The petroglyphs and pictographs of Oman are little known, but for the last five years I have been involved in a series of surveys of the Jebel Akhdar Mountains that have resulted in the location of several important sites. Recording these in advance of construction projects undertaken to modernize the country’s transportation network has enabled me to study the rock art in considerable detail for the first time. Using superimpositions, cross-dating with known artistic expressions elsewhere in the region, and the known dates for introduction of various objects of material culture, I propose a preliminary chronology consisting of four major phases spanning the last 6,000 years.
by Angelo Eugenio Fossati
TRACCE digital open-access reprint. Original reference:
FOSSATI A. F. 2015, Rock Art in Jebel Akhdar, Sultanate of Oman: An Overview, in Keyser J.D., Kaiser D.A. (eds.), American Indian Rock Art, ARARA, Vol. 41, pp. 1–8.
Rock Art in Jebel Akhdar, Sultanate of Oman
First overview and state of research
Angelo Eugenio FOSSATI
Università Cattolica del S. Cuore, Dipartimento di Storia, Archeologia e Storia dell’Arte
Largo Gemelli, 1 – 20123 MILANO (Italy)
angelo.fossati at unicatt.it – ae.fossati at libero.it
Rock Art in Oman was first reported in the thirties (Thomas Sidney 1932), when the British explorer Bertram Sidney Thomas on his camel journeys in the Sultanate, noted its presence on rocks in the wadis (deep arroyos) that characterize the country’s desert topography. The first scientific interest in this subject arose only in the 1970s with brief studies (Clarke 1975, Preston 1976), especially focusing on Hasat Bin Salt (also called Coleman’s Rock), a unique and interesting natural feature that has many petroglyphs but is better known for a bas-relief carving that creates a monumental sculpture on three side of the large rock (Yule 2001) (fig. 1).
[click on pictures to enlarge – click again to close]
In spite of the evident historical, archaeological, and anthropological importance of this rock art corpus, a complete catalogue of the country’s petroglyphs and pictographs has never been created. In the last five years I have carried out a series of surveys in the Jebel Akhdar mountain range for the Omani Ministry of Heritage and Culture with the aim of starting and organizing such a catalogue (Fossati 2009, 2013). Rock art is also known in the south of the Sultanate in the Dhofar region, where it also occurs as both paintings and engravings (Ash Shahri 1994).
Omani rock art—made as petroglyphs using several techniques including percussion, incision, and bas-relief carvings and as paintings—presents numerous themes including humans, animals, artifacts, geometric/symbolic figures, and inscriptions (Jäckli 1980). These various sorts of carvings and paintings were made over a long time period. However, the establishment of a chronology for this art depends on the study of styles, distinguishing different types of weapons, and demonstrating the presence of certain animals in various scenes. Currently I am only at the start of my analysis of the data I have recorded, but I offer here a few preliminary observations. As is often the case in rock art research, the analysis of superimpositions between figures and the comparison of different levels of revarnishing (on the same surface) has helped with the organization of phases into general time periods.
The most ancient rock art in the region illustrates wild animals such as green turtles, wild ibex, gazelles, asses, aurochs, and other animals (fig. 2, fig. 3). Sometimes these images are heavily revarnished and weathered (fig. 4).
Of significant interest is the presence of ibex-like figures that have been engraved on the rocky walls of many wadis in Oman and that have connection with similar figures present elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula (Anati 1968; Insall 1999; Khan 2003) (fig. 5).
These earliest (Phase 1) engravings were probably made in the fourth millennium BC (5,000-6,000 years ago) by hunters that frequented the Jebel Akhdar Mountains in search of prey. A second phase consists of angular, stylized human figures, including a group of women, each seated on a throne and accompanied by an attendant (fig. 6). Stylistically related to the anthropomorphic bas-relief sculptures on the Hasat Bin Salt Monument (Coleman’s Rock), these images probably date to the third and second millennia BC (3,000 to 4,500 years ago) based on cross-dating with carved tombs found elsewhere in Oman and Abu Dhabi (Cleuziou, Tosi 2007). These women shown seated on thrones probably represent royalty (queens or princesses) based on this sort of thematic portrayal as found throughout Near Eastern Officialdom from Egypt to Mesopotamia during this period.
Phase 3 figures include both petroglyphs and pictographs whose primary motifs are geometric/symbolic patterns (solar symbols, sub-rectangular [rectilinear] forms, and others) sometimes accompanied by human figures in a few related schematic styles (fig. 7-8).
Often the Phase 3 petroglyphs are found superimposed on Phase 1 animal representations (fig. 9).
Phase 3 also includes painted figures in white and red but I have yet to find these pictographs in superimposition sequences with petroglyphs so they are classified into this phase based on thematic and stylistic criteria (fig. 10-11).
The most recent art (Phase 4) is warrior art. These images show horsemen (fig. 12, 13), camels and camel riders (fig. 14), ostriches (ElMahi 2001) (fig. 15), boats (fig. 16), weapons and other items of material culture (fig. 17), and fighting warriors that were carved from the last millennium BC (about 1,000 BC) until modern times—with the latest carvings made within the last few decades (fig. 18, 19).
I have met the artist who carved a beautiful representation of an oud (an Arabian lute) as a tribute to a famous Yemeni singer (fig. 20), and we have also recorded a petroglyph of three automobiles (fig. 21).
The beautiful leopards (or lions) engraved in Wadi Sahtan (fig. 22) were created—maybe with totemic value—during the last millennium BC; when, for the first time, the Arab people used a writing system. A few inscriptions in the ancient South Arabic alphabet (which is different from today’s standard Arabic writing) accompany some of these figures of warriors and animals (fig. 23). These inscriptions are names of people—possible travelers, traders, or inhabitants of the wadi villages—the same “artists” that produced the older rock art. Later inscriptions, in standard Arabic script, witness the importance of the wadis as road systems that connected the south and interior of the country with the coastal area during historical times (fig. 24).
The interpretation of Omani rock art is in its infancy. Further work will undoubtedly change these preliminary observations as additional rock art research is integrated with ongoing archaeological research on the different cultures that have inhabited Oman through the centuries. As the road building and railroad construction continue as part of Oman’s economic development, construction activities continue to threaten many sites, but the Ministry of Heritage and Culture of the Sultanate of Oman is committed to document endangered sites as part of the salvage effort to preserve the rock art of this area. Hopefully, the result will be additional information that will enable the development of a more secure chronology and a more detailed interpretation of this rich body of ancient rock art.
Short bibliography on Omani Rock Art
- Anati E. 1968, Rock art in Central Arabia, Institute Orientaliste, Bibliotèque de l’Université, Louvain, Belgium.
- Ash Shahri A. 1994, Dhofar. Ancient inscriptions and rock art. Self published, Salalah, Oman.
- Clarke C. 1975, The Rock art of Oman 1975, The Journal of Oman Studies 1:113-122.
- Cleuziou S., Tosi M. 2007, In the Shadow of the Ancestors. The Prehistoric Foundations of the Early Arabian Civilizations in Oman. Ministry of Heritage and Culture, Muscat, Oman.
- ElMahi A.T. 2001, The ostrich in the rock art of Oman. Adumatu 3:15-26
- Fossati A.E. 2009, Oman Rock Art. Mission Report. Manuscript on file with Ministry of Heritage and Culture. Muscat, Oman.
- Fossati A.E. 2013, Rock Art Mission Report. Wadi Sahtan, Wadi Bani Kharous, Wadi Bani Auf, Wadi Bani Henei, Wadi Al Ayn. Manuscript on file with Ministry of Heritage and Culture. Muscat, Oman.
- Insall D. 1999, The Petroglyphs of Shenah. Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 10: 225-245.
- Jäckli R. 1980, Rock art in Oman. An introductory Presentation. Manuscript on file with Ministry of Heritage and Culture. Muscat, Oman.
- Khan M. 2003, Rock art of Saudi Arabia: Yesterday and Today. In Rock Art Studies. News of the World 2, (P. Bahn, A. Fossati, editors), pp. 82-87. Oxbow Books, Oxford, England.
- Preston K. 1976, An introduction to the Anthropomorphic Content of the Rock Art of Jebel Akdhar. The Journal of Oman Studies 2:17-38.
- Thomas Sidney B. 1932, Arabia Felix. Across the Empty Quarter of Arabia, J. Cape, London.
- Yule P. 2001, The Hasat Bani Salt in the al-Zahirah Province of the Sultanate of Oman. In Lux Orientis Archäologie zwischen Asien und Europa, Festschrift für Harald Hauptmann zum 65 Geburtstag, R.M. Boehmer/J. Maran (editors), pp. 443-450. Rahden, Germany.
I express my deep gratitude to the Undersecretary of Heritage H.E. Salim Mohammed Al-Mahrooqi, to the General Director of Archaeology & Museums Hassan Mohammed Ali Al-Lawati. Sultan Al-Bakri, Director of Excavations & Archaeological Studies for the Ministry of Heritage and Culture in Oman, encouraged this study and gave the permission of publishing. Biubwa Al-Sabri supported my research giving a lot of important suggestions. I would like to thank Prof. Maurizio Tosi, permanent consultant for the Ministry of Heritage and Culture in Oman for giving me the opportunity of studying the rock art of this beautiful country and sharing with me his valuable knowledge on Omani archaeology. My deep gratitude to Dr. James D. Keyser and Mike Taylor for inviting me to present the Omani rock art to the US academic public and for the help in editing this first report.