Rock Art in Jebel Akhdar, Oman

Print Friendly
Bilad Sayt

Bilad Sayt

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]

Fig. 1 -  Figures realized in bas relief. These figures are on the most known piece of rock art in Oman, a boulder naturally shaped as a gigantic standing stone - Hasat Bin Salt (Coleman’s Rock) - (photo by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 1 – Figures realized in bas relief. These figures are on the most known piece of rock art in Oman, a boulder naturally shaped as a gigantic standing stone – Hasat Bin Salt (Coleman’s Rock) – (photo by Angelo Fossati)

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.

Fig. 2 - A group of goat-like animals and human figures engraved in a rocky basin. The goat-like figures overlap a figure of green turtle, an animal that had a great symbolic value six thousand years ago -  Stal,  Wadi Bani Kharous -  (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 2 – A group of goat-like animals and human figures engraved in a rocky basin. The goat-like figures overlap a figure of green turtle, an animal that had a great symbolic value six thousand years ago – Stal, Wadi Bani Kharous – (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

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).

Fig. 3 - Animals (arabian gazelles and wild asses) engraved on a big boulder in Shenah - (photo by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 3 – Animals (arabian gazelles and wild asses) engraved on a big boulder in Shenah – (photo by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 4 - An heavily eroded  rock engraved with animal motives near the village of Shenah - (photo by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 4 – An heavily eroded rock engraved with animal motives near the village of Shenah – (photo by Angelo Fossati)

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).

Fig. 5 - Group of goat like figures engraved in an outcrop at Shenah - (photo by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 5 – Group of goat like figures engraved in an outcrop at Shenah – (photo by Angelo Fossati)

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.

Fig. 6 - Ladies sitting on a chair. They probably are princesses seated on a throne and they have a servant helping them - Gore Anaqsah, Wadi Sahtan - (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 6 – Ladies sitting on a chair. They probably are princesses seated on a throne and they have a servant helping them – Gore Anaqsah, Wadi Sahtan – (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

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).

Fig. 7 -  Solar symbols associated to a snake and schematic human figures -  Wady Aday  9 -  (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 7 – Solar symbols associated to a snake and schematic human figures – Wady Aday 9 – (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 8 -   A group of human figures in a schematic praying position and an ibex - Wady Aday, a site  near Muscat the capital of Oman 8 - (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 8 – A group of human figures in a schematic praying position and an ibex – Wady Aday, a site near Muscat the capital of Oman 8 – (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Often the Phase 3 petroglyphs are found superimposed on Phase 1 animal representations (fig. 9).

Fig. 9 - Solar figure associated to two human figures overlapping a series of ibex-like figures - from a cave in Bilad Sayt (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 9 – Solar figure associated to two human figures overlapping a series of ibex-like figures – from a cave in Bilad Sayt (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

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).

Fig. 10 - Anthropomorphs and tree-like figures painted in white on a roof of a shelter in Wadi Tanuf (photo by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 10 – Anthropomorphs and tree-like figures painted in white on a roof of a shelter in Wadi Tanuf (photo by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 11 - Solar figure painted in red and white on a roof of a shelter in Wadi Tanuf (photo by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 11 – Solar figure painted in red and white on a roof of a shelter in Wadi Tanuf (photo by Angelo Fossati)

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).

Fig. 12 - A group of  riders on horses and camels engraved on a boulder near  Al-Hemyaniya village - Wadi Al Ayn - (photo by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 12 – A group of riders on horses and camels engraved on a boulder near Al-Hemyaniya village – Wadi Al Ayn – (photo by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 13 - Tracing of the previous scene - Al-Hemyaniya village - Wadi Al Ayn - (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 13 – Tracing of the previous scene – Al-Hemyaniya village – Wadi Al Ayn – (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 14 - Riders on horse and on camel. The camel in Oman is typically ridden sitting behind the hump of the animal (photo by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 14 – Riders on horse and on camel. The camel in Oman is typically ridden sitting behind the hump of the animal (photo by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 15 - Ostriches and bull. It is believed that the ostriches are mating. The bull has a big hump and can be identify as a type very near to the animal called “Indian Bull” - Wadi Sahtan - (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 15 – Ostriches and bull. It is believed that the ostriches are mating. The bull has a big hump and can be identify as a type very near to the animal called “Indian Bull” – Wadi Sahtan – (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 16 - A typical Omani boat engraved on a rock at Wadi Al Hareem. These boats were used to trade   goods, like frankincense, from the internal part of the Arabian peninsula to the other countries of the gulf (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 16 – A typical Omani boat engraved on a rock at Wadi Al Hareem. These boats were used to trade goods, like frankincense, from the internal part of the Arabian peninsula to the other countries of the gulf (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 17 - Traditional daggers (khanjars) engraved on a rocky wall in Wadi Bani Kharous - (photo by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 17 – Traditional daggers (khanjars) engraved on a rocky wall in Wadi Bani Kharous – (photo by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 18 - Warriors and horsemen with weapons - Wadi Al Hareem - (photo by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 18 – Warriors and horsemen with weapons – Wadi Al Hareem – (photo by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 19 -  A duel between an horseman and a warrior. These engravings are etched around the big boulder where there are the famous composition of figures in bas relief - Hasat Bin Salt (Coleman’s Rock) - (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 19 – A duel between an horseman and a warrior. These engravings are etched around the big boulder where there are the famous composition of figures in bas relief – Hasat Bin Salt (Coleman’s Rock) – (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

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).

Fig. 20 -   Representation of a oud (an Arabian lute)  with an inscription that praises Faisal Alawi, a famous singer from the nearby country, Yemen, calling him “the king of the oud”   - Al Khadra, Wadi Sahtan  - (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 20 – Representation of a oud (an Arabian lute) with an inscription that praises Faisal Alawi, a famous singer from the nearby country, Yemen, calling him “the king of the oud” – Al Khadra, Wadi Sahtan – (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 21 - Three cars engraved on a rock at Al Khadra. They represent the first motor vehicles entering in the wadi in the last century, probably already during the thirties - Wadi Sahtan (photo by Francesca Roncoroni)

Fig. 21 – Three cars engraved on a rock at Al Khadra. They represent the first motor vehicles entering in the wadi in the last century, probably already during the thirties – Wadi Sahtan (photo by Francesca Roncoroni)

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).

Fig. 22 -  A mythical  animal resembling a leopard or a wolf -  Gore Anaqsah, Wadi Sahtan - (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 22 – A mythical animal resembling a leopard or a wolf – Gore Anaqsah, Wadi Sahtan – (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 23 - Inscription in South Arabic alphabet from Gore Anaqsah in Wadi Sahtan (drawing  by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 23 – Inscription in South Arabic alphabet from Gore Anaqsah in Wadi Sahtan (drawing by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 24 - The Shahada is an Islamic creed that declares the oneness of God and the acceptance of Muhammad as God's prophet. An horseman figure has been over pecked with the probable intention of cancelling the figure - Al Tuwyan, Wadi Sahtan - (drawing by Francesca Roncoroni)

Fig. 24 – The Shahada is an Islamic creed that declares the oneness of God and the acceptance of Muhammad as God’s prophet. An horseman figure has been over pecked with the probable intention of cancelling the figure – Al Tuwyan, Wadi Sahtan – (drawing by Francesca Roncoroni)

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.

Fig. 25 - The author tracing a rock in Shenah using permanent pencils on crystal plastic field sheet (photo by Angelo Fossati)

Fig. 25 – The author tracing a rock in Shenah using permanent pencils on crystal plastic field sheet (photo by Angelo Fossati)


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.

Aknowledgments

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.


4 comments

  1. Dear Angelo,

    Thankyou for your hardwork in studying this subject. As an amateur enthusiast I wonder where I can go on Jebel Akhtar to show my kids these kinds of ancient wonders?

    Many thanks,

    AA

  2. Johnny says:

    Beautiful photographs of beautiful Rock Art!
    I understand your dilemma. I am a registered professional land surveyor in the State of New Mexico, U.S. One of my specialties is dealing with multiple types of land surveying and general mapping for the public and civil engineer consultants.
    I also study prehistoric Rock Art, but from an aesthetic perspective. I call it, “the art behind the petroglyph.” In short, it’s believed the location of random pareidolic images on rock surfaces served as the primary backdrop for prehistoric people placing their symbols where we now find them. Over the ages, Rock Art became a highly developed form of expression performed on the landscape by individuals participating in creative or imaginative activity that involved the re-arrangement of the natural elements that reflected off the surface of the rock. That is to say, true ‘Rock Art’ was a form of expression that involved the rearrangement of the ‘Elements of the Medium of Rock’- those elements being sunlight, shadow, rock, color, time, position and petroglyph.
    I understand that Science must work with non-aesthetic factors, but the next time you find yourself standing in front of a panel, try to realize that there is a high probability that you are standing in the wrong place at the wrong time and concentrating your efforts on only one of the elements. One must realize that the ‘time’ element is extremely crucial; for true Rock Art was a form of expression that was created by an individual that was religiously in tuned to the position of the sun when the pareidolic image was visible.
    If you are interested in learning more about my theory and artworks, please let me know.
    Best regards
    Johnny

  3. Simon Ferrey says:

    I lived in Oman from 1980 to 1990 and have a few photos I took of these rock peckings if it is of any interest. The only problem is I didn’t keep a record of where I found them as we often went out exploring at the weekends.
    Regards, Simon Ferrey

  4. Aboobacker Siddique. says:

    Sir,
    Its very preciable study of rocks in Oman. And its a very useful for the peoples who are intersted in geographical stratas of earth.
    A great appreciable job has did by you.
    Intending here with heartuest appreciation,

    -Aboobacker Siddique

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

two × 2 =