Life-sized camel sculptures dating back 2,000 years have been found at an inhospitable site in the Saudi desert.
While artistic depictions of camels have existed in the region going back millennia, the latest discovery is described as 'unprecedented' in its scale.
Located in the province of Al Jawf in north-west Saudi Arabia, Camel Site, as it is known, was explored by a Franco-Saudi research team.
The sculptures, some incomplete, were carved into three rocky spurs, and the researchers were able to identify a dozen or so reliefs representing camels.
However, why the artists chose to carve these animals in such a remote area remains a mystery.
Scientists suggest the area may have once been a place of worship, or that the camels were used as boundary markers.
Pictured is a camel relief carved in rock (circled in red). The sculptures, some incomplete, were executed on three rocky spurs at the 'Camel Site' the province of Al Jawf in north-west Saudi Arabia
The study was conducted by researchers based at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France and colleagues from the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH), who explored the Camel Site in 2016 and 2017.
Archaeologist Guillaume Charloux, a research engineer at CNRS in France, said: 'Though natural erosion has partly destroyed some of the works, as well as any traces of tools, we were able to identify a dozen or so reliefs of varying depths representing camelids and equids.
An animal scene represented at the Camel Site in Saudi Arabia. Located in the province of Al Jawf in north-west Saudi Arabia, Camel Site, as it is known, was explored by a Franco-Saudi research team
'The life-sized sculpted animals are depicted without harnessing in a natural setting.
'One scene in particular is unprecedented: it features a dromedary meeting a donkey, an animal rarely represented in rock art.
'Some of the works are thus thematically very distinct from the representations often found in this region.
Archaeologists say the 'unprecedented' camel relief find sheds new light on the evolution of rock art in the Arabian Peninsula. Located in the province of Al Jawf in north-west Saudi Arabia, Camel Site, as it is known, was explored by a Franco-Saudi research team
'Technically, they also differ from those discovered at other Saudi sites - frequently simple engravings of dromedaries without relief - or the sculpted facades of Al Ḩijr.
'In addition, certain Camel Site sculptures on upper rock faces demonstrate indisputable technical skills.
'Camel Site can now be considered a major showcase of Saudi rock art in a region especially propitious for archaeological discovery.'
Pictured is a camel relief (circled in red) carved in a rock site in Al Jawf in north-west Saudi Arabia. The site, dubbed the 'Camel Site', was explored by French and Saudi researchers in 2016 and 2017
According to the study, engraving and, less often, painting were the most commonly used techniques in Arabian rock art, whereas sunken reliefs and sculptures in high-and-low relief were reserved for architectural decoration.
As such, Arabian rock art from the Neolithic period (10,000 BC) to modern times tends to be linear and two-dimensional.
The most common themes in the Arabian peninsula are scenes of war, hunting, processions of animals (dromedaries, ibex, wild goats, cattle), enigmatic symbols and geometric, zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures engraved among graffiti and monumental rock-cut inscriptions.
A figure of a camel head can be seen in this rock-relief. This new finding is rare, as Arabian rock art from the Neolithic period (10,000 BC) to modern times tends to be linear and two-dimensional. The outline of what it looks like is shown right
The researchers wrote in their study that the 'relative scarcity of ancient Arabian rock reliefs has been a significant barrier to understanding the development, function and socio-cultural context of such art'.
The researchers said that, though the site is hard to date, comparison with a relief at Petra in Jordan leads them to believe the sculptures were completed in the first centuries BC or AD.
They said its desert setting and proximity to caravan routes suggest Camel Site - ill suited for permanent settlement - was a stopover where travelers could rest or a site of worship.
The researchers wrote in their study that the 'relative scarcity of ancient Arabian rock reliefs has been a significant barrier to understanding the development, function and socio-cultural context of such art'. Pictured is a site with a camel relief (top left) at Al Jawf, Saudi Arabia
Life-sized camel sculptures dating back 2,000 years have been found in the Saudi desert - unlike any others in the region. Pictured is a site with a camel relief at the Camel Site in north-west Saudi Arabia
WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF ROCK ART IN SAUDI ARABIA?
Human presence in the Arabian Peninsula dates back one million years.
Out of 4,000 registered archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia, 1,500 include rock art.
The earliest examples date to around 12,000 years ago.
These depictions show masked men and women dancing, and experts believe they could be mythological figures, although the meaning remains unclear.
Between ten and eight thousand years ago people started herding animals and carrying out primitive agriculture.
During this period, drawings increasingly show cattle and dogs.
Experts believe these animals had been domesticated and were part of their everyday life.
Some include images of rare antelope, aurochs, wild camels and African asses, previously not known to live in this area.
Aurochs, the ancestors of modern domestic cattle, were also depicted in the drawings as well as wild camels and African wild asses.
Archaeologists also uncovered drawings from this period depicting a hunter drawing his bow surrounded by a pack of 13 dogs, two of which appear to be tethered.
The find is thought to be the oldest ever depiction of a dog, as well as such restraints being used to control them.
Previously, the earliest evidence came from a wall painting in Egypt which is believed to date back around 5,500 years.
All of the carvings show medium-sized creatures with pricked up ears, short snouts, and curled tails, suggesting they are domesticated rather than wild animals.
Experts say they closely resemble the modern species of Canaan dog, found running wild in the deserts of the Middle East today.
From five thousand years ago, circular stone structures and other archaeological remains suggest sedentary communities were starting to form.
They had temples and sculpted images of deities on stones or rock faces.
There are lots of similar depictions of goddesses with wide hips, raised hands and open fingers.