Maria Guagnin is an archaeologist specialized in rock graffiti, in particular of depicted animals. In the Saudi desert she studies interactions between engravings illustrating humans and animals dating back to about 8,000-9,000 years ago
KAWA: Can you tell us more about your discoveries in the desert of northwestern Saudi Arabia?
Maria Guagnin: In Shuwaymis and Jubbah there are thousands of engravings that illustrate interactions between humans and animals dating back to about 8,000-9,000 years ago.
Through detailed analyses and comparison with data from climate modelling we were able to show that the animals in the rock art reflect the environments prehistoric hunters and herders experienced. We can see a shift from savannah to desert and we can also see a shift from hunting to herding. The hunting scenes also show different hunting strategies, which is very interesting, as this information is not usually visible in the archaeological record.
We have recently found hammerstones in Neolithic settlement sites
What can the engravings tell us about the relationship between humans and dogs?
We know that dogs were the first domesticated animal, and that dogs were used by hunters before the advent of farming, but it was not possible to prove how much control humans had over dogs and the possibility remained that dogs had adapted to the human niche without much human control.
The reason it was difficult to prove is because hunting strategies are not visible in the bones and tools that remain in the archaeological record, and particularly leashes are usually made of perishable materials such as rope or leather, which are not preserved. In the rock art we can see dogs being used in a variety of different hunting strategies, and we can also see the different animal species that were hunted.
Why is the rock art of Saudi Arabia so exceptional?
The rock art in Saudi Arabia shows that humans held dogs on leashes, and were able to control dogs. We know that these images date to a time before humans had learned to herd cattle, sheep and goat, which makes these engravings the oldest evidence of leashes in the world. In fact, the engravings are probably the earliest depictions of domesticated dogs in the world. The engravings also show that not all dogs were leashed, which indicates that they were used in complex hunting strategies where different dogs had different tasks.
By using dogs hunters were able to maximize their hunting success and adapt to more challenging environments. The fact that each dog is depicted with individual characteristics also shows that the hunters knew their dogs well, and understood their particular strengths. I think the care and detail that went into each dog engraving shows the bond the hunters had with their dogs.
What did these prehistoric populations use to draw on the rocks?
We have recently found hammerstones in Neolithic settlement sites, which were probably used to peck lines into the rock surface and create rock art. There is also a small number of paintings in the region, so we know they also used pigment. But we don’t know why they created rock art – the production of rock art probably related to a spiritual world that we can no longer re-construct in any detail.
How did you become involved in rock art research in Saudi Arabia?
The Palaeodeserts project surveyed an area of Shuwaymis on the request of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH), and it also carried out surveys in parts of the Jubbah oasis, were the team had been excavating early Holocene (approximately 11,700 years before today, ed.) sites.
I began working on the Palaeodeserts project in 2014 when some of the data had already been collected, and we carried out two more seasons of rock art survey in Jubbah. All our fieldwork is carried out jointly with the SCTH and over the years we have established good collaborations and friendships with our Saudi colleagues.
Can you tell us more about your daily work in the field?
Every morning the team has breakfast together and we drive out to site, where we begin work. At midday we all have lunch together – mostly bread, cheese and olives etc. Occasionally we have been lucky to get Saudi home cooked meals – we were blown away how delicious Saudi food is as it is not well known in Europe! We mostly carry out fieldwork in the winter months so lunch breaks are also always a welcome opportunity to enjoy the sunshine, the blue sky, the vast open space and the beautiful silence of the desert.