Last year, Michael Fradley, a landscape archaeologist at the University of Oxford, was using Google Earth to look at the desert along the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia when he noticed the unmistakable rectangular outline of a Roman military camp. By the next day, he’d found two more.
Fradley’s discovery, published last month in Antiquity, is a rare one—prior to the new finds, only four temporary Roman army camps across Jordan were known, he tells Artnet News. While the wall of one of the camps had once been recorded on a Jordanian heritage register, “there'd been no interpretation of it as a Roman camp," Fradley tells Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe.
Today, only the outlines of the camps remain. However, with their “playing card shape” and opposing entrances along each side, “We are almost certain they were built by the Roman army,” Fradley says in a statement.
The three camps, all approximately 23 to 27 miles apart, make a straight line toward Dûmat al-Jandal, what was once a settlement in the eastern part of the Nabataean kingdom, which the Romans took over in 106 C.E.
The Nabataeans, “desert-dwelling nomads turned master merchants,” prospered for centuries until the Roman Empire “annexed and subsumed their huge swath of land, which included modern-day Jordan, Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, and parts of Saudi Arabia, Israel and Syria,” Lauren Keith wrote for Smithsonian in 2020.
If the dating of the camps is correct, they offer “some of the clearest evidence to date that the Roman takeover of the Nabataean kingdom after 106 C.E. may not have been as peaceful as the surviving Roman histories suggest,” Fradley explains to Artnet.
Given their straight-line path for Dûmat al-Jandal, the camps indicate a previously unknown military campaign linked to this takeover. Normally, to arrive in Dûmat al-Jandal, the most common route was through a valley farther north than where the recently discovered camps lie, indicating that they could have been part of a secret military mission aiming for a surprise attack.
“It is amazing that we can see this moment in time played out at a landscape scale,” Fradley says in his statement.
Questions about the new find remain, including why one camp is much larger than the other two. Additionally, their equal spacing suggests that a fourth camp should be nearby.
David Kennedy, an archaeologist specializing in the Roman Near East at the University of Western Australia who wasn't involved in the study, says that the military camps are important evidence for the study of the Roman army’s actions in the area, though dating the camps could be difficult, as researchers are unlikely to find artifacts at the sites. Still, he tells Live Science, the camps’ outlines point to the first or second century C.E.
Mike Bishop, an expert on the Roman military, agrees that the discovery contributes to our understanding of how the Roman Empire operated.
“These camps are a spectacular new find and an important new insight into Roman campaigning in Arabia. Roman forts and fortresses show how Rome held a province, but temporary camps reveal how they acquired it in the first place,” he says in a statement.