Uncovering secrets of mystery civilization in Saudi Arabia

A team of researchers is carrying out the first in-depth archaeological survey of part of Saudi Arabia, in a bid to shed light on a mysterious civilization that once lived there. The Nabataean culture left behind sophisticated stone monuments, but many sites remain unexplored.

The rock-strewn deserts of Al Ula in Saudi Arabia are known for their pitch-black skies, which allow stargazers to easily study celestial bodies without the problem of light pollution.

But the region is becoming even more attractive for archaeologists.

A long-lost culture known as the Nabataean civilisation inhabited the area starting from around 100 BC and persisted for some 200 years.

While the Nabataeans ruled their empire from the stunning city of Petra in Jordan, they made Hegra (the modern Mada’in Saleh) in Al Ula their second capital.

Now, archaeologists are planning to carry out the first in-depth survey of a chunk of land here that’s roughly the size of Belgium.

The large international team of more than 60 experts has started work on an initial, two-year project to survey the core area of 3,300 sq km in north-western Saudi Arabia.

This is the first time such a large area of more or less scientifically uncharted territory has been systematically investigated.

Excavations have been carried out in and around Mada’in Saleh and other recognised Nabataean sites for some time by a group of Saudi archaeologists including Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, a lecturer at the King Saud University in Riyadh.

“I have focused on the earlier Dedanite and Lihyanite civilisations,” he explains. “Now that the Royal Commission for Al Ula is involved there will be greater scope for deeper understanding of how early societies evolved.”

The involvement of the Royal Commission ensures that cutting-edge technology is at the disposal of archaeologists experienced in the field.

While Google Earth and the trained eye can often distinguish natural and man-made features, it is light aircraft equipped with specialist cameras that offer the most detailed imagery of the territory – which includes the Al Ula wadi and its feeder valleys. This can capture hitherto unknown archaeological features.

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