Roman military camps identified in the Arabian desert

Three Roman fortified camps have been identified in southern Jordan through satellite imagery surveying, with research suggesting that they represent evidence of an undocumented military campaign linked to the Roman annexation of the Nabataean kingdom at the beginning of the 2nd century AD.

APAAME One of the Roman military camps identified through a satellite image survey. IMAGE: APAAME, courtesy of Dr Michael Fradley

Dr Michael Fradley, Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Oxford, first identified the camps using Google Earth as part of the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project. They were then photographed by the Aerial Archaeology in Jordan (APAAME) project.

While surveying the Jordan-Saudi Arabia border region, Dr Fradley noticed the faint trace of a rectangular enclosure, and a further two enclosures to the west.

‘We are almost certain they were built by the Roman army, given the typical playing-card shape of the enclosures with opposing entrances along each side,’ said Dr Fradley. ‘The only notable difference between them is that the westernmost camp is significantly larger than the two camps to the east.’

The western camp measures approximately 125x105m, while the central and eastern camps measure around 95x65m.

APAAME Though stable, the sites have been affected by modern vehicle tracks. IMAGE: APAAME, courtesy of Dr Michael Fradley

Running in a straight line along the western side of Wadi Sirhan, the camps would have been built by the army as temporary stations when they were marching on campaign.

Their trajectory indicates that the expedition headed toward Dûmat al-Jandal in the Jawf region of what is now Saudi Arabia. It was once a settlement in the east of the Nabataean kingdom, a civilisation centred on the city of Petra in Jordan.

According to Roman writings, the transfer of power at the end of the reign of the last Nabataean king was a peaceful event.

However, as Professor Andrew Wilson from the University of Oxford, and co-author of the study, explains: ‘These marching camps – if we are correct in dating them to the early 2nd century – suggest the Roman annexation of the Nabataean Kingdom following the death of the last king, Rabbel II Soter in AD 106, was not an entirely straightforward affair, and that Rome moved quickly to secure the kingdom.’

APAAME A view of the central camp. IMAGE: APAAME, courtesy of Dr Michael Fradley

‘The level of preservation of the camps is really remarkable, particularly as they may have only been used for a matter of days or weeks,’ Dr Fradley adds.

‘They went along a peripheral caravan route linking Bayir and Dûmat al-Jandal. This suggests a strategy to bypass the more used route down the Wadi Sirhan, adding an element of surprise to the attack.’

The team suggest that the camps were built by mounted troops possibly travelling on camels, as the distance between them is too far to be crossed in a day.

As for why the western camp had twice the capacity as the other two, they theorise that the force may have split, and taken different routes; that half of it was lost before reaching the central station; or that some remained in the western camp to resupply the others with water from the wells at Bayir.

Future fieldwork at the sites could confirm when the camps were built and occupied, and add to our understanding of Roman campaigning in Arabia.

The full findings have been published in the journal Antiquity.