Experts In The Middle East Are Using Drones To Unravel The Secrets Of A Mystery Civilization

Imagine if Ancient Egypt had gone undiscovered. That’s what has happened in Saudi Arabia, a country with a rich, age-old history that many people simply do not know about. But a tech-centric excavation should change all that, as light aircraft and drones hover over the area. They’ve already pinpointed some incredible pieces of history that have remained hidden for centuries.

Indeed, the Nabataean people once roamed the area over which these devices now hover, but it looked very different under their watch. The ancient tribe lived nomadically for years before settling down and into a life that focused on trade and agriculture. They also built some incredible structures and sacred sites, some of which have already caught archaeologists’ attention.

But so much of the Nabatateans’ presence remains undiscovered. And that may in part be down to the tribe choosing to live in a landscape so rough that it caused the Romans to retreat from an intended invasion. Now, though, archaeologists have no need to worry about traversing such an unforgiving terrain. Instead, they’re using drones to find out the secrets of this ancient tribe.

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During the 4th century B.C., a slew of nomadic tribes wandered their way across the Arabian Desert, constantly in search of water and pasture for their herds. Among them were the Nabataeans, a people whose origins remain shrouded in mystery. Some say they came from Yemen, but they shared nothing – language, deities, script – with this region.

Others hypothesize that the Nabataeans started out in a region on the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula, known as Hejaz. This possibility makes more sense, as the Hejaz locals worshiped the same gods as the wandering Nabataeans. Plus, the tribe’s name contains a root consonant, “nbtw,” once used in the area’s Semitic language.

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Regardless of the Nabataeans’ origins, they made a huge impact when they reached prosperity, more than any of the nomadic Arabian tribes who roamed during their ancient time. For one thing, they built the city we know today as Petra, Jordan. They quickly constructed the stunning metropolis in the 1st century B.C., and it grew to house 20,000 people.

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Petra became the de facto seat of the Nabataean civilization, but it wasn’t the only city established by the one-time nomadic tribe. They also built Hegra, known today as Mada’in Saleh, and it became their secondary capital and second-largest settlement. Hegra also marked the Nabataean Kingdom’s southernmost point.

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Within the Nabataeans’ borders, they created a rich culture of their own. Among themselves, the people spoke a version of Arabic, but they didn’t write that way. Their script, in fact, reflects a blend of Aramaic and Arabic words and forms. And, when they met with other ethnic groups in the area, they could communicate in Aramaic. The tribe also conducted its politics in this language.

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The Nabataean’s alphabet even inspired what would later become Arabic script. And although they adapted the Aramaic alphabet, their proprietary script-writing paved the way for the Arabic alphabet as it’s written now. So, in short, they spoke a form of Arabic, wrote in Aramaic and helped develop Arabic language.

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In spite of the Nabataeans language and writing skills, few remnants of their literature has made it to the present day. Other classical texts make reference to them, though, and outsiders’ perspectives give a good idea of the culture that the Nabataeans cultivated. For one thing, the community followed well-guarded trade routes and never shared the origin of the goods they sold.

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Diodorus Siculus, a historian from ancient Greece, in fact, wrote about the Nabataeans. In his description, the author painted a vivid picture of a strong community of 10,000 warriors. In addition, he pointed out that the culture entirely rejected the idea of agriculture and permanent houses. Instead, they focused on their pastoral roots, as well as the lucrative trade in spices, frankincense and myrrh, all of which they gathered from an area in modern Yemen.

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In addition to the Nabataeans warrior-like reputation, they also had a geographical advantage over their enemies. As we mentioned, they lived amid a very dry, unforgiving landscape, in which invaders didn’t know how to survive. Meanwhile, the locals gathered rainwater in cisterns and hid them in the soil so that only those in the tribe could access them.

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The Nabataeans definitely knew how to ward off outsiders, but that didn’t mean they completely shut them out. In fact, some of their culture reflected the outside influences they absorbed, especially from their lengthy Red Sea trading routes. For one thing, their religion drew from their own beliefs, but also included the practices of their Arabian neighbors.

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In the Nabataean capital of Petra, the people worshiped two main gods –  Al-’Uzzá and Dushara. The latter was a deity exclusive to their people and stood as the kingdom’s official god. The figure is likely to have represented the heavens, although some believe he may have had links to the forest instead.

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Either way, the Nabataeans used, among other symbols, the eagle to represent the god Dushara. The bird’s form also appeared across the city of Hegra, especially on tombs. The people thought the symbolic representation of their god would protect their final resting places from potential thievery.

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But Dushara wasn’t the only god worshiped by the Nabataeans. They also praised Al-’Uzzá, and this wasn’t a practice exclusive to their tribe. Pre-Islamic peoples across the area honored the goddess, who even earned a mention in the sacred Islamic text, the Qur’an. She also has a stone cube in her honor close to Mecca.

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In a similar vein, the Nabataeans carved blocks and pillars to represent all of the deities they worshiped. Experts refer to these creations as “god blocks.” To form them, tribe members would chip away at a hilltop or cliffside until they left behind a giant block. Later on, they began carving human-like features on to the monoliths, showing Greek and Roman influence on the culture.

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Petra still has plenty of examples of these god blocks, some of which have had faces added to their simple frames. For all of its peaceful sites of worship, though, the Nabataean capital and the many of the tribe’s other important cities also saw plenty of conflict, too. For instance, in 90 B.C., Nabataean king Obodas I defeated Alexander Janneaus, the Hasmonean king, in an ambush that destroyed the tribe’s enemy, the Judeans.

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The Romans also tried to conquer the Nabataeans under the guidance of Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, but they never quite succeeded. They besieged Petra in 62 BC, but agreed to release their stranglehold in exchange for 300 talents, the currency of the time. This offer came about as Scaurus and his troops had found the local terrain tough to traverse. In addition, their supplies were completely gone. So, a deal was struck

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Thirty years later, Egyptian queen Cleopatra gave the green light to Herod the Great, the Judean ruler, to go on the offensive against the Nabataeans. As a result, Herod and his cavalry occupied and pillaged the trade-centric tribal kingdom. The Nabataeans then gathered in Canatha, Syria, but Herod’s forces once again prevailed over them.

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Fortunately, the Nabateaens received a lifeline – the Canathans rushed to help the tribe. The local Syrian forces overpowered Herod and his troops, pushing them out of the area for a year. They would fight with the Nabataeans again, though, when the warriors stormed into Israel and sparked a standoff.

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Although the Nabataeans camped close to Herod’s army, the tribe refused to emerge for a battle. So, Herod made it happen. He led his troops to attack the enemy’s camp, confusing and eventually defeating them. A vicious siege forced some Nabataeans to surrender, while others proposed a buy-out, which Herod refused.

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Running out of water, the Nabataeans had no choice but to leave their besieged camp. But Herod’s troops swiftly defeated the tribe members who emerged in search of sustenance. These battles would, sadly, signify the beginning of the end for the Nabataeans, who the Romans would annex in 106 A.D.

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The Roman-Nabataean annexation meant that the latter’s territory expanded – as did its power. The tribe became influential around the Red Sea and into Yemen, and Petra itself became a high-class marketplace. These changes all helped transform the Nabataean people themselves, who finally gave up their nomadic lifestyle once and for all.

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Instead, the Nabataeans focused their efforts on trade and agriculture. But those weren’t the only changes to the culture that came from their new Roman allies. The tribe, in fact, soon gave up their unique alphabet to write in Greek. And the people eventually began to practice Christianity instead of worshiping their longtime gods.

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By the time new Arab invaders flooded into the area, they found very little of what the Nabataeans had built over their centuries-long history. Instead, their land had been divvied up by successive occupying powers, and many of the warriors’ descendants had become peasants. Even the glorious Petra lost its luster until 1812, when Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss explorer, introduced Westerners to its beauty.

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Since then, Petra has stood as the marquee remnant of Nabataean society. But excavations in Mada’in Saleh – part of the Al-Ula sector of Hejaz, Saudi Arabia – have continued, regardless. Archaeologist Rebecca Foote led the survey for the Royal Commission for Al-Ula, and in 2019 she explained to the BBC why excavators focused solely on finding artifacts using hi-tech means.

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Simply put, excavation stood as archaeologist’s only option until recently, Foote said. And she believed that this could have hurt Saudi Arabia’s place in the history books. The archaeologist explained, “A great deal is known about the first to third millennium B.C. and we’re well informed about ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.”

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Foote continued, “Yet comparatively little about the Arabian peninsula in ancient times has been discovered. Exactly how our findings will impact on understanding of ancient history, we don’t yet know. But it is likely to reshape the world view of earlier periods.” And she and the rest of the Al-Ula team had the use of a very high-tech tool to make this possibility even more of a reality.

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The Royal Commission team now has the luxury of light aircraft and drones to help them in their quest. Rather than expecting the archaeologists to traverse the entire Nabataean territory on foot to uncover yet-to-be discovered features, the small aircraft can quickly flit over the landscape. And each one will snap high-quality images of the tribe’s former territory.

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Foote said, “The technology now provides a reliable and comprehensive overview. Nothing like this has been done before on this scale.” As one example, a French team had once dug up the remnants of what appeared to be a network for incense traders. Their routes appeared to line the western border of Arabia and cut through Al-Ula.

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That overhead imagery could help crystallize the trading route’s function, Foote explained. And the drones could also help point out specific stops along the way, for instance. The archaeologist said, “We can guess that [the Nabataeana] had a successful agricultural economy, but was there a tax on incense? How did they manage their water?” Clearly, she hoped the drones will help to answer such questions.

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Indeed, the drones have put in an extraordinary amount of work already. Of the estimated 11,500 Nabataean sites in the area, the devices have flown over about half of them. And such information will prove vital if and when the territory comes up for development – namely, builders will know where they can and can’t go.

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In the modern world, this kind of error occurs often, according to Jamie Quartermaine of Oxford Archaeology. He said, “We’ve learned from the mistakes of other countries and we’re taking the time to prevent any damage. [Having the area be] accessible to the general public, as is planned for the future, doesn’t mean a [construction] free-for-all.”

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And, so far, the light aircraft and drones have captured a slew of historical sites for researchers to explore. The devices snap photos every few seconds, and a particular software then stitches them together to paint a more detailed view of the landscape. The high-quality shots have uncovered everything from burial sites and structures to funerary landscapes that date back to the Bronze Age.

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Once the photos pinpoint the location of such interesting artifacts, the team makes a move. More specifically, specialists in the discovered site’s subject matter will deploy to the scene. For instance, rock art pro Maria Guagnin reported that the drone-captured images had directed her to some very telling sites and paintings.

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Rock art helps experts like Guagnin to know when and where particular species appeared. As she explained to the BBC, “Our knowledge of the prehistoric distribution of animal species is, so far, largely dependent on the location of excavated archaeological and palaeontological sites. Many species have been assumed to have been absent from the Arabian peninsula, but rock art panels have shown otherwise.”

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In fact, the presence of particular animals in art also helps archaeologists to date the those drawings. As one example, an image with a person riding a horse or camel would been drawn around 1,200 B.C. at the earliest. Before then, people wouldn’t have hopped on top of such creatures for transport.

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And, even though the drones and aircraft have helped experts learn more about Petra and Al-Ula, their job is far from over. Excavator and educator at King Saud University, Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, told the BBC, “What makes this work so important on the world stage is that it will provide an account of not just Mada’in Saleh and Petra but earlier civilizations that are largely unknown to us.”

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As such, Abdulrahman takes his university students along to the Al-Ula sites for further training. And it’s an education that will serve them well, since the area’s excavation is far from over. In fact, he predicted an incredible future for the site. The archaeologist said, “Today’s students may well make discoveries that we can’t even imagine.”

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