Carved into the rocks at the north Saudi Arabian ‘Camel Site’ are 21 reliefs depicting camels and equids, first discovered in 2016. The naturalistic images of the camels, which give the site its name, are life-size, though now heavily eroded. They bear similarities to rock art found in Petra in Jordan, which led to the initial suggestion of a Nabataean date, around 2,000 years ago. New analysis of the rock art and of finds excavated at the site in 2018 and 2019, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, shows that the carvings are much older, Neolithic in origin, and gives new details about their creation.
Researchers from the Saudi Ministry of Culture, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the CNRS, and King Saud University studied surviving tool marks on the three rock spurs at the site, weathering and erosion patterns, the chemical composition of the rock varnish, and fragments of rock, using luminescence dating to work out when they had fallen. Faunal remains from test excavations, which also uncovered lithic finds, provided material for radiocarbon dating. From these analyses, the team conclude the site was occupied around 5600–5200 BC and that the reliefs were made around this time, using tools made from raw chert at least 15km away.
The study also found that the rocks saw activity over an extended period, in which the reliefs were reworked. ‘Neolithic communities repeatedly returned to the Camel Site, meaning its symbolism and function was maintained over many generations,’ said lead author Maria Guagnin of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. The majority of the carvings would have been created by the late 6th millennium BC.
This period saw a rather different landscape in this region of Arabia: grasslands where wild camels and equids lived and were hunted, and where pastoralist groups, who came together to build monumental structures known as mustatil, herded cattle, sheep, and goats. The effort involved in the camel carvings – an estimated 10-15 days for each relief – suggests they too were a communal affair. The carvings mainly show male camels with bulging neckline, a feature associated with the mating season, which would have fallen in the wet season, and so their creation may be linked to the cycle of seasons.