Rock engravings in Jordan and Saudi Arabia are oldest known scaled building plans in human history


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Although human constructions have modified natural spaces for millennia, few plans or maps predate the period of the literate civilizations of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. Researchers from the French research organisation “Centre national de la recherche scientifique” (CNRS), together with Prof. Dr. Frank Preusser from the University of Freiburg, have now been able to identify engravings in Jordan and Saudi Arabia as the oldest known true-to-scale construction plans in human history.

Aerial photo of desert kite at Jibal al-Khashabiyeh, Jordan [Credit: Oliver Barge, CNRS]
Discovery of the engraved stone in Jibal al-Khashabiyeh, Jordan: (A) Orthomosaic view of JKSH F15 site where the kite’s engraving was found on a monolith (in red is the location of the rescue excavation in the looter’s spoil). (B) Photograph of the engraved stone at the time of discovery at the JKSH F15 site (the monolith was found lying down and was set vertically for the photograph). (C) Photogrammetric 3D model of the engraved monolith showing the different faces, including the engraved upper face (top), while the hill-shaded model (bottom) shows the interpretative drawing of the engraved plan on the stone. (D) Drawing of a projected view of the kite representation engraved on the monolith from the JKSH F15 site [Credit: R. Crassard et al, 2023]

The 8,000 to 9,000-year-old engravings depict so-called desert dragons – kilometre long prehistoric megastructures used to trap animals. “Conclusions can be drawn from the findings about the people of the time. The ability to transfer a large space to a small, two-dimensional plan represents a milestone in intelligent behaviour,” explains Preusser. The results, which were published in mid-May in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, should help to understand how desert dragons were conceived and built.

Scale plans of desert dragons discovered in Jordan and Saudi Arabia

Both finds are representations of nearby desert dragons engraved with stone tools. First sighted from aircrafts in the 1920s, desert dragons, up to five kilometres long, consist of stone walls that converge in a complex bounded by pits. As archaeologists have been able to determine in recent years, they were used for large-scale trapping of wild animals.

Aerial photo of desert kite at Jebel az-Zilliyat, Saudi Arabia [Credit: Oliver Barge, CNRS]
The engraved boulder as discovered during rock art survey at Jebel az-Zilliyat, Saudi Arabia [Credit: Oliver Barge, CNRS]

In Jordan, there are eight desert dragons in the area of Jibal al-Khasabiyeh. There, the researchers found a depiction engraved in stone that measures 80 by 32 cm, its age is about 9,000 years. At Jebel az-Zilliyat in Saudi Arabia, two visible pairs of dragons are found three and a half kilometres apart. Here, too, a scaled engraving dating back about 8,000 years was discovered with a total length of 382 cm and a width of 235 cm.

A) Comparison of the kite layout depicted on the engraved monolith (left) with the top-view plans of the four better preserved kites identified in Jibal al-Khashabiyeh (right). The red dotted line is the shape of the kite engraving, used for superimposition on the desert kite maps. (B) Comparison of the kite engraving found at Jebel az-Zilliyat (left) with top-view plans of the four neighboring desert kites (right). Gray zones are destroyed or reused areas, after the period of kite use [Credit: R. Crassard et al, 2023]

Plans of large structures have so far only been attested by rough representations, in stark contrast to the precision of the engravings of al-Khashabiyeh and az-Zilliyat. The question of their exact use and how they were implemented, especially due to the difficulty of grasping the entire complex from the ground, remains for the time being the secret of the people by whom they were created.

Source: University of Freiburg [May 19, 2023]



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