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Depicting the camel: representations of the dromedary in the Black Desert rock art of Jordan


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The dromedary camel is Arabia’s most iconic animal and it features prominently in the rock art of north Arabia. However, few studies have been conducted on these images and their significance, with the main interpretations focussing on either highly functional or highly symbolic meanings. This article presents the results of the first in-depth study of the dromedary camel figures in Safaitic rock art from the Black Desert in northern Jordan. It aims to form a new understanding of this prevalent motif through studying the figures’ form and production process and to contribute to our understanding of the role of the dromedary in the ancient Near East. This study reveals that the dromedary images from the Jebel Qurma area have a standard form with proportions and features that are not naturalistic, but do have accurate anatomical details. The production process used to carve them followed a series of steps and shows evidence for planning. Both the functional and ritual interpretations of these images have their limitations. However, the cultural-historical context of the role of the dromedary indicates that it is highly likely that this animal played an important economic and ritual part in the desert societies, but that these are only two elements of a complex socio-ideological relationship between nomads and their camels. The prominent dromedary carvings should be interpreted in light of this framework.
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In: Peter M. M. G. Akkermans (ed.) 2020: Landscapes of Survival - The Archaeology and
Epigraphy of Jordan’s North-Eastern Desert and Beyond, Sidestone Press (Leiden), pp. 287-304.
Depicting the camel: representations of
the dromedary in the Black Desert rock
art of Jordan
Nathalie Østerled Brusgaard
The dromedary camel is Arabia’s most iconic animal and it features prominently in the
rock art of north Arabia. However, few studies have been conducted on these images and
their signicance, with the main interpretations focussing on either highly functional
or highly symbolic meanings. This article presents the results of the rst in-depth study
of the dromedary camel gures in Safaitic rock art from the Black Desert in northern
Jordan. It aims to form a new understanding of this prevalent motif through studying
the gures’ form and production process and to contribute to our understanding of the
role of the dromedary in the ancient Near East. This study reveals that the dromedary
images from the Jebel Qurma area have a standard form with proportions and features
that are not naturalistic, but do have accurate anatomical details. The production process
used to carve them followed a series of steps and shows evidence for planning. Both the
functional and ritual interpretations of these images have their limitations. However, the
cultural-historical context of the role of the dromedary indicates that it is highly likely
that this animal played an important economic and ritual part in the desert societies,
but that these are only two elements of a complex socio-ideological relationship between
nomads and their camels. The prominent dromedary carvings should be interpreted in
light of this framework.
Keywords: dromedary camel, rock art, chaîne opératoire, pastoral ideology, Black
Desert, Jebel Qurma, Safaitic
The dromedary camel is often seen as synonymous with the history of ancient Arabia. As
the backbone of the long-distance caravan trade and by facilitating the opening up of new,
marginal places to human exploitation, the dromedary was essential for the development
of the region (Almathen et al. 2016; Bulliet 1975; Köhler-Rollefson 1993). Although its role
in the development of the ancient caravan cities such as Palmyra is unmistakable (Seland
2015), it is especially the dromedary’s use in past and present nomadic societies for which
it is iconic. Historical, archaeological, and epigraphic sources attest to its signicance in
the societies of the desert from the rst millennium BC onwards. It is therefore perhaps
unsurprising that the dromedary camel is ubiquitous in the desert rock art of Arabia. It
dominates rock art corpora such as the petroglyphs from Shuwaymis in Saudi Arabia
(Guagnin et al. 2016; see also Guagnin, this volume), Hismaic rock art from southern Jordan
(Corbett 2010), and Safaitic rock art from the Syro-Jordanian desert (Brusgaard 2019;
Macdonald 1993). The dominant presence of the dromedary
in Arabian rock art was noted as early as 1932 (Rostovtze
1932) and its frequent mention in Safaitic inscriptions has
been remarked upon as well (Macdonald 1993).
However, little further investigation has been made
into the nature of these dromedary representations and
what they can tell us about the animal’s role in ancient
Arabian societies. The studies that have considered it have
tended to place the carvings in either a simple, utilitarian
framework or a highly symbolic one. Additionally, previous
data sets have been small and the focus has been on the
images themselves and not on other important aspects
of the carvings, such as their form or production. Now
the ‘Landscapes of Survival’ project has made it possible
to assemble a thorough data set of Safaitic rock art,
documented in the Jebel Qurma region of north-eastern
Jordan, allowing for a systematic analysis of the desert
petroglyphs (Brusgaard 2019).1 As such, it is now possible to
examine in detail the nature of the dromedary depictions.
This article will discuss the images of dromedary
camels in the Safaitic rock art of the Jebel Qurma region,
including their quantity and form. Subsequently, it asks
what these depictions can tell us about the signicance of
the dromedary camel in the ancient Near East. Relatively
little is known about the ideology of the nomads of the
ancient Near Eastern deserts, compared to the older and
contemporary empires of this region. In particular, little
is known about the so-called ‘pastoral ideology’, the belief
systems so distinct to peoples whose lives are (semi-)
dependent on herd ownership (cf. Parkes 1987; Rosen
2008). Understanding the role and position of dromedaries
is essential to furthering this discussion. This chapter
does not endeavour to resolve so complex an issue, but
it endeavours to contribute to the debate through the
investigation of the representational evidence from the
Black Desert in north Arabia. By placing the engraved
images of dromedaries in their cultural-historical context,
this chapter intends to shed light on one of the most iconic
animals of the Near East. Additionally, it aims to contribute
to our knowledge on the Black Desert rock art as a whole.
The dromedary camel in the ancient
Near East
Many articles have been written about the dromedary
camel’s biological qualities that make it uniquely suited
for desert life and for the activities for which humans
have used it since its domestication (e.g. Gauthier-Pilters
and Dagg 1981; Köhler-Rollefson 1993; Rosen and Saidel
2010; Seland 2015). I will therefore not summarise these
here and instead focus on the current knowledge on the
1 See Akkermans, this volume, for a brief introduction of both the
Jebel Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project and the Landscapes
of Survival Project.
development of the dromedary’s role in the ancient Near
East. The domesticated dromedary camel, or one-humped
camel (Camelus dromedarius),2 has had a dominant
presence in Arabia for over two millennia, but many
questions still surround the nature of its domestication
process. Many aspects of this issue have remained largely
unexplored until recently, for several reasons. Ilse Köhler,
writing in 1984, states that the archaeological record on
the domestication process is poor due partly to a sample
bias; research in the region has focused on the settled
communities in the Fertile Crescent rather than on desert
areas where it is more likely that the dromedary was
domesticated (Köhler 1984, 201). Although this imbalance
has changed somewhat in the last thirty years, there are
still some complications. Among other things, there is
a lack of zooarchaeological evidence from well-dated
contexts and little is known about the distribution of the
wild one-humped camel (Almathen et al. 2016). However,
new evidence is shedding light on the matter.
Representational evidence in the form of gurines
and reliefs, the nature of dromedary bone assemblages,
including their demographic prole and a decrease in bone
size, and the context of these faunal nds indicate that the
domesticated dromedary was not widely present in the
ancient Near East before 1000 BC (Almathen et al. 2016;
Magee 2015; Sapir-Hen and Ben-Yosef 2013). It is likely that
domestication occurred in the late second millennium BC
(Almathen et al. 2016; Magee 2015). Additionally, recent
genetic evidence “support[s] a scenario with an initial
domestication followed by consecutive introgression from
wild populations.” (Almathen et al. 2016, 6711). There is also
good reason to suggest that the wild ancestral population
was already limited to the south-east coast of Arabia,
providing a tentative place for domestication (ibid., 6710).
The question of why domestication took place remains
more elusive. Magee (2014; 2015) has argued, based on
zooarchaeological evidence, that the driving force was
probably the need for a reliable food source, which would
have included meat but probably milk as well. However, it
seems that using dromedaries as mounts and pack animals
followed shortly afterwards (Magee 2015, 273). Whatever
the initial motivations, the dromedary would have quickly
become an essential provider, providing secondary
products such as wool, dung for fuel, and milk, which has
more health benets and is available for more months per
year than sheep or goat’s milk (Magee 2014; Rosen and
Saidel 2010). And, perhaps more iconically, its conversion
into a pack and riding animal transformed the region.
Often aptly called the ‘ship of the desert’, the dromedary’s
physiological characteristics allowed people to traverse
2 In this chapter, the terms dromedary and camel will be used
interchangeably to denote the dromedary camel (Camelus
regions and distances hitherto impossible, opening up trade
routes and new areas for exploitation (Köhler-Rollefson
1993; Magee 2014; Seland 2015). It is thus unsurprising
that the dromedary features in the iconography of ancient
Arabia, from Iron Age camel gurines from Saudi Arabia,
Oman, U.A.E., and Yemen (Magee 2015) to Palmyrene
reliefs (Seland 2015) and Nabataean reliefs and gurines
(Corbett 2010) to the desert petroglyphs mentioned above
and discussed further below.
Additionally, there is interesting archaeological
evidence on the possible symbolic role of the dromedary
from the southern part of the peninsula. A number of camel
burials have been excavated here that show evidence
for the sacrice of animals in funerary rituals, possibly
representing balîya graves. The balîya ritual is described in
later textual sources and is regarded as “the sacrice of an
animal for a deceased individual to use in the afterlife as it
was conceived in the pre-Islamic period in Arabia.” (King
2009, 81). The textual sources write that usually a female
animal, commonly a dromedary, is chosen for the ritual.
King (2009, 87) notes that “the choice of the female camel
for a balîya to provide the dead with a riding animal in the
hereafter corresponds with practice in life. The female is
preferred to the male camel for riding because of its more
benign temperament.” There is a myriad of evidence for
balîya-like camel immolations from U.A.E., Oman, Yemen,
and Bahrain, most of which date from between the fourth
century BC and the third century AD (Curci and Maini
2017; King 2009). Additionally, a possible balîya burial was
also found in Wadi Rum, southern Jordan, where the burnt
remains of a camel was found in a pit, accompanied by
a Nabataean inscription referring to blw’, which probably
relates to the classical Arabic term balîya (Hayajneh 2006).
As King (2009, 91) rightly points out, we cannot assume
that the archaeological evidence for these practices in
south and south-eastern Arabia equates with similar
practices in the rest of the region. However, there may
be some epigraphic evidence indicating similar rituals,
to which I will return later. From the eastern badia, the
textual and pictorial engravings are one of few sources
that can provide insights into the role of dromedaries
in the societies of this region. Textual references and
iconography from the sedentary centres in the early
rst millennium BC refer to the use of dromedaries by
(semi-)nomadic groups in northern Arabia (Magee 2014,
210). However, the indigenous perspective, how these
nomadic groups used and related to their dromedaries,
is missing from these accounts (ibid.). Figurines like
those from southern Arabia have not been found and
bone preservation is poor, meaning that as of yet (zoo)
archaeological assemblages cannot help in reconstructing
the symbolic or economic role of the dromedary. The desert
inscriptions and rock art can therefore provide important
insights. As mentioned in the introduction, the Safaitic
inscriptions sometimes refer to dromedaries. The majority
of the references are authors that sign an image of a camel
(see below), but inscriptions with a narrative component
mention pasturing and watering camels, keeping watch
for them, and migrating with camel herds (Al-Manaser
and Macdonald 2017; Macdonald 1993). These form the
impression that these societies were camel pastoralists,
although the form and scale cannot be deduced from the
inscriptions. Their mention in the ‘day-to-day’ activities
described in the inscriptions suggests that dromedaries
were signicant enough to warrant mention, but what
kind of signicance they had is unclear.
For this reason, rock art is another potential valuable
source of information. Various brief considerations on
the dromedary in ancient north Arabian rock art have
focused on mostly utilitarian interpretations of these
motifs, including them being a representation of the daily
life of the desert societies and expressions of ownership
of dromedaries (cf. Clark 1980; Oxtoby 1968; Winnett
and Harding 1978). In contrast, Corbett (2010), working
on Hismaic rock art, argues against these interpretations
and suggests that the images may have been sacricial
oerings. Drawing on pre-Islamic poetry and the evidence
for balîya graves, Corbett (2010, 150) proposes that the
camel was “an important symbolic mediator within pre-
Islamic Arabian society.” Similarly, Eksell (2002, 140),
studying Thamudic and Safaitic carvings, argues that the
camel was “endowed with sacrality” and that the carvings
of dromedaries were symbolic gifts to either a person
or deity. This conclusion is also inspired by pre-Islamic
poetry and based on various, somewhat random, sources.
Although admirable challenges to the earlier, highly
functional interpretations of the camel motifs, both
studies are problematic due their loose use of different
sources and their heavy reliance on pre-Islamic poetry
as an interpretative framework. This poetry is believed
to have been composed orally in the sixth and seventh
centuries AD and later written down in the eighth
century. It is interesting for a comparative perspective
of early Arabian desert life due to the many similarities
in the fauna mentioned in the poetry and depicted in
the rock art. However, there are many difficulties in
using it as a reflection of pre-Islamic society due to it
being written down much later in an Islamic society
(McDonald 1978), let alone using it as a reflection
of the different societies carving inscriptions and
images across northern Arabia at least a few centuries
earlier. Therefore, this poetry cannot be our main
basis for understanding the Safaitic (or other ancient
north Arabian) rock art. It is thus time to revisit the
evidence and form a new framework for interpreting
the camel images, especially in light of new theoretical
developments in our understanding of past human-
animal interactions (e.g. Russell 2012; Sykes 2014).
Safaitic rock art
It is not known how much rock art can be found across
the Black Desert (harrah) of northern Arabia, but tens of
thousands is not an exaggerated estimate. Each survey
in even small areas of the basalt desert recovers several
thousand Safaitic inscriptions and over 30,000 have been
recorded in the ongoing project ‘Online Corpus of the
Inscriptions of Ancient North Arabia’ (OCIANA) (Al-Manaser
and Macdonald 2017; OCIANA 2017). Many inscriptions are
associated with a pictorial engraving and images occur on
their own as well, so it is likely that there are nearly as many
Safaitic pictorial as textual engravings. The rock art and
the inscriptions are fundamentally linked to one another,
with inscriptions often signing an image and referring to it.
A common nd is, for example, an image of a dromedary
camel accompanied by an inscription stating ‘By [name]
son of [name] is the camel’ (Fig. 1).
Various inscriptions from the harrah make reference
to known dates that make it possible to roughly place the
engravings in the Late Hellenistic to Early Roman period, but
this conventional dating can only be seen as a guideline (Al-
Jallad 2015, 18). Rock art from other periods can be found in
Figure 1. This image of a female camel is signed by the author. He states his name and refers to ‘the young she-camel’.
The camel has been incised and then lled in by hammering. A mistake appears to have been made when carving the
foreleg, or the camel is unnished (photograph: Jebel Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project).
this region as well, including a few early Neolithic engravings
(Betts 1987) and much more recent carvings from the last few
centuries, such as those associated with Arabic inscriptions
and the many wusūm (cf. Berghuijs, this volume). Since
2012, the Jebel Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project has
been documenting all of the pictorial and textual engravings
and the many archaeological structures in the Jebel Qurma
area of the Black Desert, situated in north-eastern Jordan,
approximately 30 km east of the oasis town of Azraq. The
petroglyphs dating to the Late Hellenistic/Early Roman
period, the ‘Safaitic rock art’, have been researched by the
author, which resulted in the rst-ever systematic study of
Safaitic rock art (Brusgaard 2015; 2019). It is to this rock art
that the vast majority of the dromedary camel motifs belong.
Dromedary depictions in the Jebel
Qurma region
The eldwork carried out in the Jebel Qurma area
has yielded several thousand Safaitic inscriptions and
petroglyphs. In total, 4511 rock art gures were recorded
that can be ascribed to the same period of production as
the Safaitic texts. The vast majority (73%) are zoomorphic
gures, representing domestic animals, such as camels,
horses, and dogs, and wild animals, such as lions,
ibexes, and wild asses (for all results, see Brusgaard
2019). A small percentage (7%) are anthropomorphic
gures, of which the majority are ‘archers’, i.e. human
gures holding a bow-and-arrow. The rest are geometric
gures, such as the frequent set of seven dots or lines,
sun motifs, and unidentiable gures. The dromedary
camel motif is a dominant part of the corpus. There are
1486 representations of dromedary camels, making up
a third of the entire corpus and almost half of the 3309
zoomorphic gures (Fig. 2).
Camels are also mentioned a total of 312 times in
the Safaitic inscriptions of Jebel Qurma, of which all but
two are inscriptions signing a depiction of a camel, i.e.
‘By [name] son of [name] is the camel’. The other two
inscriptions are inscriptions with content (i.e., having a
narrative component). One mentions pasturing the she-
camels and the other keeping watch for the camel (Della
Puppa, forthcoming). Both inscriptions are associated with
an image of a dromedary camel.
In Safaitic, several dierent words are used for
dromedary, depending on age, sex, and number. For
example, nqt(n) is used for ‘the (two) she-camel(s)’ and
gml(n) for ‘the (two) he-camel(s)’, while the ‘young (she)
(he)camel’ is denoted by bkr(t). The inscriptions signing
an image of a dromedary can therefore help to identify
the age and sex of the depicted camel. Additionally, they
can also be indicated by various anatomical features and
the context in which the dromedary is portrayed. Based on
these elements, a distinction can be made in the rock art
between ‘young camel’ and ‘camel’ and ‘male’ and ‘female’.
The ‘young’ camels are usually indicated by the
accompanying inscription. However, in a number of
instances, the context can aid identication as well. There are
16 scenic compositions where a small dromedary is depicted
nursing from a larger female dromedary, whose udders are
usually depicted (Fig. 3) (Brusgaard 2019; Brusgaard and
Akkermans, in press). These small dromedaries are also
identied as young camels. In total there are 162 young
dromedaries in the Jebel Qurma rock art.
While the Safaitic text indicates the sex of a number of
the dromedary gures, the main method of identication
is the anatomical features. The presence of a phallus or
udders indicates a male or female camel, respectively.
Additionally, the position of the camel’s tail is also
generally taken to be an indication of the camel’s gender in
Arabian rock art. Macdonald and Searight (1983, 575) rst
recognised the relationship between the sex of the camel
as given in the inscription and the position of the tail: male
Figure 2. The frequency
of the dierent types
of zoomorphic motifs,
categorised by family, that
occur in the Jebel Qurma
corpus. The camels are by
far the most frequent.
camels’ tails hang down while females’ tails curl up. This
seems to hold true for dierent kinds of Arabian rock art,
such as Safaitic and Hismaic. Indeed, the Jebel Qurma
material also supports this interpretation; inscriptions
referring to ‘the (young) she-camel’ are always associated
with an image of a camel with its tail curled up (Fig. 4).
The use of the up-curled tail to indicate a female camel
may stem from the fact that when a female camel is in
heat, she will raise her tail when near a male (Khanvilkar
et al. 2009, 72). Additionally, the position of the tail is also
used to judge whether the conception was successful;
the she-camel cocks her tail when she is pregnant (ibid.).
It is unclear whether the camels with up-curled tails are
meant to represent pregnant females, females in heat,
or whether it is just a convention used to depict a female
camel. However, the latter interpretation seems most
likely considering the large number of camels depicted
with their tails curling up and the frequent association of
this type of depiction with an inscription referring to ‘the
she-camel’ or ‘the young she-camel’. Moreover, some of
the female camels are depicted with udders, which may
instead be an extra emphasis to indicate that the camel is
pregnant or nursing.
The position of the tail, the presence of udders or
a phallus, and the word used in the inscription were all
used to determine whether a camel is female or male. In
contrast to the other zoomorphic gures, the majority of
dromedaries have a clear sex indicated– 1090 in total– and
the majority of these are female. There are 760 females,
making up 51% of all dromedary camel gures and 70% of
the sexed camels (Table 1). A much smaller percentage is
male: 330 in total. Of these gures, 148 are young female
dromedaries, but only eight are young males. The (young)
female dromedary is thus the most common depiction in
the Jebel Qurma rock art.
In terms of composition, the dromedary is often a
lonesome gure. In contrast to the other zoomorphic
gures, they are rarely depicted in scenes. Besides the
above-mentioned nursing scenes, dromedary camels
generally feature in two types of interactions with other
gures: being led or held by an anthropomorphic gure
(11 scenes) (Fig. 3) and conict scenes between humans
(17 scenes). Interestingly, there are also two depictions
of what might be bull camels ghting. In both images
two male camels are facing each other with their necks
crossed, perhaps indicating the manner in which bull
camels ght (cf. Gauthier-Pilters and Dagg 1981, 89).
Figure 3. On the right of
the panel is a female camel
nursing a young camel. An
anthropomorphic gure is
holding the mother camel.
On the left of the panel are
various wild animals: a felid,
four ibexes, and an ostrich.
All of the gures appear to
have been carved as part
of the same composition
(photograph: Jebel Qurma
Archaeological Landscape
Figure 4. The dromedary
camel has a curled up tail
indicating that it is a female
camel. The inscription refers
to ‘the young she-camel’.
The camel is completely
incised and has hairs on
her hump and tail. Her
udders are also depicted
and her muzzle dened
(photograph: Jebel Qurma
Archaeological Landscape
Age and sex Number of gures
Female 611
Young female 149
Male 322
Young Male 8
Unknown 391
Young unknown 5
Total 1486
Table 1. Number of dromedary gures according to their
sex and whether they are young or of unspecied age.
Additionally, there is one scene in which two lions are
attacking a dromedary and one scene where a rider on a
dromedary is attacking a large felid. The conict scenes
featuring camels are interesting because they might depict
conict in the context of a raid. The occurrence of raids
and the ‘activity’ of raiding are mentioned in Safaitic
inscriptions both from Jebel Qurma and elsewhere in
the harrah (Al-Jallad 2015; Al-Manaser and Macdonald
2017; Della Puppa, forthcoming). The representation of
camel raids in the rock art has also been convincingly
argued by Macdonald (1990) for scenes whereby riders
on horseback are touching a dromedary camel with their
spear, thus ‘claiming’ it. One such scene occurs in Jebel
Qurma, although here the rider is also on a dromedary
camel (Brusgaard and Akkermans, in press, g. 5b).
Additionally, I have argued elsewhere that there is another
type of conict scene that appears to depict camel raiding
(Brusgaard and Akkermans, in press). In these scenes, the
dromedary camel is the centre focus and humans ght
each other around it, sometimes on horseback. Often there
is also one person holding the camel, as if holding it back
from the attackers (ibid., gs. 5c-d).
In total, 84 of the dromedary camels are depicted in
scenes. In addition, there are 47 camels that have a rider.
The rest are ‘individual’ dromedaries, with or without
an associated inscription. It is common to nd them on a
large panel where there is an accumulation of individual
images or a larger composition (Fig. 3). However, even
more frequent, and perhaps most interesting, are the
hundreds of dromedary gures depicted as the sole
animal on a relatively small boulder. These panels are
commonly composed of the dromedary as the central
gure, an associated inscription next to or surrounding it,
and a geometric motif (Fig. 5).
Producing the camel
Besides looking at numbers of camel depictions and
composition, the production of them and their form can
also reveal interesting insights. The form or style of rock
art motifs has interested researchers for decades and its
Figure 5. Commonly the
dromedary gures are
carved together with only
a geometric motif and the
accompanying Safaitic
inscription. The composition
tends to take up the entire
panel. This male dromedary
is carved with incised hairs
on its tail and hump, it has
an exaggerated hump,
and it has the typical ‘Jebel
Qurma style’ curved body
and long, straight neck
(photograph: Jebel Qurma
Archaeological Landscape
study has often yielded new perceptions on typologies
and chronologies (e.g. Domingo Sanz 2012). Additionally,
it can be seen as an indicator for the societies that created
the rock art and their identity (Domingo Sanz 2009). In
contrast, the study of production techniques and chaîne
opératoire has only started gaining momentum in rock art
research in the last ten years. However, various studies
have shown the many insights that this line of research
can reveal (e.g. Fahlander 2012; Lødøen 2010). This study
of the dromedary depictions looked at the form of the
motifs and examined how they were produced. As such,
the motifs can be understood as more than just their end
product, but as a rock art production from beginning to
end. Additionally, the large dataset of dromedary motifs
can provide insights into the general production and form
of the Jebel Qurma rock art.
The form of the dromedary motifs
Rollefson et al. (2008) remarked in their study of rock art
from Wisad Pools and surrounding areas in northern
Jordan that the dromedary motifs show a large variation
in style. To some extent, this is the case for the camel
corpus from Jebel Qurma as well, although they all
share the appearance of being depicted in prole and
all but two are depicted as if standing still rather than
in motion. Of the 1486 camel gures, 216 are simple
with few distinguishing features. However, the rest is
more elaborate and well executed, allowing for a few
remarks to be made about their form. Interestingly, the
detailed and elaborate (the ‘well-executed’) dromedary
depictions are also all images signed by the carver (i.e.,
those associated with an inscription stating ‘By [name] is
the camel’). There is indeed variation within these camel
gures but a recurring variation whereby a number of
typical features could be identied for the majority of
the camel gures and others which appear to occur in
particular ‘types’ of gures. In all of the gures the most
striking at rst glance is the exaggerated hump, which in
the majority of camels makes up a third or more than the
camel’s total height. Another typical feature of all of these
dromedary gures is the position of the head and neck.
They are almost always depicted with a long, straight
neck, holding their head up high. They are usually
looking forward, but in 95 cases the camels’ heads are
facing up, as if looking upwards and in 11 instances they
are looking backwards.
These features are typical for almost all of the dromedary
gures and all of those signed by an inscription. Additionally,
Figure 6. This large male dromedary gure shows one of the recurring variations on the body and abdomen shape: an
elongated body and a straight abdomen. It also has a ‘bell curve’ shaped hump. The neck has intentionally been left
unpecked. The outline of the gure was carved rst; this groove stands out from the in-ll of the body (photograph: Jebel
Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project).
there are a few attributes that appear to have a number of
variations. The hump is generally exaggerated in size but its
shape varies between three recurring types: round, rounded
triangular, and a shape that can best be described as a bell
curve. The rst shape is the most common. Additionally,
the body tends to be curved and quite short, paired with a
concave abdomen. However, there is a recurring variation
on this whereby the body is curved but elongated, paired
with a straight abdomen (Fig. 6). Lastly, the number of legs
varies. The vast majority of the gures (1066 gures) are
depicted with two legs, but a small number have all four
legs depicted (234 gures). The rest have either three legs,
whereby one is hobbled, or the legs are not visible due
to weathering, eacing, or superimposition. There are
thus indeed some variations on the style of the motif, but
recurring ones. A thorough qualitative and quantitative
analysis of these features and their occurrences should make
it possible in further research to identify stylistic camel types
in the Safaitic rock art.
These features and general appearance of the
dromedary depictions result in a motif that in
many ways is not naturalistic and has features and
proportions contrasting with that of a real dromedary.
A real dromedary camel’s most characteristic feature
is probably also its hump. Its single hump is also one
of the features distinguishing it from its cold climate
counterpart, the Bactrian camel. However, the hump
is generally quite small and is only pronounced when
vegetation is abundant, allowing for a large storage of
fat (Gauthier-Pilters and Dagg 1981). Even when this
is the case, the hump never grows very large either in
width or height in relation to the camel’s body (ibid., Pl.
5). The hump can disappear almost all together when
food is scarce (ibid., 71). In comparison, the petroglyph
camels’ humps are sometimes hugely exaggerated. In
one case, the camel’s hump was even modied to be
even taller (Fig. 7).
Real dromedaries also dier in the position and
shape of their neck, the shape of their body, and their
overall proportions. A dromedary generally always
holds its head in the extension of its body when standing
or on the move. Its long neck has a characteristic curve
Figure 7. The hump of
this dromedary has been
enlarged. The gure has been
carved with a thick incised
outline and incisions to ll
in the body (photograph:
Jebel Qurma Archaeological
Landscape Project).
in it. The tall, straight neck portrayed in the camels in
the rock art is usually only seen in real camels when
they are stretching their necks to reach vegetation
above them (cf. Gauthier-Pilters and Dagg 1981,
34, Pl. 17). The dromedary’s body is long with a convex
(‘hanging’) abdomen and a convex back. The latter
feature allows the camel to carry a heavier load than
a horse (ibid., 109). As a result of its long body and its
low, extended neck, the camel’s body is longer than it
is tall. As mentioned above, the carved camels of Jebel
Qurma have a relatively short body and although their
backs are convex, their abdomens are almost always
either straight or concave. In combination with the long,
straight neck, this way of depicting camels produces a
dromedary that appears almost as tall as it is long.
A nal qualitative remark about the form of the
camels provides an interesting contrast to the seemingly
‘unnaturalistic’ depictions. Although their general form
appears to deviate from that of a real camel in some
aspects, there are a number of specic anatomical
details often added to the carvings of the dromedaries.
For example, the muzzle is often depicted as curving
down in the typical hanging lip of a camel. Another
detail added to 216 of the dromedary images is the
denition of the hind leg(s), depicting the hock clearly.
Additionally, a number of the camel are depicted with
hair on their tail (40 camels), hump (45), neck (7), head
(2), throat (9), or a combination thereof (40). The hairs on
the tail, hump, neck and head are represented by small
incised lines while the throat hairs are represented by
a pounded ‘lump’ on the underside of their neck. All
dromedaries have hair on their tails, but they can also
grow a substantial amount of hair on the rest of their
body in the winter to both protect them from the cold
and to prevent dissipation of body heat (Gauthier-Pilters
and Dagg 1981, 72). These ‘hairy camels’ may therefore
be depictions of camels in the winter. However, it must
be noted, not all camels grow hair in the winter, so the
absence of them does not mean it represents a camel
in summer. It is interesting to note that there is almost
no variation in how the hairs are depicted. The throat
hairs are always depicted by a pounded lump while the
rest are almost always depicted by thin incised lines
sticking straight out; in a few cases they are pounded. It
is also a fairly accurate representation of how the hair
grows on dromedaries and, like the other features, adds
interesting anatomical detail to the depictions.
There are thus naturalistic and unnaturalistic
qualities to the dromedary depictions. Overall, there
appears to be a particular standard appearance, which
includes the long, straight neck, the exaggerated hump,
and a slightly curved body. A few dierent variations
on some features are present, such as the hump and
abdomen shape, and other features are present in only
a part of the camel corpus, such as the depiction of hairs
and the dened hock. However, these variations are not
innite and it is clear that there were one or more specic
styles according to which these images were made.
Production process
If the nal image has a fairly standard appearance,
then it follows that the production process by which it is
made should show signs of some standardisation as well.
Therefore, analysing the techniques used to carve the
dromedaries and the chaîne opératoire by which they were
carved can provide insight into their form. Additionally, it
has been proposed that it may not always be the nal rock
art image that was of most signicance; the actual process
of creating the carving may have been equally important
(Fahlander 2012, 100). This is an interesting perspective to
consider for the dromedary carvings, especially in light
of the theories that these were carved as votive oerings.
Therefore, understanding the process by which they were
created could shed light on their signicance.
Three carvings techniques can be recognised in the
production of the rock art of Jebel Qurma: pounding,
pecking, and incising. Pounding and pecking are both
percussion techniques, with carving using a hammer stone.
Pounding is the process of direct percussion, carving directly
with a hammer stone and pecking is the process of indirect
percussion, using a hammer stone and a chisel to carve. The
incision technique uses a sharp, pointed tool directly on the
rock and results in narrow, often deep grooves. Percussion
technique can be recognised by its broader, often shallower
marks. On basalt, pounding tends to result in irregular lines
and a more uneven appearance as it is not possible to align
each blow precisely with the previous one (Keyser and
Rabiega 1999). Pecking tends to produce more regular, neater
lines because the carver is able to control and align the lines
Technique Number of gures
Incised 89
Pecked 53
Pounded 1042
Percussion undened 89
Pecked and incised 24
Pounded and incised 162
Pounded and pecked 2
Percussion undened and incised 22
Pounded and pecked and incised 3
Total 1486
Table 2. The types of techniques that are used to carve
the dromedary gures of the Jebel Qurma corpus and
the number of occurrences. The techniques are also
used in dierent combinations.
more carefully (ibid.). In some cases it was not possible to
dierentiate between the two types of percussion technique.
All three techniques were observable in the camel
depictions, but pounding is by far the most frequent
(Table 2). Pecking is the least common. 213 of the
depictions were made using a combination of techniques,
of which pounding and incising is the most common. A
combination of techniques is used in a few dierent ways.
In 57 dromedary images, the ears are incised while the
rest of the body is pounded or pecked. Additionally, as
stated above, the hair depicted on the head, neck, hump,
and tails of the dromedaries is almost always incised.
However, perhaps the most interesting use of more than
one technique is when one technique is used to create an
outline of the image and another is used to ll it in.
The use of outlines gives insight into the chaîne
opératoire of carving. How they are used becomes clear
when we study the gures that are unnished or where
mistakes have been made. These motifs “may hint of
the sequence in which the dierent elements were cut–
especially if we can assume that the most important
aspects also set the frames for the whole composition of a
motif.” (Fahlander 2012, 102). The latter can be considered
for the gure itself, but also for the whole composition
of the gure and accompanying inscription. In the Jebel
Qurma corpus, there are 23 unnished camel gures and
a couple where clear mistakes have been made during the
production process. Two of these demonstrate the carving
process very well. One gure is a male dromedary where
to the right of the gure is an incised line that is clearly a
rst attempt at carving the foreleg and neck (Fig. 8). The
incision stops at the top of the neck. It appears that the
carver started on an outline of the leg and neck before
realising that the head would not t on the panel. The
dromedary was then instead carved more to the left. This
gure indicates that the motifs may have been made in
outline rst, sketched with thin incisions, before being
pounded or pecked over. The other gure shows evidence
of a similar mistake and carving process (Fig. 9). The
outline of this dromedary has also been incised and in
some places even made with several thin incisions, very
much resembling a sketch. The majority of its body has
been lled in with incisions but it is clearly unnished as
the hind leg has not been carved properly. In several areas,
there is also pounding on the body. It is not clear whether
this was done by the original carver, but the pounding
has not been nished either. Interestingly, upon closer
inspection, more than one attempt was also made on this
image. Above the neck and head is a very faintly incised
neck and head, as if the carver made a thin outline of the
body before deciding to carve the neck lower down.
These two interesting gures where mistakes have been
made and/or have been left unnished, provide insights
into the production process. They indicate that an outline,
Figure 8. Left: the carver made a mistake when sketching this female dromedary gure, starting too far to the right on
the panel, indicated by the thin incision marks. Right: the incised sketch marks have been traced for clarity (photograph:
Jebel Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project; tracing by the author).
or ‘sketch’, was made of the gure rst using thin incisions
before the gure was pounded or pecked over. And many
of the other gures corroborate this. 116 of the dromedary
gures show clear signs of having been made in outline rst.
The majority of these have been made using a combination
of techniques whereby there is an incised outline, which is
usually hardly visible. In most cases, there are only faint
traces of incisions in a few places, not a clear outline around
the whole image. This suggests that the incised outline was
made rst and was intended as a sketch to be hammered
over. It is therefore likely that many of the other gures
were made in outline rst too, but that there are no traces of
the sketch because it has been hammered over completely.
In 35 gures, only one technique was used to carve them
and the outline is more visible. Approximately a third are
only incised, with a single outline and an in-ll consisting
of incisions (cf. Fig. 4). The others have a clearly pounded
or pecked outline and are then lled in using the same
technique (Fig. 6).
The majority of the dromedary gures are lled in
completely. However, there are 176 dromedary gures that
consist of only an outline. Some are only a simple, incised
gure, but many consist of a well-executed outline. 80
dromedary gures are partially lled in, whereby often the
whole body is lled in except the hump or neck and head
(Fig. 6). This is clearly a deliberate, perhaps aesthetic, choice
and not a result of an unnished carving. Concerning the
entire composition, there are indications that the image
was usually carved rst and then the inscription. In most
compositions, the inscription curves around small elements
of the image, suggesting it was carved last (e.g. Figs. 4-5).
There are some exceptions, such as shown in Fig. 9, where
the inscription might have been carved rst.
These gures suggest that the carving process consisted
of rst making either an outline, which was subsequently
usually lled in, or a sketch, which was pounded or pecked
over. In the latter cases, it appears that the original sketch
was not meant to be visible in the nal image. It is therefore
likely that this process was used in many of the gures. This
sequence of carving suggests that the images and their nal
appearance were planned. This is unsurprising considering
the relatively standard appearance of the dromedary motif,
outlined above. When the form is meant to appear a certain
way, with a specic shape and particular proportions, it
makes sense that an element of planning should be used
to achieve this. Interestingly, it appears that this technique
was more commonly employed for the creation of the
dromedary motif. Only 56 of the 1823 other zoomorphs
show clear signs of an outline or sketch. The majority of
these are equids, either domestic or wild. Indeed, many
of the wild ass, horse, and mule gures show a similar
level of detail and skilled execution as the dromedary
gures, although they are much fewer in number. Further
investigation should show whether there is a similar
standard appearance.
On a nal note, the typical appearance of the Jebel Qurma
camels is more apparent when they are compared to Safaitic
camel carvings from other areas in the harrah. For example,
some dromedary gures found further north in the basalt
desert are more naturalistic, exhibiting a less exaggerated
hump, a more elongated body, and often a curved neck (e.g.
KRS 1153, KRS 2502, and IBS 425 in OCIANA). Additionally,
there is a contrast in technique as well; the dromedaries are
Figure 9. The dromedary gure is unnished and a mistake was made in the initial sketch. The original incised outline of
its head and neck is barely visible (left), unless viewed from very close or traced (right). The inscription refers to a ‘young
she-camel’ (photograph: Jebel Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project; tracing by the author).
generally incised and consist of only an outline. Interestingly,
these gures are associated with inscriptions in the so-called
‘ne script’, a type of inscriptions rarely found in Jebel Qurma
(cf. Della Puppa, forthcoming). The form and technique of
the dromedary gures in the Jebel Qurma area are therefore
not necessarily representative for an overall ‘Safaitic style’.
They provide insights into the camel carvings from this area,
which may have diered temporally, geographically, and/or
culturally from other rock art corpora in the Black Desert.
Reviewing the results of this study, a number of points
can be made in summary. The dromedary motif is the
most common of all motifs in the Jebel Qurma corpus
and dominates the range of zoomorphic motifs. Of the
sexed dromedary gures, the female dromedary is most
frequently depicted. Most dromedary gures occur on
their own, either on a large panel where other gures
have been carved as well or as the single image on a panel,
often accompanied by an inscription and sometimes
a geometric motif. When the dromedary is depicted
interacting with other gures, it is usually being ridden,
being led, nursing a young camel, or depicted in a conict
scene. However, these are the minority of camel images.
There is some variety in how the gures are depicted and
some are very simple in form. However, in those that are
not, there appear to be some typical characteristics and a
fairly standard form. It is not a naturalistic one, with an
exaggerated hump, a long, straight neck, and a curved body
and concave abdomen. Yet it often includes anatomical
details, such as hair, a curved muzzle, and a dened
hind leg. Some features vary a bit in shape and it may be
possible to recognise stylistic dromedary types. However,
overall there appears to be a recurring appearance in the
Jebel Qurma camels, which contrasts in some aspects with,
for example, the camel gure associated with the Safaitic
ne script. They contrast in technique as well, with the
Jebel Qurma depictions revealing an interesting process
of production. The majority of the dromedary gures are
pounded, but pecked and incised gures occur as well.
Additionally, some of them are made using a combination
of techniques. The most striking of these are the ones
whereby incisions are used to create a preliminary outline
or sketch after which the gure is pounded or pecked over.
These carvings indicate that the images were planned,
which is unsurprising considering the specic features
and proportions of the dromedary depictions. Following
on these results, the question is then how to interpret
these many dromedary images.
The every-day camel
As outlined above, previous interpretations have generally
been functional; the carvings express claims of ownership
of a dromedary or merely represent the carver’s own
camel. In this way they show the daily life of the desert
nomads. This is not a surprising interpretation considering
the content of the Safaitic inscriptions and considering the
cultural-historical context. It is clear that by the mid-Iron
Age, the domesticated dromedary was well-established
in the Near East and played an important role in this
region. More specically for the desert societies, the
inscriptions give the impression that these societies were
camel pastoralists, possibly with goats and sheep too.
However, sheep and goats are not mentioned in the Jebel
Qurma corpus of inscriptions (Della Puppa, forthcoming)
and it is of course possible that there were dierences in
subsistence between groups whereby some were camel
breeders, others were mixed pastoralists, and others
owned mostly sheep and goats (Macdonald 1993, 319).
Additionally, it must be considered that the references
to dromedaries and pastoral activities are not an exact
reection of the daily life of these societies. As Al-Jallad
(2015, 3) has shown, the subject matters in the texts are
selective and limited. It is therefore more interesting to
consider why activities involving dromedaries are written
about, just as, among others, camping, grieving, and
raiding are, while other aspects of daily life are not. And
while the dromedary is a common topic in the inscriptions,
it is even more pervasive in the rock art.
A functional interpretation in which these peoples
are carving the dromedaries that were an important
part of their subsistence or are expressing ownership of
their dromedaries is thus logical. However, it is a limited
approach on account of two things. Firstly, it does not
explain the sheer number of camels and the selective
nature of motifs depicted. If these images are mere
expressions of daily life, one would expect to nd a larger
variety of subject matters, reecting the whole world
around them. Yet, like the inscriptions, the types of motifs
and the scenes portrayed in the rock art are limited and
selective (Brusgaard 2019; Brusgaard and Akkermans, in
press). Additionally, dierent things appear to have been
important as content in the rock art versus the inscriptions.
The references to pastoral activities with dromedaries in
the texts and the depiction of dromedaries and pastoral
activities such as leading and nursing match well.
However, although signed inscriptions of wild animals are
common (e.g. ‘By [name] is the wild ass’), there are only
a few rare mentions of hunting. In contrast, wild animals
are abundant in the imagery and hunting is the most
dominant theme in the scenes depicted in the Jebel Qurma
rock art, exceeding pastoral scenes by far (Brusgaard 2019;
Brusgaard and Akkermans, in press). Combined, the two
types of engravings provide insight into the world of these
peoples, but each reects a dierent selection of the world.
Similar disparities between daily life and what is
portrayed in rock art have been shown to exist for rock
art across the globe (for an overview, see Russell 2012, 14).
Most famously, the sympathetic magic or hunting magic
theory, which was developed for European Palaeolithic
cave art but has been applied to many dierent rock art
corpora, has been discredited on various accounts but most
convincingly by the failure to nd faunal assemblages in the
archaeological record that matched what was depicted in
the cave art (Keyser and Whitley 2006; Russell 2012). Here,
too, the depictions are selective and it is clear that these
selections in what to depict and how often and what not to
depict are signicant ones. Equally, the style of depiction is
an important factor to consider. Style “combines personal
interpretation and choices within the rules regulating
the artistic expressions of a specic period and context.”
(Domingo Sanz 2009, 54). It can express social information
about the authors and their social groups, including
identication and perceptions of the world around them.
This can be encoded in the form of the motif or object, but
also mode of production (ibid.). The dromedary motif in the
Jebel Qurma region does not portray a naturalistic camel
and has a number of common, interesting features, such
as the exaggerated hump and tall neck. The recurrence
of this particular portrayal of the camel and the specic
production process used to create it suggest certain cultural
conventions about dromedaries and these images. They
likely reect a shared ideal image of the camel, rather than
portraying real-life individual camels.
Secondly and following on from the rst point, the
choice to represent some animals more than others cannot
be explained merely in terms of their everyday role in these
societies. This reduces the signicance of the iconography
to a merely functional one and the signicance of the
animal to a purely economic one. Neither nds any merit
in the many forms of animal representation and animal
use in the archaeological and ethnographic record from
across the world. As Russell (2012, 14) has succinctly
stated: “People depict animals because they are food for
thought rather than just food.”
Although it is not clear on what scale the Black Desert
nomads owned and herded dromedary camels and what
exact role these animals played in their subsistence
economies, it is clear that they had dromedaries. And the
role they played warranted their depiction more than any
other animal. Parkes (1987) has argued that imagery in
pastoral societies focuses on the main animal being herded,
which plays a central part in the symbolic and ritual sphere
of the society. The economic importance of the herd animal
is only part of a wider cultural signicance. This can be
seen in, for example, the pastoral ‘cattle societies’ of eastern
Africa (Herskovits 1926; Insoll et al. 2015; Lincoln 1981) and
societies herding goats in central Asia (Parkes 1987).
The ritual camel
Corbett (2010, 127) recognises that the functional interpretation
is limited and argues instead that the dromedary may have
gained signicance beyond its exploitation. Specically, he
argues that the she-camel had an important symbolic role and
that “the image, and its oering or sacrice, were employed
to convey a range of ideas about death, the sacred, and the
solidarity of the tribal community.” (ibid., 150).
Eksell (2002, 140) investigates the topic in less detail
but arrives at a similar conclusion, stating that the images
are forms of symbolic giving or sacrice. Eksell interprets
the carvings in general from this perspective, basing her
conclusion partly on her interpretation of the formulaic
content and syntax of Safaitic inscriptions. The inscriptions
customarily start with ‘l’, the lām auctoris. This is generally
seen as a ‘mark of authorship’, usually translated as ‘by’ (i.e.
‘By [name] is the camel’) (Macdonald 2006, 294). This can be
interpreted as the image is by this person (Macdonald 2006,
295). However, Eksell suggests it should be interpreted as
‘for’, which can denote a sacral meaning for the texts and
associated image (cf. Al-Jallad 2015, 4; Eksell 2002, 115-116).
However, as Macdonald (2006) and Al-Jallad (2015) have
shown, the l is simply an introductory particle to the phrase
and its translation depends on the context. Therefore, it
does not reveal anything about how to interpret the image
associated with the text.
Although Corbett and Eksell arrive at their conclusions
on shaky grounds, there may be merit to the ‘sacricial
image’ perspective. Already as early as 1932, Rostovtze
(1932, 111) suggested that the camel carvings in the Arabian
and Sinai deserts were “dedications or recommendations
to preserve the camel from harm.” Rostovtze likens them
to the camel gurines that have been found in Arabia.
Many more gurines have been found since, as mentioned
above. However, there is no consensus on the meaning of
these gurines. Magee (2014, 212) has suggested that the
representations of dromedaries being used for trade and
transport could be seen “as a reection of their relative
novelty within the region.”
The dromedary petroglyphs from northern Arabia
date to a much later period, when the domesticated
dromedary is already rmly established in Arabia.
Interestingly, they are contemporary with the balîya
camel burials from the southern part of the peninsula.
Only one possible balîya burial has been found in north
Arabia, i.e. the grave and inscription from Wadi Rum.
However, there is epigraphic evidence that it might have
been a wider spread practice, possibly in a dierent
form. There are Safaitic inscriptions referring to the bly,
which, like the Nabataean blw’, is interpreted as balîya.
For example, the inscription WH16 reads ‘By ʾtm son of
ʿn son of Ẓʿn and he set up this Baliyya for his brother
(WH16; Al-Manaser and Macdonald 2017). The use of
this term in Safaitic inscriptions suggests that the balîya
ritual, perhaps involving camels, occurred in north
Arabia too, either in practice or symbolically. That the
petroglyphs functioned as symbolic sacricial camels is
one such possibility, for example as a votive oering for a
deity, as suggested by previous scholars, or as a sacrice
for a deceased in the afterlife, like the balîya ritual.
In this case, it may not have been merely that the
image of the camel was intended as a symbolic sacrice
or oering, but that carrying out the ritual, carving the
image, was just as signicant. It is a plausible explanation
for the camel carvings studied here, which show a series
of steps and considerable care in the execution, including
planning and preparation through sketching and outlining.
On the one hand, it can be argued that this process was
taken to ensure that the nal image achieved the correct
proportions and appearance. On the other hand, the
practice of planning, sketching the outline, carving the
camel, and nally adding small details like the hairs might
have been important elements in a long symbolic act that
ended with the image of the camel.
However, this raises two questions. First, does this
mean that all of the carvings should be interpreted within
this framework? Other zoomorphic gures show signs of
planning and careful execution, albeit on a smaller scale.
Was it irrelevant whether one carved a camel or an oryx
as the process of carving was most important? This seems
unlikely, especially considering the selective nature of the
rock art. The type of motif and the appearance were clearly
of importance too. The ‘votive oering’ theory therefore
has its limitations too; it does not explain the signicance of
the other motifs. Here more research is needed to develop
a framework that encompasses the rock art material as a
whole (cf. Brusgaard 2019). Moreover, this theory does not
explain the prevalence of the dromedary camel motif.
This brings me to the second question: what was the
signicance of the dromedary camel? If the dromedary
camels were carved symbolically as a part of a ritual, why
were these animals specically used? The use of animals
in rituals does not stem from their ritual importance.
That certain animals are specically selected for, and
deemed important for, certain rituals usually has
its grounds in a tightly interwoven combination of
economic (everyday) importance, prestige value, and
social signicance of the animal. This is apparent from
a myriad of widespread ethnographic accounts on the
ritual use of domestic animals, such as cattle in the
abovementioned east African examples (Herskovits
1926; Insoll et al. 2015; Lincoln 1981), goats in the central
Asian pastoralist communities described by Parkes
(1987), water bualo in Thailand (Tambiah 1969), and
pigs in east Asia (Russell 2012). The global archaeological
record also illustrates that mostly domestic animals are
sacriced, because they are “suciently identied with
the sacricer to serve as a substitute in communications
with the divine.” (ibid., 125).
If dromedary camels were used (symbolically) in
ritual practices in Arabia, it says as much about their
social relationship with their herders as it does about
their economic value. To understand the nature of this
relationship, and subsequently the camel’s social and
economic importance, it is clear that further research is
needed on the dromedary’s position in the ancient Near
Eastern societies and in the future this will hopefully include
new investigations from archaeological, zooarchaeological,
anthropological, epigraphic, and representational
Returning to the Safaitic camel carvings, it is clear
that these images need to be studied and interpreted
in light of the role of the dromedary in the ancient
Near East. Their prominence in the rock art of the Jebel
Qurma region, and probably the Black Desert rock art
in general, ts into a wider pattern of camel carvings in
the rock art of the Arabian Peninsula, as well as other
representational and symbolic evidence. While the data
sets from other areas do not yet permit quantitative and
detailed qualitative comparisons, the Jebel Qurma corpus
allows for a number of inferences to be made about the
‘local’ material. The dromedary camel motif dominates
the material and its presence and its inclusion in pastoral
scenes matches the pastoral subsistence that can be
deduced from the inscriptions. It has a fairly standard
form and careful planning and execution has gone into
many of the carvings to create this form. Although not
naturalistic, the camels also have small, anatomical
details that suggest an intimacy of the carvers with these
animals. The female dromedary is most prevalent, which
suggests that the she-camel held a greater importance.
This is in line with the position of the female dromedary
in modern camel-herding societies. While the camels
sometimes feature in scenes or with a rider, the majority
are depicted on their own, indicating that the importance
of this motif lies in its own value, not in its interaction
or relationship with other gures. Until now, a few
interpretations have been made about the camel carvings,
all of which fall broadly in two categories: a functional
interpretation in terms of the dromedary’s economic,
everyday exploitation and a ritual interpretation in terms
of the dromedary’s ritual exploitation in ancient Arabian
practices. Both have their merits but also limitations.
Moreover, trying to interpret the carvings within either
of these frameworks assumes a dichotomy between the
economic and ritual spheres that likely did not exist in
these past societies (cf. Brusgaard 2016). To move forward,
a new framework is needed in which the complete and
complex picture of past human-camel relationships is
considered, which includes the dromedary’s economic
value, ritual importance, and social signicance. This
will shed new light on the signicance of the dromedary
in real life as well as the many thousands of dromedary
carvings. Further research on the Safaitic rock art as a
whole and the role it played in these desert societies can
also aid in understanding the signicance of individual
motifs. Additionally, analyses of the form and production
of the carvings can provide new insights into the style
of the Safaitic carvings, including possible geographical,
temporal, or cultural dierences.
This study has endeavoured to investigate the dromedary
camel carvings from the Jebel Qurma area in the Black
Desert of Jordan. It has done so in an eort to shed new light
on the signicance of this prevalent motif and further our
understanding of the role of dromedaries in the ancient Near
East in general. Although this study has perhaps raised more
questions than answers, it is my hope that it has shown the
value of detailed study of a large rock art dataset and placing
animal representations in their cultural historical context.
This investigation is part of ongoing research on the rock art of
the Jebel Qurma area and new insights will be gained for both
the dromedary motif and the rock art as a whole. However,
it is clear that the dromedary was an essential concept in
the ancient desert societies. These peoples were evidently
depicting what was signicant in their societies, not what was
just present in their societies. Furthermore, the role that the
dromedary and the pictorial and textual engravings played
in these societies is complex and multi-layered. Researching
these issues further can shed light on these societies and on
the so far understudied pastoral ideology.
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... The extent to which these are portrayed in the rock art, including different types of weapons and weapon use, refl ects the importance of confl ict and raiding in the ideology of the desert nomads. Furthermore, the several scenes featuring dromedaries in the central role, representing the raiding of these animals, speak to the importance of this animal (Brusgaard 2020). Like confl ict, pasturing or activities associated with it, such as migrating with herd animals and watering, form a common theme in the inscriptions. ...
Until recently, little was known about the Safaitic rock art of the Black Desert in northern Arabia. This chapter presents the results of the first study of the scenes and of the material culture, the weaponry, depicted in the scenes. It investigates what the scenes can tell us about the rock art and the societies that created it. Through a detailed analysis, this study identifies three main themes in the scenes: pastoralism, combat, and hunting, of which the latter is most dominant. Additionally, four types of weapons are recognised, of which the bow and arrow and the lance/spear are most commonly depicted. Comparing these results, this study reveals that there are specific patterns in the hunting and combat scenes. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how these results fit with the historical context and what they can tell us about the desert societies.
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Pictorial and visual elements are special types of archaeological data that transgress boundaries: between us and the past and between the material and immaterial. Traditionally, images have been discussed in terms of what they represent, mean or symbolize. In this volume, the authors explore other ways in which images a!ect and engage the beholder and the modes in which they are entangled in past worlds. The articles comprise examples from various regions and time periods and include a diverse array of topics including northern European rock art of the Neolithic and Bronze Age, anthropomorphic aspects of ceramic pots and figures in gold, erotic themes on children’s burial vessels, and nineteenth-century rock art created by quarantined sailors in Australia.
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Book is available open access from Archaeopress ( The Safaitic rock art of the North Arabian basalt desert is a unique and understudied material, one of the few surviving traces of the elusive herding societies that inhabited this region in antiquity. Yet little is known about this rock art and its role in the desert societies. Why did these peoples make carvings in the desert and what was the significance of this cultural practice? What can the rock art tell us about the relationship between the nomads and their desert landscape? This book investigates these questions through a comprehensive study of over 4500 petroglyphs from the Jebel Qurma region of the Black Desert in north-eastern Jordan. It explores the content of the rock art, how it was produced and consumed by its makers and audience, and its relationship with the landscape. This is the first-ever systematic study of the Safaitic petroglyphs from the Black Desert and it is unique for the study of Arabian rock art. It demonstrates the value of a material approach to rock art and the unique insights that rock art can provide into the relationship between nomadic herders and the wild and domestic landscape.
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The animal species depicted in the rock art of Shuwaymis, Saudi Arabia, provide a record of Holocene climatic changes, as seen by the engravers. Of 1903 animal engravings, 1514 contained sufficient detail to allow identification with confidence. In addition, the stratigraphy of the engravings and the depiction of domesticates provide a broad chronological framework that allows a division into images created during the Holocene humid phase and animals represented after the onset of desert conditions. Despite the large sample size, only 16 animal species could be identified, which represents an extraordinarily narrow species spectrum. Comparison with the scarce faunal record of the Arabian Peninsula shows that all larger animals that are thought to have been present in the area were also depicted in the rock art. The contemporaneous presence of at least four large carnivores during the Holocene humid phase suggests that prey animals were abundant, and that the landscape consisted of a mosaic of habitats, potentially with thicker vegetation along the water courses of the wadis and more open vegetation in the landscape around them. Community Earth System Models (COSMOS) climate simulations show that Shuwaymis was at the northern edge of the African Summer Monsoon rainfall regime. It is therefore possible that Shuwaymis was ecologically connected with southwestern Arabia, and that an arid barrier remained in place to the north, restricting the dispersal of Levantine species into Arabia.
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Dromedaries have been fundamental to the development of human societies in arid landscapes and for long-distance trade across hostile hot terrains for 3,000 y. Today they continue to be an important livestock resource in marginal agro-ecological zones. However, the history of dromedary domestication and the influence of ancient trading networks on their genetic structure have remained elusive. We combined ancient DNA sequences of wild and early-domesticated dromedary samples from arid regions with nuclear microsatellite and mitochondrial genotype information from 1,083 extant animals collected across the species’ range. We observe little phylogeographic signal in the modern population, indicative of extensive gene flow and virtually affecting all regions except East Africa, where dromedary populations have remained relatively isolated. In agreement with archaeological findings, we identify wild dromedaries from the southeast Arabian Peninsula among the founders of the domestic dromedary gene pool. Approximate Bayesian computations further support the “restocking from the wild” hypothesis, with an initial domestication followed by introgression from individuals from wild, now-extinct populations. Compared with other livestock, which show a long history of gene flow with their wild ancestors, we find a high initial diversity relative to the native distribution of the wild ancestor on the Arabian Peninsula and to the brief coexistence of early-domesticated and wild individuals. This study also demonstrates the potential to retrieve ancient DNA sequences from osseous remains excavated in hot and dry desert environments.
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This paper presents an overview of the state of evidence concerning the domesticated dromedary camel in the ancient Near East. It draws upon artifactual, textual, and archaeological evidence from southern Arabia to Syria, including recently excavated material from the United Arab Emirates.
Until recently, little was known about the Safaitic rock art of the Black Desert in northern Arabia. This chapter presents the results of the first study of the scenes and of the material culture, the weaponry, depicted in the scenes. It investigates what the scenes can tell us about the rock art and the societies that created it. Through a detailed analysis, this study identifies three main themes in the scenes: pastoralism, combat, and hunting, of which the latter is most dominant. Additionally, four types of weapons are recognised, of which the bow and arrow and the lance/spear are most commonly depicted. Comparing these results, this study reveals that there are specific patterns in the hunting and combat scenes. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how these results fit with the historical context and what they can tell us about the desert societies.