Friday, February 3, 2017

Oman's Prehistoric Rock Art---see it before it disappears or is destroyed

These petroglyphs (pictured above) found in Wadi Bani Auf (Bima) are exceptionally lovely. Who doesn't like camels? These are probably 1,000 years old...So they are practically brand new.

British-Arabian explorer Bertram Thomas made first mention of seeing Omani petrogplyphs of camels  [in English] in 1932. He liked the camels.

Apparently, some people don't, because vandals are attacking Oman's prehistoric rock art with chisels and spray-paint. Whether they are just your regular bored tosser-teenagers or are ignorant-so-called-religious-extremists the general authorities have not declared.

Whoever, whatever the reason, I find this to be totally unacceptable. As a Muslim, and a lover of history and archaeology, I find this horrifying!

I understand, some ignorant Omanis don't like tourists, and they don't like their own ancient history maybe for "so-called religious" reasons, but I don't think you get just how many jobs, how great an impact intact archaeological heritage can have on a country's economy. I mean, I've just read three Omani PHDs who wrote their thesis on this very subject in the last twenty minutes of searching for a prospective date on the Wadi Bani Auf glyphs. I'm sure there are more. I've scantly googled the subject. I mean, this is just googling, not even using Google Scholar;p or any other more reliable database system. Omanis should be proud (they usually are) that their history in the Arabian Gulf is so extensive.

Ancient history is not threatening to MUSLIMS!!!! It shouldn't be, because we know, the Qu'ran says this, that there were peoples in all periods, that were not Muslims. Their art should not scare us. Their history should not scare us. If you feel a sudden urge to start worshiping a prehistoric rock, I'd be more worried about you. I mean, if that's the case, you should totally check yourself into a mental health center and go get the treatment you so desperately need. If that is  indeed the case, the rock does not need any kind of treatment, but you definitely do. Seriously. 

And like, before you go and chisel up undocumented or poorly researched rock art containing languages we haven't even translated yet, why don't you go smash your phone (because it also contains pictures) and stop watching TV and the internet. If you truly believe all pictures are haraam and sinful (rather than what we use them for), please, perfect yourself first, and then speak, and convince others (all others) to go with your opinions, and let the country decide together. I've read everything you've read to justify your actions, and more (you should read more) and I come to a different conclusion than you, so maybe you should consider researching the subject further before taking up a chisel. For the religious vandal, there's a hadith that says a man stole a discarded thing by the side of road and he went to hell for that so, if you are wrong, ponder, if stealing the history of a nation or peoples before you is not also a weighty thing to steal.

...And, if you are a bored tosser-teenager with nothing better to do on the weekends than ruin historical sites that could one day help you to get a job somehow so you can, I dunno, do up your Toyota Corolla, I can totally recommend a lot of worthier sites to vandalize if you'd like. Funnier. More meaningful. Make you look actually cool, not like, a total loser. {Ends rant.}

Fossati, A., E. (2015) proposes that prehistoric rock art in Oman spans roughly 7,000 years, and this period can be broken down into several major phases (see also  (Ash Shahri 1994; Fossati 2009, 2013, and 2014).

Fossati (2015) basically goes over how dating is roughly done through analysis of superimpositions between figures and comparing different levels of revarnishing, as well as going through a catalogue of rock-art styles, looking at different weapons depicted in the art or carried/brandished by figures, and by the presence of certain animals in scenes. All pretty logical stuff.

Apparently, according to Fossati's (2015) proposition, Oman's most ancient rock art can be described as consisting of a First and Second Phase, with the Second Phase being broken down into two sub-phases. These combined Phases (1-2) date from the fifth and fourth millennium BCE.

The First Phase commonly features depictions of fish, turtles, and anemones, with the Second Phase depicting gazelles, donkeys, aurochs, other animals, and wild ibex [...further reading on the significance of Ibex depictions through-out the Arabian Gulf can be found in Anati 1968; Insall 1999; & Khan 2003...which I've bookmarked for myself]. Fossati (2015) further breaks the Second Phase into two sub phases, the older sub-phase presenting "pecked" creatures, and the second sub-phase presenting "fully outlined" creatures. This may be purely Fossati's theorizing (artists could have simply had a different style I am thinking, or had more time on their hands during the same period) but I haven't read enough on the subject to know if Angelo E. Fossati's sub-phasing of the Second Phase is based on grounds of other methods used for dating prehistoric rock art elsewhere in his field. 

Point of the above? Basically you can say pretty safely say that fish, turtles, anemones, gazelles, donkeys, aurochs, and wild ibex are, like, 7,000-6,000 years old.

And so I read on, interested in the rock art in the Western Hajar that I know about.

The Third Phase features "angular, stylized human figures, including women, sometimes seated on a throne and accompanied by an attendant"... that are "[s]tylistically the thematic portrayal...[of] women shown seated on thrones...found throughout Near Eastern Officialdom from Egypt to Mesopotamia during this period" (Fossati, 2015). It is assumed in the field that these women shown seated on thrones depict royalty (Queens or Princesses). Meaning, no one knows for sure. Cross-dating on the bas-relief sculpture near Al Hamra (Hasat Bin Salt or Coleman's Rock, depending on your English or your Arabic) with carved tombs in Oman and Abu Dhabi date these to the third and second millennium BCE (Cleuziou, Tosi, 2007).
So all those articles copy-and-pasted on the internet about Hasat Bin Salt saying it is 3,000 years old? Well they aren't too wrong. The range is more anywhere from 5,000-3,000 years of course, but yeah.

The above is the Hasat Bin Sault or Hasat Bani Salt ---i.e Coleman's Rock, bas-relief carving. The rock is limestone and measures 6 meters in height, making it the largest and most important piece of rock art in South-eastern Arabia (at least according to Yule, 2001).

I remember hearing the Omani story/folktale (told in Misfah Al Abriyeen) about it, that a man who gave his name to this rock had a child that was born deformed and the man (and his wife?) killed the child by dashing its head on this rock. As recounted in a magazine article about Al Hamra area by Arnhem (2008) the folk tale holds that Allah stamped the forms of both parents (or trapped them inside) along with that of the child onto the rock so that the crime of infanticide would memorialized for age eternal (although this is probably totally made up, as they have another story about magician trapping his equally magical son inside of it as well, if you ask around in Nizwa apparently).

Yule (2001) ascribes to there being seven figures in total on the rock, and suggests (as other archaeologists do as well) that one of the figures (the violent/warrior one) has been added later (see also, Reade, 2000). ...So the child-killing violent macho-figure father was not present when the mother and child figure were initially carved, alas.

Reade (2000) describes the site in question:

"There is a group of four figures on the south face. Their positions relative to one another may have been partly dictated by the availability of suitably regular rock surfaces, but the central pair clearly look the most important One of them, closest to the centre and dominating the whole group, is preserved from the head to just below the waist (P1. 5). The figure has slightly raised breasts, and is presumably female; she has hair or a crescentic headdress, and a line at the waist may have been the top of a garment; her shoulders are square, and her arms hang woodenly down on either side. To her right (seen by the viewer), striding away from her, is a figure who is probably male (P1. 6). He has prominent humped shoulders; he brandishes in his raised right hand (for the viewer's left) a weapon described by Preston as a mace, and raises his left hand, which is probably empty; he wears a loin-cloth attached to a twisted belt. His head is at a slightly lower level than that of the central figure, while his right elbow is uncomfortably close to her shoulder and his weapon is higher than her head; he is also more deeply cut into the rock. These details suggest that he was carved later than her, though the work could possibly have been part of the same operation, done by a sculptor who had to work within a restricted area of suitable rock-face and who had little or no experience in planning a large-scale composition. There are two more figures in the group. One is lower down, or the right corner, which has been cut away to provide a regular surface for carving (P1. 6). The figure is half the size of the others, perhaps a child, with at least its left arm hanging at its side in the same wooden posture as that of the central woman; the lower half of the body is obscure. On the left of the group, slightly lower than the central pair, is a figure in the same posture, with slightly raised breasts and wearing a belt and loin-cloth; her left hand at least is empty, and her feet may be turned to the right. 

On another face of the boulder, in Preston's illustration (1976: pl .1), there are three more figures of similar size, again full-face and beardless. The one on the viewer's right may have a belt; the arms hang down woodenly, and the right hand, the only one visible, seems unnaturally large. The figure on the left has hair or a crescentic headdress, and the same seems to apply to the central figure, which is at a lower level. One of these last two figures, perhaps because it was left unfinished, is described as having a body that has been indicated by pecking rather than relief carving. This last feature suggests a relationship with some of the many pecked figures that have been discovered on Omani rock-faces elsewhere, some of which have similar characteristics: notably the square shoulders of the " rectangular-bodied" style, and the unusually large hands (Preston 197 6: 2I , 34, pls . 1141). One of Preston's examples shows a figure whose feet rest on a pair of bodies, a feature which could suggest that it is a god. Jackli (1980: 8) remarked, of Hasat bin Salt itself; "Does it depict a myth or a ceremony or is it itself part of a myth or a ceremony?" The likely explanation is indeed that the figures are goddesses and gods, worshipped at this spot. It is perhaps worth remarking that elsewhere two elemental phenomena, fecundity broadly associated with the land and water, and strength broadly associated with mountains and storms, have often acquired supernatural personalities as goddesses and gods. It would be somewhat surprising if there was nothing comparable in ancient Oman, but the identity of the seven figures of Hasat bin Salt remains unknown. The carving of the boulder was evidently a time-consuming process, and it must be regarded as an official monument. Most archaeologists would probably tend to place the carvings in the third or second millennium BC, and Maurizio Tosi in conversation has suggested relationships with the art of eastern Iran and Afghanistan."

According to Fosseti (2015) Phase 4 primarily features depictions of geometric or symbolic patterns such as solar symbols, sub-rectangular [rectilinear] forms, and others, sometimes accompanied by human figures in a few related schematic styles. Phase 4 petroglyphs are often superimposed on Phase 1 animal representations. These are thus, around 2,000 year old.

Phase 5 is warrior art, according to Fossetti, (2015), depicting camels, camel riders, leopards/lions?, ostriches, boats, and weapons from the last millennium BC, so like 1,000 years ago. Some of these contain inscriptions in the old South Arabic language.

I am enjoying Fossetti's work. I really think it will help me out in trying to figure out the dates on some of these I see in the Interior.
OPNO's really google-tastic random rock-art reading:

Al-Busaidi, Y., S. 2008 Public Interpretation of Archaeological Heritage and Archaeotourism in the Sultanate of Oman, Cardiff School of Management, United Kingdom. {Thesis submission}.
Anati E. 1968 Rock art in Central Arabia, Institute Orientaliste, Bibliotèque de l’Université, Louvain, Belgium.
Arnhem, R., 2008 Hamra, Capital of Abriyin. Oman Today, January 2008 issue.
Ash Shahri A. 1994 Dhofar. Ancient inscriptions and rock art, Self published, Salalah, Oman.
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.
Fossati A.E. 2009 Oman Rock Art. Mission Report, Manuscript on file with Ministry of Heritage and Culture, Muscat, Oman.
Fossati A.E. 2013 Oman Rock Art. Mission Report, Manuscript on file with Ministry of Heritage and Culture, Muscat, Oman.
Fossati A.E. 2014 Oman Rock Art. Mission Report, Manuscript on file with Ministry of Heritage and Culture, Muscat, Oman.
Fossati A.E. 2015 Rock Art in Northern Oman. First Observations. Prospects for Prehistoric Art Research. Proceedings of the XXVI Valcamonica Symposium , September 9 to 12, 2015, Capo di Ponte.
Insall D. 1999 The Petroglyphs of Shenah, in «Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy» 10, pp. 225-245
Khan M. 2003 Rock art of Saudi Arabia: Yesterday and Today, in Bahn P., Fossati A. (eds), Rock Art Studies. News of the World 2, Oxbow Books, Oxford, pp. 82-87.
Reade, J. 2000 Sacred places in Ancient Oman. Journal of Oman Studies 11: 133-138
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 (Hrsg.), Rahden, 2001, S. 443-450.

Many of the above were discovered when I looking for the GPS for Coleman's Rock, which I found on this super awesome website which I have lazily pretty much plagiarized in some spots because my kids are being super bad and I wanted to finish this post tonight! Go there, if you want a map, the GPS, and directions to this little known wonder of Arabia [unless you are a prehistoric Arabian Rock Art aficionado, a geologist, or a listener of folktales as told by the Al Abri and Al Hattali tribes in Al Hamra and Misfah Al Abriyeen...and then you probably have heard of it, I digress].

{Ends post because kids are beyond bad and bored and I can't concentrate any longer}.

1 comment:

Marisa Giorgi said...

Lovely piece, thank you! One day I will come and explore the rock art history of Oman.