Ancient Arabia: Languages and Cultures

Basalt Desert Rescue Survey

Please note: The Ancient Arabia Languages and Cultures (AALC) project was a one year project funded by the University of Oxford's John Fell Fund, and came to an end in 2011. This website acts as a historical record of the project, and is no longer actively updated.

In what is now southern Syria, north-eastern Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia, there is an area of desert covered with millions of basalt stones and boulders, resulting from the break-up of ancient lava-flows. Between the first century BC and the fourth century AD, nomads in this region carved tens of thousands of inscriptions on a surprisingly large number of these rocks. This is the only time in history that Middle Eastern nomads have been able to read and write, and so these texts are of enormous importance in understanding the activities, social organization, and way-of-life of a population which has been largely ignored by historians. At the same time, there are a great many archaeological sites in the area from small sheep-pens to hunting traps many kilometres long created and used by the nomads of the region from remote pre-history onwards.

In 1987 and 1989, Petrofina, now part of TotalFinaElf, carried out oil exploration in north-eastern Jordan. In order to allow the seismic exploration vehicles to do their work, long tracks had to be cleared through the basalt scatter by bulldozers and this resulted in the loss of large numbers of inscriptions, rock-drawings and archaeological sites. Given the terrain and the random distribution of these antiquities, this loss was an unavoidable consequence of the need to bring large wheeled vehicles into this area.

To ensure that this material was recorded before it was displaced and/or destroyed, Geraldine King, with the support of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, proposed to Petrofina that she should mount a survey which would work ahead of the bulldozers, surveying, photographing and mapping the positions of the antiquities along the lines scheduled for clearance. Petrofina accepted this proposal and generously agreed to pay for the work, which was named the Basalt Desert Rescue Survey [BDRS].

The survey took place in January, February, and March 1989 in a bitterly cold winter in which the desert was sometimes covered in snow. Nevertheless, Geraldine King succeeded in recording over 3,300 inscriptions and rock drawings and her archaeologist colleague, Rebecca Montague, over 400 archaeological sites and structures. This remarkable achievement was made possible, not only by the skill and determination of these two indomitable scholars but by the generosity and interest of Petrofina and the hospitality and assistance of its engineers in the desert.

By the time of her untimely death in 2009, Geraldine King had edited the inscriptions and entered them into the Safaitic Database which became the Online Corpus of the Inscriptions of Ancient North Arabia (OCIANA) where they are now available together with their photographs and facsimiles.

The Ancient Arabia: Languages and Cultures project is actively seeking funds for the publication of the archaeological material from the BDRS on this website.