Ancient Arabia re-interpreted   Part. 1 : Pre-history

Dr. Geoffrey King

Source :

Neolithic flint tools from the Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia. (Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Musée du Louvre, Paris 2010, photo)

The magnificent objects displayed in the Routes d’Arabie — Archéologie et histoire du royaume d’Arabie saoudite, Roads of Arabia exhibition, at the Musée du Louvre in Paris and the intellectual coherency of the presentation gave an entirely new view of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its complex past.

The exhibition re-opens in Barcelona on Nov. 12, 2010 and it is essential visiting for anyone interested in the cultural heritage of Arabia in pre-Islamic and in Islamic times as well as the Middle East more generally. In the dramatic impact of its extraordinary finds and in its comprehensiveness, Roads of Arabia has good claim to be one of the most impressive international exhibitions of the year 2010.

The diversity of the objects displayed in Paris, drawn by period and region from across Saudi Arabia’s oases and deserts, showed incontrovertibly the importance of the antiquities of the Kingdom within the broader context of the Middle East as a whole and beyond.

On the eve of the opening of the exhibition at the Louvre, Prince Sultan bin Salman, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), delivered a major speech at the University of Oxford on Saudi Arabia’s archaeology and cultural heritage and described them as forming pillars of the Kingdom’s identity. The Roads of Arabia exhibition in Paris justified Prince Sultan’s words and shows the commitment of the Kingdom to investigating and protecting the monuments of its pre-Islamic and Islamic past in all their variety and complexity.

The intellectual issue that arises now for scholars of the cultural history of Arabia and the Middle East more generally is to come to terms with understanding the reality of the Kingdom’s ancient past. Some of the most important items exhibited are entirely unexpected and their implications are far-reaching for future interpretations of the archaeology and cultural heritage of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Peninsula. This will be one this great exhibition’s most important legacies for the future.

Until the Paris exhibition, for the general public outside Saudi Arabia, little of the material displayed had ever been accessible except for those fortunate enough to have visited the Kingdom. Indeed, even for scholars very well versed in Arabian studies, some of the objects on display in the Louvre were entirely new, recently discovered and often unpublished. Cumulatively, they came as a powerful intellectual shock.

The designers of the Paris exhibition were presented with a number of serious difficulties in order to convey the span and complexity of Saudi archaeology. Many Saudi Arabian antiquities are immovable. Indeed, some are so large that they are a part of the landscape on the grand scale. They can only be comprehended in their vastness in the field — the immense walls around Tayma’, the great rock cut façades of Hegra, the Haj water tanks and the Islamic period fortifications scattered across the Kingdom can only really be comprehended in situ. To record these, the exhibition and the accompanying catalog alike resorted to old and modern photographs, an expedient but done to a very high order and with great success.

The Arabia of pre-history

Long before humans reached Arabia, elephants roamed a wetter peninsula, their presence indicated now by fossil bones found in the Eastern Province of the Kingdom and across the border in Abu Dhabi. These date to 6-1 million years ago when the environment of eastern Arabia was more like East Africa today. Alligators hunted turtles on the Arabian Gulf coast in meandering rivers, fed, in part, by the rain-catchment of the center and the west of the country.

Because of the country’s great size, Saudi Arabia’s ancient archaeological sites encompass more sites of ancient human activity than anywhere else in the peninsula. With so many sites to address, the study of the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic periods is in its infancy in Saudi Arabia and far more is known of these early periods in Jordan and in the other GCC countries on the Arabian Gulf coast. Saleh Al-Marih reports in the exhibition catalog that a site as relatively well-known as Najran has only very recently been shown to have evidence of human activity from over a million years ago. He refers to dried lakes near Najran which correspond to those surviving still today at Dumat Al-Jandal in northern Saudi Arabia and at Al-Azraq in Jordan. These and other Arabian lakes that have now dried out belong to the vanished wetter Arabia that long preceded the arid desert environment that prevails today.

The fascinating issue of the movement of humans from Africa to this ancient Arabia is explored in the exhibition catalog by Marie Louise Inizan, who discusses the growing evidence of human groups crossing from Africa into SW Arabia at a very early date.

The Palaeolithic and the Neolithic periods in Saudi Arabia and its neighbors are represented by the flint lithics displayed in Paris. These should be understood in the context of Arabia in a time when more clement climatic periods were interspersed by Ice Ages. These climate changes of the distant past entailed extreme sea level changes around the Arabian coasts, some very recent in archaeological terms. Indeed, the whole Arabian Gulf did not fill until the end of the last Ice Age, ca 13,000 years ago when melting Polar ice raised the water level of the Indian Ocean until it broke through the Straits of Hormuz.

The complex culture of the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic periods in a wetter Saudi Arabia is hard to convey through the lithic tools on display, however important they are in the eyes of the specialist. This makes the Louvre exhibition catalog essential reading for the visitor to understand just how these bare stones — worked flints, obsidian, etc. — served as the instruments for mankind’s survival in ancient Arabia.

Such stones constituted the highest human technology of their day. They were among the means to deal with the exigencies of the ancient Arabian landscape. With such carved stone tools and weapons the ancestors of the modern Arabs hunted the strong, fast and dangerous indigenous animals that existed in great numbers across the peninsula and in its seas. These skills continued among the badawi even into the 20th Century. and some still live who can strike a flint into a useable weapon in the ancient manner.

In this distant past, herds of oryx, wild camels, gazelle, ostrich and wild horses roamed Arabia, along with lions and leopards. It is this world that Majid Khan discusses in his exhibition catalog essay on the vast number of rock drawings in Saudi Arabia that illustrate the lives of its ancient people. On the coast, by the Neolithic period, people had learned to sail small boats and they were able to kill even large sharks with their stone weapons. Arabia was not yet so arid that transportation was dependent on the capacities of the domesticated camel. The camel only became a necessity as the peninsula dried out in later times but thereafter it became a mainstay of Arabian life, remaining so until the coming of the car in the 20th century.

This was not a static society and human ingenuity ensured the spread of technologies and the changing lifestyles that accompanied them. By the late Neolithic period, small villages existed in Arabia and the fine so-called “Ubayd” pottery of the period is encountered from the Gulf to north Syria, a surviving testimony to these peoples’ sophistication and an aesthetic taste that links them to us. About 5-6,000 years ago, larger settlements started to form, new agricultural techniques emerged, and the ability to smelt copper revolutionized life in the Middle East, affecting Arabia and its neighbors alike. This was the so-called “Bronze Age” and the Saudi Arabian exhibition shows clearly how exponential human development transformed the peninsula and people’s skills.

This pre-historic world is far removed from modern Saudi Arabia but aspects of it would be recognizable still to the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of children born in the Kingdom in 2010.


Part . 2  : Fouth millennium to the Nabatean kings