High relief of standing dromedary on sandstone spur (all photos ©CNRS/MADAJ, R. Schwerdtner)

Scholars believe that the dromedary was likely domesticated on the southern Arabian Peninsula, where they helped humans travel across unforgiving desert landscapes for millennia. Now, in a study published in the Cambridge journal Antiquity, archaeologists exploring the province of Al Jawf in Saudi Arabia have found what they say is an unprecedented group of rock art that attests to the creature’s early significance to the region.

Rock relief depicting recumbent dromedary raising head towards an equid, possibly a donkey or mule

The carvings, cut into large sandstone spurs, depict about a dozen life-size dromedaries and equids that date back about 2,000 years. Notably, they are shown without harnesses and have individualized features, from their eyes to their muzzles. One dromedary is shown in a curious interaction, engaging with what appears to be a donkey — a mammal rarely represented in rock art.

The animals are difficult to make out today. Some of them are incomplete, and some have suffered damage over the centuries, said the Franco-Saudi research team, whose members represent the French National Center for Scientific Research and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage. The area’s harsh conditions have also left little traces of the tools that were used to depict the mammals, which are carved in both low and high relief.

The site where the rock art stands is fittingly known as Camel Rock, a remote patch of the desert that is ill-suited for permanent settlement. Ancient Arabian rock reliefs are relatively scarce, the researchers said, and these carvings represent the first known examples of realistic, life-sized camels and horses, carved in this nature, in the region. Other known examples of dromedary carvings are simple engravings without relief, such as those at Shuwaymis.

“Certain Camel Site sculptures on upper rock faces demonstrate indisputable technical skills,” the researchers said.

Bas-relief of dromedary head

Considering the harsh desert setting, what compelled these anonymous individuals to visit Camel Site and carve not just one, but a dozen or so of these four-legged beasts into solid stone? A major clue might lie in the site’s proximity to caravan routes. Perhaps Camel Site was a significant rest stop, and the camels would have served as a sort of ancient roadside attraction, whether for travelers to simply admire or even to pray beside.

“That this isolated and seemingly uninhabitable site attracted highly skilled rock-carvers is striking testimony to its importance for surrounding populations,” the researchers wrote. “Perhaps serving as a boundary marker or a place of veneration, the Camel Site offers important new evidence for the evolution of Arabian rock art.”

Relief of two dromedaries: calf following adult (legs alone visible)

Spur with rock reliefs of dromedaries (left and center)

Sculpture (probably not completed) of two dromedaries in single file on Spur C at Camel Site

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...