Discoveries in Riyadh and Mecca

Zahi Hawass
Friday 23 Apr 2021

Important archaeological discoveries have been made in Saudi Arabia in recent years, helping to extend our knowledge of the history of the region

Many important archaeological discoveries have taken place at sites adjacent to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, including at the site of Halit in the governorate of Dawadmi in the Riyadh region. This site is located in the northwest of the governorate, and vessels dating back to both the Islamic Umayyad period and the early Abbasid period have been found.

According to ancient sources, Mount Halit once had many mines in which gold was found, and it was called Al-Najadi because its owners were from the sons of Nejad bin Moussa bin Saad bin Abi Waqas. The mining area extends some 300 metres from north to south, and the sites are distributed on the side of the bank of Wadi Sabaa, with the mining sites to the southwest. Excavation work in the area has revealed a settlement that includes a group of residential oases and a mosque in the middle of them.

Finds have also been made in the Wadi Al-Dawasir governorate in the Riyadh region, especially at archaeological sites in a middle area between the Tathleeth and Wadi Al-Dawasir governorates. They have been followed by finds at Al-Saidah, approximately 40km from Tathleeth. Important archaeological discoveries have been made, including the remains of animals domesticated by humans who lived at this site and used animals in daily life.

Among the remains of animals discovered were goats, ostriches, greyhounds, falcons, fish, and horses. From a study of the monuments found at the site, it has become clear that the Neolithic period was the first major period in which man lived at this site some 9,000 years ago. Stone tools dating back to the same time have been found.

Other discoveries have been made at the Al-Kharj governorate site in the Riyadh region, where a Saudi-French mission at the Yamamah site has found parts of the Al-Yamamah Mosque building, including architectural elements and construction materials. The mosque’s plan and relationship with its surrounding urban environment has been reconstructed.

The same mission also excavated inside the mosque and found evidence of at least six stages of settlement at the site. By studying these, it is possible to know more about the lives once lived at the site, as well as man’s habits at that time and his commercial and religious activities. The mission was able to reveal the development of the mosque building and its foundations, which go back to the Abbasid era. It is possible that it was abandoned for a short period between the 13th and 15th centuries, as was made clear by a study of the pottery found at the site. The mosque was restored in the modern era and has been in use for at least three centuries.

A Saudi-French archaeological team has also been working at a camel-carving site in the Sakaka governorate in the Al-Jarf region, where there are three sandstone mountains featuring 12 camel sculptures, some of them complete and some affected by erosion. A preliminary study carried out at the site has determined that these beautiful and wonderful sculptures date back nearly 2,000 years. While they have been affected by the hot climate, they are important evidence of the development of Arab rock art.

A Saudi-Italian mission has been working in the Rabigh governorate in the Mecca region of Saudi Arabia, where an archaeological survey of sunken antiquities in the Red Sea has been carried out. One surprise was the discovery of the wreck of a sunken ship. Hundreds of porcelain cups were found coloured blue and white, and of which ten types of porcelain are known. Metal utensils, an intact bowl from India, and an Ottoman pipe were also found.

There is another Saudi-French team working at the Hima archaeological site in the Najran region, where an inscription written in the southern Musnad script mentioning Abraha Al-Ashram has been found. It reads “Abraha Zabiman / Zebiman Malak”. The word Zubiman or Zebiman in this inscription represents the second name of Abraha. The importance of this inscription is that it confirms the passage of Abraha in the Hima area, in addition to its relationship to elephant drawings and perhaps to the incident of elephant owners mentioned in the Holy Quran.

There is also a site in the Asham region in the north-east of the Qunada governorate, a region known before Islam and once famous for its minerals. At the beginning of the Islamic era, it was one of the pilgrimage stations linking the south of the Arabian Peninsula, especially Yemen, with Mecca along the Red Sea coast.

The work of the field mission at the Asham archaeological site has revealed pottery and ceramic vessels in addition to beads of various shapes and colours. In an area in the west of the Bisha governorate, large parts of the foundations of stone buildings have been found, along with a millstone and blocks of iron. The ruins at the site indicate a high level of architectural competence and planning.

Finally, excavation work at the Al-Abla site has revealed interconnected units that contain the remains of service facilities, including water tanks and ovens for cooking, as well as large pottery jars that may have been used for storage.

The antiquities of Saudi Arabia are still revealing their many secrets.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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