as those panels identified on the vertical cliff sections that occupy the eastern part of the Qarn bint Sa’ud. It should be noted that no prehistoric rock art or associated archaeology was present on the western side of the escarpment. Using a variety of photographic techniques, including high-resolution digital photography and de-correlation stretch (D-Stretch), the team identified potential hidden colours and patinated engravings that had hitherto passed undiscovered during previous expeditions.
D-Stretch is a digital desk-based enhancement tool that was developed by Jon Harman in 1995 and originally employed as a remote-sensing GIS tool by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The software comprises a multispectral image-enhancement tool, exclusively based on the RGB matrix of digital pictures, which has been specifically redeveloped to maximise colour manipulation of, say, rock art images (in particular, paintings) and has been widely used by rock-art specialists. An optimum enhancement is usually achieved when photographing paintings that contain various shades and hues of red, yellow, and black pigmentation. Fortunately, most of the painted rock art from Qarn bint Sa’ud was made from locally sourced iron oxides. In this instance, D-Stretch can usually help to distinguish between naturally occurring inorganic secretion on rock faces and pigments that were deliberately applied by humans.
Leaving an artistic signature
In 1957, a Danish team discovered prehistoric rock art in and around the caves and rock shelters of the central enclave on the eastern flank of Qarn bint Sa’ud. These sites and the smooth sections of the vertical rock face had yielded a variety of painted and engraved images, which are judged similar in style and subject matter to rock art found in the central region of the Al-Hajar Mountains in neighbouring Oman. The escarpment was later investigated by Dr Walid Yassin al Tikriti, who was then Head of Archaeology in Al Ain during the latter part of the 20th century. Al Ain was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, referred to as the Cultural Sites of Al Ain (to include Hafit, Hili, [Qarn] Bidaa Bint Saud and Oases Areas), and inscribed in 2011.
The UAE Origins Project identified three independent decorated sites within the central enclave of the Qarn bint Sa’ud, on its eastern flank. Despite their proximity, there is a strong argument to suggest that they originate from several different chronological phases. One of the three sites contained a number of open-air panels that were located on the southern side of a well-weathered cliff face. The visual narrative consisted of engraved figures, including many snakes, horses, feet and hand representations, mesh patterns, so-called ‘T-figures’ (what we interpret as daggers), and other images. The technique used for all this imagery was pecking onto a carefully chosen smooth silica-based surface, rather than the dominant limestone that makes up most of the rock surface. Many of the panels were located in inaccessible places, high above the natural floor at the base of the cliff section. It could be the case that artists clambered up the cliff face in order to choose a panel and place their artistic signature. Alternatively, a scaffold platform may have been erected.
On another section of the cliff, several accessible caves were present, which contained both engraved and painted rock art. The first cave to be explored was located within the central section of the enclave and stood immediately south of the engraved panels that contained snake imagery. Intriguingly, the painted imagery around this cave was different in both style and theme. The painted panels were on either side of the cave entrance and made use of accessible vertical panels, in particular those surfaces made from a smooth quartz patina. Although several images had been previously discovered, a number of new examples were found and identified using the app iDStretch (in real-time) on a smartphone. The clearest image was located within the roof section of the cave and comprised two, maybe three painted images: all representing different chronological phases and painted using locally sourced iron oxides. Previously, the archaeologist who revolutionised rock-art studies in this part of the Arabian Peninsula, Dr Walid Yassin al Tikriti, identified a possible Islamic shrine, as well as a rendering of a Hafit beehive-type cairn. The complete image may represent two phases of painting, the earliest phase being a Hafit tomb (as seen within the hinterland of the Qarn bint Sa’ud). An Islamic shrine or mosque (with a faint dome) is painted on top of the Hafit tomb (thus showing a possible later enhancement). Two sweeping red lines encase the building(s). These two lines may represent another painting phase. If we accept this interpretation, the date range for this panel would run from 2000 BC through to the Islamic period.
To the north-west of the cave entrance are several painted panels that stand roughly 1m above a laminated limestone floor. One of these panels includes a single shoeprint or sandal, probably originating from the Islamic phase and painted on a weathered limestone surface. The shoeprint is considered an important motif in Islamic culture and religion.
Several metres south-east of the cave entrance is another complex panel that includes the painted outline of several superimposed deer and cattle that are painted over a large bull figure. The back and neck of the painted bovine appear to acknowledge the upper edge of the rock panel. A historic tribal wassim mark completed the panel narrative. The presence of wild[?] cattle appears to represent an early rock-art phase for this site.
Located within the northern section of the enclave is a small cave that is accessed via a narrow ledge. Much of the rock art within the cave has previously been recorded, albeit using now outdated and potentially damaging techniques. Unlike other rock panels within the immediate area of Qarn bint Sa’ud, the rock art is hidden on the walls and ceiling of the cave. The engraved and painted iconography comprises wild animals such as antelope and cattle, which would have roamed the immediate landscape some 4,000 to 8,000 years ago. The most visible rock art is organised into two panels, one occupying the ceiling, the other on a wall panel that lies close to the entrance. Both panels were recorded using photogrammetric techniques.
The cattle panel, located on the ceiling of the cave, comprises at least four engraved figures, one of them having been superimposed by a series of metal tool marks that extends from the lower part of the torso. The four figures are judged to be cattle and similar in style to those found within the central part of the Al-Hajar Mountains in Oman. Recorded on several of these figures was a black charcoal[?] outline that could be a preliminary sketch outline made by the artist or maybe an addition made following their discovery. One aspect noted during our survey was the changes in the horn arrangement of each figure, along with the distinctive back and rump sections of the animal.
Within the north-east section of the cave, near the entrance, an engraved antelope and a bovine have been found. The antelope was infilled with a simple mesh motif, while the bovine is shown as a simple outline. Additional motifs have been discovered in the inner ceiling and walls of the cave.
From this cave, two clear themes and chronological phases are recorded, the cattle panel being the earliest and probably dating to between the 5th and 7th millennium BC (based upon the rock-art chronology in central Oman). The antelope figure is considered to be later, dating to the 2nd to 4th millennium BC, and may be contemporary with the Hafit cairns that line the lower slopes of the rock outcrop below.
Where does Qarn bint Sa’ud fit?
The lithic and pottery assemblages, the funerary monuments, and the rock art constitute a unique and significant archaeological resource. The site has been the focus of archaeological interest since the late 1950s. Over the relatively recent past, which is to say during the Holocene, much of the eastern (and western) hinterland has been inundated by sand dunes. These dune formations probably overlie extensive ancient land surfaces that still contain spreads of lithic material dating to between the Palaeolithic and Bronze Age. This spread of lithic material indicates the significance of the Qarn bint Sa’ud site and testifies to at least 20,000-30,000 years of archaeological activity.
In terms of rock art, the site has yielded many phases of prehistoric and historic activity. The caves, rock shelters, and overhangs are adorned with a variety of painted and engraved rock art that can be roughly associated with the large rock-art assemblages from the central area of the Al-Hajar Mountains across the border in Oman.
The engraved images, which include pecked snakes, are the most complex of all rock art present within the Qarn bint Sa’ud site. Each panel appears to show a plethora of imagery, some of which is superimposed, suggesting periodic engraving events over a long period. We would stress, though, that the imagery from this site possesses its own unique idiosyncratic form and style.
The limestone escarpment is the only visible topographic feature within the area and would have been an important focal point, meeting place, and encampment for prehistoric communities. It is more than likely that early prehistoric nomadic and semi-nomadic communities used this natural focal point and others to guide them through what was a rather featureless landscape. In later prehistory, communities became sedentary, and Qarn bint Sa’ud would have been used as a permanent funerary site during the Bronze Age.
In terms of the artefact assemblage recovered from around relic land surfaces that litter the hinterlands of Qarn bint Sa’ud, the different features observed on the bulk of the flint stone tools found at the site are characteristic of a complex palimpsest, meaning that they are the result of repeated and discrete human activities taking place recurrently over a long period of time. The standard nature of the techno-typological patterns of stone-tool manufacturing techniques and raw material diversity, however, may suggest that these implements were made by populations sharing a specific transmitted cultural knowledge. In addition, the possible Palaeolithic artefacts found at the slopes of the ridge indicate that such recurrent visits began far back in prehistory. While climate change meant that the environment that greeted human visitors shifted over time, the significance of this landmark to them remained undimmed.
All images: courtesy of the Origins Project team
For further information on this remarkable archaeological area and its landscape, go to: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1343