It Looks Like a Laser Cut But What Really Split the Ancient Al Naslaa Rock?
The Tayma oasis in Saudi Arabia is famous for its rock art and its historic legacy. It was a major trade route in antiquity and was once the dwelling place of a Babylonian king, Nabonidus. It is referenced in both Assyrian and Biblical sources as a trading post and is also known for abundant rock art made as much as 4000 years ago. One particularly interesting feature of the Tayma region is the Al Naslaa rock formation - a sandstone block connected to what looks like an eroded natural pedestal. The rock is split through the middle by a clean and straight crack which looks almost as if the rock was sliced with a laser.
Surprisingly though, this feature is natural, formed by faulting or jointing activity.
Ventifacts of the Arabian Desert
Most of the Arabian Peninsula is made up of limestone, sandstone, and shale, which overlie the west Arabian crystalline shield and a southern crystalline complex. These overlying sedimentary deposits formed in shallow sea environments. In the present-day Arabian desert, windblown sand as well as periodic rains have carved the sandstone and limestone bedrock, creating many unusual rock shapes - some of which look quite extraordinary.
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Al Madinah Province Saudi Arabia. (Saminathan Suresh/CC BY SA 3.0)
The block is also archaeologically significant because of an exquisite example of rock art that resembles a horse or camel that is engraved onto it. The block is in situ and the lower section of the block resembles what is called a ventifact. Ventifacts are geologic formations created by abrasion from windblown sand beating against a rock surface. This can create rocks with unusual shapes and very smooth surfaces.
The White Desert of Egypt is famous for ventifacts that resemble giant stone mushrooms emerging out of the landscape. It is not clear if the Al Naslaa rock formation is a ventifact, though the bottom part connecting it to the ground does resemble one. The upper part of the block has a very smooth surface on one side, but the shape of the complete rock looks too angular and blocky to be a true ventifact. It could, however, be a ventifact that is still in the process of forming.
Limestone rock formation in the White Desert, western Egypt. (Public Domain)
Hypotheses of Weather and Lasers
Geologists who have examined the fracture say that it was probably formed when the ground beneath it was offset, causing the rock to split apart. It has also been suggested that it could be an old fault line. The rock material near faults tends to become weakened and erodes more easily. As sand blew into the cracks of the rock over the ages, this material may have been more rapidly eroded than the surrounding sandstone, resulting in the fracture.
The fracture may have also formed from jointing of the rock. In geology, joints are fractures formed by rock being pulled apart along zones of pre-existing weakness through some sort of pressure. Joints can be very straight and look almost artificial. In certain climates, ice can form in the cracks created by the joints and cause the fractures to widen until rocks are pulled apart. There are a couple of other cracks parallel to the one that split the rock that may be joints. The major crack could be related to them and just be in a more advanced stage.
A rock in Abisko fractured along existing joints possibly by mechanical frost weathering. (Chiton magnificus)
More extraordinary explanations have also been proposed. Some observers have suggested that the rock was made by a laser - perhaps by extraterrestrials or an ancient advanced human civilization. It is always possible that it was made artificially, but there doesn’t appear to be any other reason to believe that the formation was artificial other than the very clean, precise cut separating the halves of the rock.
There is also rock art, but the rock art is placed haphazardly with respect to the crack and appears to be unrelated to it. Also, the rock art, the only clear artificial modification of the rock, is isolated to one part. The rest of the rock is clearly just a natural sandstone outcrop, not an artificial block.
Rock art on the Al Naslaa rock formation. (maestroviejo)
Unless the laser was an accidental blast from a ray gun, there doesn’t appear to be a reason to think that the rock was intentionally cut by humans or a non-human intelligence. The natural explanation is, at the moment, more likely since we know very straight fractures occur in rocks that look almost artificial and we don’t have any evidence that ancient humans used lasers or that visiting extraterrestrials came to earth to use a laser to split this rock.
There are many examples in nature that, to the untrained eye, appear to be artificially constructed. One example would be mineral pyrite - which can form into entirely natural perfect cubes created from precipitated minerals.
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Explaining Natural and Artificial Constructs
Humans have a need to explain patterns in the world around them and occasionally they will be unable to think of a natural process that could create something and assume it must have been made artificially. Sometimes this is the correct answer, but other times it is not. This happens a lot when prehistoric archaeologists attempt to identify stone tools. Some of them are likely to be stone tools, but others are just rocks.
The other side of the Al Naslaa rock formation. (maestroviejo)
We use our past experience of both natural phenomena and our own artificial manipulations of nature to explain the unknown. It is important, however, not to jump to hasty conclusions. Saying that the Al Naslaa rock was cut with an ancient laser has many other extraordinary implications (and require extraordinary evidence), so let us make sure that we are certain before jumping to conclusions.
Top Image: Al Naslaa split rock. Source: OnPointTV/Youtube Screenshot
By Caleb Strom
Powers, R. W., et al. "Geology of the Arabian Peninsula—Sedimentary Geology of Saudi Arabia: USG
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“Structural Geology and Tectonics” by Alessandro Grippo (2014.). Alessandro Grippo Ph.D. homepage. Available at: http://unusualplaces.org/al-naslaa-rock-formation/
“Al Naslaa Rock Formation.” Unusual Places. Available at: http://unusualplaces.org/al-naslaa-rock-formation/
“Ventifacts and Dreikanters.” Sand Atlas. Available at: http://www.sandatlas.org/ventifacts-and-dreikanters/
“Tayma.” Arabian Rock Heritage. Available at: http://saudi-archaeology.com/sites/tayma/