When researchers in northern Saudi Arabia found a series of life-size camel sculptures in 2018, they estimated that the artworks dated back some 2,000 years. Now, a new study suggests that this proposed timeframe was off by as much as 6,000 years.
The findings, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, suggest that the so-called Camel Site actually dates to between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago. As Arab News reports, this timeline would likely make the sculptures the world’s oldest surviving large-scale, three-dimensional animal reliefs. In contrast, Egypt’s Pyramids of Giza are 4,500 years old, while England’s Stonehenge was built about 5,000 years ago.
Researchers dated the carvings through a chemical analysis and an examination of tool marks found at the site, reports Daniel Bardsley for the National.
“They are absolutely stunning and, bearing in mind we see them now in a heavily eroded state with many panels fallen, the original site must’ve been absolutely mind blowing,” lead author Maria Guagnin, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, tells the National. “There were life-sized camels and equids two or three layers on top of each other.”
Ancient artists carved the images into three rocky spurs, notes Ewelina Lepionko for Albawaba. In addition to about a dozen camels, the artwork depicts two animals that may be donkeys, mules or horses.
The original estimate of the artworks’ age was based partly on the existence of other camel reliefs made in Jordan around that time. But radiocarbon dating, analysis of weathering patterns and other dating methods suggested a much older origin. Additionally, a stone mason found no signs of pottery or the use of metal tools at the site.
“Every day the Neolithic was more likely, until we realized it was absolutely a Neolithic site we were looking at,” Guagnin tells the National.
As Stephanie Pappas reports for Live Science, the camels’ carvers used tools made out of a stone called chert, which was brought in from at least nine miles away. They would have needed some type of scaffolding to reach the higher parts of the rocky surface. Carving each relief took between 10 and 15 days; the ambitious project was likely a communal effort.
Some of the camels depicted in the reliefs have bulging necklines and round bellies—typical features of the animals during mating season. This suggests that the site was tied to fertility or a specific time of year.
“Communities of hunters and herders tend to be very dispersed and mobile, and it’s important for them to meet at regular times during the year, to exchange information, spouses and so on,” Guagnin tells Haaretz’s Ariel David. “So whatever the symbolism of the sculptures, this may have been a place to bring the whole community together.”
Patterns of weathering on the sculptures show they were reengraved and reshaped over time.
“Neolithic communities repeatedly returned to the Camel Site, meaning its symbolism and function was maintained over many generations,” says Guagnin in a statement.
At the time of the statues’ creation, around the sixth millennium B.C.E., the Arabian Peninsula was filled with grassland and much wetter than it is now. The region’s inhabitants built thousands of stone monuments known as mustatils across tens of thousands of square miles. Guagnin says it’s unclear whether the same group that created the Camel Site also made the mustatils. Other two-dimensional engravings have been found in the area, but nothing on par with the Camel Site.
“Part of the difficulty in dating the site is that there are no parallels to it, so it was difficult to imagine what it was linked to,” Guagnin tells Haaretz. “… Quite a few Neolithic depictions of fauna are equally life-size, detailed and naturalistic but they are two-dimensional. This made us think that the Camel Site is part of this wider tradition but has a special place within that because it’s the only spot where we have it so concentrated and where we have high relief to the point that it looks like the animal is coming out of the rock.”
Guagnin adds that the camels shown in the images were probably wild. The earliest domestication of camels likely took place around 1200 B.C. Neolithic people in Arabia herded cattle, sheep and goats and probably hunted wild camels.
With erosion continuing to degrade the sculptures, the researchers say it’s important to learn as much about them as possible.
“Preservation of this site is now key, as is future research in the region to identify if other such sites may have existed,” says Guagnin in the statement.