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Oblique aerial view of the central camp, from the east. Possible rectilinear internal divisions are visible on the left side of the enclosure. Source: Antiquity Publications Ltd/ APAAME

Undocumented Roman Army Camps Indicate Military Manoeuvres in the Arabian Desert

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Chalk one up for the all-seeing eye of Google Earth. Using this global aerial imaging program as a tool of discovery, last year archaeologists from the University of Oxford identified the ruins of three fortified Roman army camps, which were likely built around the year 100 AD. These installations were constructed in the northernmost region of the inhospitable Arabian Desert, in what is now southeastern Jordan.

The archaeologists believe these Roman army outposts were erected during a campaign launched against an ancient Roman protagonist. In an article published in Antiquity, they write that the presence of the camps indicates “a probable undocumented military campaign into what is today Saudi Arabia, and which we conjecture is linked to the Roman annexation of the Nabataean Kingdom in AD 106.”

Google Earth Meets the Roman Empire

As a part of the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project, the University of Oxford researchers have been scrutinizing satellite photos uploaded onto open-source platforms like Google Earth, looking for traces of ancient human activity. While studying photos taken during a survey of the area around the Jordan—Saudi Arabia border, researchers spotted the telltale signs of temporary Roman army camps, just to the east of the Jordanian village of Bayir.

Map showing the location of the Roman camps (Credit: EAMENA/University of Oxford).

Map showing the location of the Roman camps (Credit: EAMENA/University of Oxford).

“We are almost certain they were built by the Roman army, given the typical playing card shape of the enclosures with opposing entrances along each side,” Dr. Michael Fradley, the archaeologist who first spotted the outlines of the partially sand-covered ruins in the Google Earth images, explained in a University of Oxford press release. “The only notable difference between them is that the westernmost camp is significantly larger than the two camps to the east.”

Oblique aerial landscape view of the western Roman camp, from the north-east. (Antiquity Publications Ltd/ APAAME)

Oblique aerial landscape view of the western Roman camp, from the north-east. (Antiquity Publications Ltd/ APAAME)

Signs of Relentless Roman Colonization

Knowing of Rome’s history with the long-defunct Nabataean Kingdom, which once controlled an area ranging from Damascus in the north to the Hejaz region of western Saudi Arabia in the south, the Oxford archaeologists concluded that the presence of the camps must have been related to Rome’s efforts to colonize the region and bring the Nabataeans to heel.

The Nabataeans ruled the Arabian Peninsula and areas to the north from the mid-third century BC until they lost their independence to the Romans in 106. Their kingdom had coalesced gradually over time, as they slowly evolved from wandering Arab Bedouin nomads moving their cattle from water hole to water hole into the leaders of a powerful and well-organized political state.

Unfortunately for the Nabataeans, the Roman Empire coveted their immense land holdings, their bountiful treasures and their political control over multiple trade routes that ran through the region. Once the Romans set their sights on the Nabataean Kingdom it was only a matter of time until they made it theirs, and after their annexation they declared the Nabataean homeland a Roman province and renamed it Arabia Petraea (the second part of the name referenced the Nabataean capital city of Petra).

The army camps the Romans constructed in the Jordanian desert were not meant for long-term occupation. They would have only been used for a short time, while the Romans planned their excursions deeper into Nabataean territory.

“These camps are a spectacular new find and an important new insight into Roman campaigning in Arabia,” exclaimed Dr. Mike Bishop, the founding editor of the Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies and an EAMENA project participant. “Forts and fortresses show how Rome held a province, but temporary camps reveal how they acquired it in the first place.”

Oblique view of the western camp from the south-west. Possible rectilinear internal divisions are visible on the bottom and left of the enclosure. (Antiquity Publications Ltd/ APAAME)

Oblique view of the western camp from the south-west. Possible rectilinear internal divisions are visible on the bottom and left of the enclosure. (Antiquity Publications Ltd/ APAAME)

The Roman Empire in Arabia: Welcome Allies or Conquerors?

The Aerial Archaeology in Jordan (AAJ) project, which is also affiliated with the University of Oxford, confirmed the presence of the army camps during an aerial survey undertaken in November 2022. Their photographs provided a more close-up view of the site than was possible with Google Earth.

“The level of preservation of the camps is really remarkable, particularly as they may have only been used for a matter of days or weeks,” Dr. Fradley stated. “They went along a peripheral caravan route linking Bayir and Dûmat al-Jandal. This suggests a strategy to bypass the more used route down the Wadi Sirhan, adding an element of surprise to the attack.”

The Wadi Sirhan is an 87-mile (140-kilometer) valley running from southeast Jordan into northern Arabia. It was heavily traveled in ancient times, and therefore wouldn’t have provided much cover for advancing Roman armies.

“It is amazing that we can see this moment in time played out at landscape scale,” Dr. Fradley added.

The three army camps are arranged in a straight line pointing directly toward Dûmat al-Jandal, which is located in what is now Saudi Arabia. They are separated by fairly significant distances of 22 and 27 miles (37 and 44 kilometers), suggesting they were used as barracks for fast-moving cavalrymen who traveled by camelback.

Interestingly, the presence of the camps seems to conflict with the official history, which claims Rome’s takeover of the Nabataean Kingdom was a mutually-agreed-upon affair. The camps clearly indicate that the annexation was backed by either the use of force or a show of force, which may have been necessary to convince the Nabataeans to “volunteer” to join the Roman Empire.

“These marching camps—if we are correct in dating them to the early second century—suggest the Roman annexation of the Nabataean Kingdom following the death of the last king, Rabbel II Soter in AD 106, was not an entirely straightforward affair, and that Rome moved quickly to secure the kingdom,” said Oxford archaeologist and study co-author Dr. Andrew Wilson.

To confirm the dating of the Roman camps to the second century, the archaeologists will be examining the ruins more closely on the ground. They will also be searching for artifacts that might reveal more about the Roman military presence in Arabia, and about Rome’s relations with the inhabitants of the region.

Top image: Oblique aerial view of the central camp, from the east. Possible rectilinear internal divisions are visible on the left side of the enclosure. Source: Antiquity Publications Ltd/ APAAME

By Nathan Falde

 

Comments

Pete Wagner's picture

Is implausible that an army of the so-called Roman era would establish a base in that location.  Where’s the water source?  More likely, a remnant of the pre-Ice Age Atlantean culture, when that area was wet and lush.  I bet if they dig, they find bones, ceramics and some non-ferrous metal objects of that ignored, lost era.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

Nathan Falde's picture

Nathan

Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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