Some shoot out of the soft rock like reptiles bathing in the sun. Others are mysterious depressions resembling an ancient board game played all over the world. And a few are straight-up puzzling.
On a desolate and windswept corner of Qatar’s northeastern coast, among the sand dunes of the barren desert, lies Al Jassasiya, the Gulf country’s largest and most important rock art site.
Here, people centuries ago used a series of low-lying limestone outcrops as a canvas on which they carved symbols, motifs and objects that they observed in their environment.
Overall, archaeologists have found a total of some 900 rock carvings, or “petroglyphs,” at Al Jassasiya. They are mostly enigmatic cup marks arranged in various patterns, including rows and rosettes, but also eye-catching representations of sailing ships, usually seen from above but also depicted in linear profile, among other symbols and signs.
“Although rock art is common in the Arabian Peninsula, some of the carvings in Al Jassasiya are unique and cannot be found anywhere else,” Ferhan Sakal, head of excavation and site management at Qatar Museums, told CNN, referring to the petroglyphs of ships seen from a bird’s-eye view.
“These carvings represent a high degree of creativity and observation skills [on the part of] the artists who made them,” he said. “Also [of] abstract thinking, as they were not able to see the dhow (a traditional ship) from above.”
There are about 12 notable petroglyph sites in Qatar, located mostly along the country’s coasts – though some carvings can even be seen in the heart of Doha’s Al Bidda Par, overlooking the Corniche, a popular waterfront promenade.
Al Jassasiya, about an hour north of Qatar’s uber-modern capital and near the old pearling port of Al Huwaila, was discovered in 1957. Over six weeks in late 1973 and early 1974, a Danish team led by archaeologist Holger Kapel and his son Hans Kapel undertook a study which painstakingly cataloged the entire site in photographs and drawings.
Of all the documented single figures and compositions, more than a third consist of cup marks in various configurations, shapes and sizes.
The most prominent pattern involves two parallel rows of seven holes, leading some to believe that these were used to play mancala, a board game popular in many parts of the world since antiquity in which two contestants drop odd and even numbers of small stones into the depressions.
Others have disputed this theory, pointing to the fact that some of the holes at Al Jassasiya are too small to hold any of the stones, while others can be found on slopes – an impractical choice that would have resulted in the counters falling out.
Further suggestions include the cup formations being used in some way for divination; or for the sorting and storage of pearls; or as systems to compute the time and tides.
So, what were they actually for and what do they mean?
“It is very difficult to answer,” acknowledged Sakal, who also does not side with the board-game theory. “We have no direct clues about the motifs used in Al Jassasiya,” he said.
“In my opinion, they might have a ritual meaning and function, which is very old so that it cannot be explained ethnographically.”
But how old? “We really do not know,” conceded Sakal, explaining that petroglyphs – and rock art, in general – are very challenging to date.
“There are wild hypotheses about the age, ranging from Neolithic to late Islamic times,” he added. “I personally think that not all carvings were made at the same time.”
A decade ago, one scientific study of nine different petroglyphs at Al Jassasiya found no evidence of them being more than a few hundred years old, but the researchers concluded that more studies are needed, including the development of new techniques specific to limestone carvings.
While experts cannot surely say when the Al Jassasiya petroglyphs were created, and by whom, they all agree that the most fascinating – and unusual – carvings at the site are those of the boats.
These creations provide important information about the types of vessels used in the thriving fishing and pearling industries (for centuries, the mainstays of Qatar’s economy), as well as their various elements.
Most of the boats seen from above are usually fish-shaped with pointed sterns and rows of oars, carved with a pointed metal tool.