Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Negev Rock Art
A Brief Introduction and Recent Research
Joshua Schmidt (Dead Sea and Arava Science Center), Davida Eisenberg-Degen (Israel Antiquities Authority), George Nash (IPT Geosciences Centre, Coimbra University)

The Negev Desert

Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Figure 1
Map of the Negev desert with known rock art sites in orange
The estimated two hundred thousand rock art engravings found in the Negev desert date back at least 5000 years and are possibly even older. Negev rock art is mostly found on exposed rock outcropping and contains motifs and symbols associated with the communities that roamed and resided in region over the millennia (Figure 1). Located in southern Israel, the Negev desert is a semi-arid region that stretches from the Sahara in the west to Arabia in the east. Covering approximately 13,000 square kilometers, the triangular-shaped Negev extends east from Gaza on the Mediterranean coast to the southern basin of the Dead Sea. Human occupation in this region can be traced back to the Pleistocene and the first wave of migrations out of Africa. Much of the Negev rock art is found in the Negev Highlands, a section of the Central Negev that historically played host to a mixture of pastoralists and agriculturalists, but also experienced periods of sparse - possibly non-existent - settlement.

Goat herding was introduced to the region about 8000 years ago and became an important economic base from the Early Bronze Age (mid 4th millennium BP) and onwards and is still practiced by some of the contemporary Bedouin communities. Runoff farming has been intermittently practiced in the Negev from the Iron Age, some 3000 years ago. Over the years, farming communities in the Negev constructed environmentally conscious irrigation systems that harvested water by diverting seasonal surface runoff along gravity-fed limestone rock channels into the alluvial-rich fertile terraced valleys. Surplus water was sometimes stored in chalk reservoirs carved along the wadi course. Systematic cultivation in the Negev peaked in the Byzantine period (mid 4th- mid 7thcenturies CE) when extensive construction of dams and terraces took place.

Towards the end of the Byzantium era the area was apparently subject to an environmental crisis following a major earthquake and the resulting outbreak of a plague. This situation was exacerbated in the wake of the Arab conquests in the 7th century, when a breakdown of regional law and order led farmers in the area to leave their lands and vacate the Negev in favor of more populated and safer locations. By the mid-10th century CE through the Middle Ages and during the initial centuries of the Ottoman Empire (1517-1917 CE), the Negev was void of permanent nucleated settlement and, except for occasional nomadic activity, remained virtually uninhabited for the next 700 years (ca. 10th-17th c. CE). In the 18th and 19th centuries groups of Bedouin tribespeople migrated to the Central Negev, where a good deal of the rock art exists, and revamped terraced agriculture, some of which remains in current-day use.

Negev Rock Art

Previous archaeological surveys conducted in the Negev Highlands recorded rock art sites dating to the Middle Bronze and Iron Ages as well as the Roman and Byzantine periods. The 1954 survey conducted by Emmanuel Anati in the Central Negev mentions locating petroglyphs near Avdat (Abda). During an emergency survey undertaken in the Negev in the late 1980s, Thamudic, Nabataean and Arabian inscriptions were located, frequently accompanied by engraved elements. Despite the wealth of images and inscriptions, only a small percentage of these panels have been thoroughly documented.

Negev rock art is engraved on panels along the ridges, slopes and wadis of the Negev Highlands in the Central Negev. Many of the motifs are petroglyphs that were produced using different techniques including incision, pecking, and abrasion (Figure 2). These images are generally engraved on sandstone, limestone, or limestone that developed a distinct dark brown, iron-rich patina crust or desert varnish. Rock varnish, also known as 'patina', is a thin coat that forms on rock surfaces in certain environmental conditions. Over time, the patina layer thickens and turns darker. Most of the documented panels are coated with dark patina and the engraving exposed the light color of the host rock, although a certain percentage of the engraved panels are on light colored panels that have no patina. A small portion of the engraved panels have a light color that can sometimes be found on non-varnished rocks.

Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Figure 2
Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Figure 3
Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Figure 5
Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Figure 6
Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Figure 7
Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Figure 8

Figure 2 Diverse techniques were applied to engrave Negev rock art.

Figure 3 Varying shades of patina denote different rock art phases.

Figure 5 & 6 Thamudic and Arabic inscriptions sometimes appear alongside other forms of Negev rock art.

Figure 7 In Negev rock art, horses are often portrayed together with riders.

Figure 8 Camels engraved alongside other Negev rock art elements.

Rock art images on the patina covered rocks are created by chipping the patina and exposing the lighter-colored limestone underneath. The contrast between the dark patina and the lighter, exposed limestone causes more recent petroglyphs to stand out and be visible from a distance. With time, the patina begins to reform over the exposed limestone, causing the engravings to become less visible (Figure 3).

One of the biggest problems in rock art research is the lack of secure dating. Currently the recognized Negev rock art phases offer a relative chronology. Studying the proportionate darkness of the developed patina on rock art elements within individual panels, super-positioning and engraving phases, certain patterns emerged and form a relative chronology. The differences between one phase and the next are not always clear-cut. The various rock art phases are typified by a gradual growth in the number of motif types. The identification of recurring motifs and artistic procedures allows researchers to narrow down the time frames of Negev rock art.

Chronological phases of Negev rock art
Figure 4
B Post introduction of horses ca.4200 BP.
C Post camel domestication ca. 3000 BP.
E Bedouin Phase Ottoman - Present.
Chronological phases of Negev rock art
Figure 4
B Post introduction of horses ca.4200 BP.
C Post camel domestication ca. 3000 BP.
E Bedouin Phase Ottoman - Present.

Negev rock art may be divided based on content into roughly five main phases: (1) ibex and anthropomorphs, (2) post horse introduction, (3) post camel introduction, (4) increased use of abstract markings, and (5) the Bedouin phase composed almost entirely of abstract, non-iconic motifs (Figure 4). Inscriptions in North Arabian script (in use in this region roughly from 2400 BP through the 5th c. CE.) are found alongside rock art from both the post-camel introduction and the phase of increased abstract motifs. Arabic inscriptions, the earliest dating to mid- 7th c. CE, are found along the last two rock art phases (Figure 5 & Figure 6).

The earliest visible rock art in the Negev presents a limited repertoire consisting almost entirely of ibex and a few anthropomorphs, both are presented with fully pecked bodies. At the same time, other similar ancient panels present ibex defined by contour lines and an un-pecked body. At some point, possibly with or slightly after the emergence of the Negev rock art complex, the linear style became the prevailing style. Ibex are the most commonly depicted zoomorph. Other zoomorphs include carnivorous animals, equids, camels, reptiles such as snake and lizard, ostrich and other birds. The horse and camel offer a terminus post quem date based on their domestication and introduction into the Negev.

The introduction of domesticated horses into the Southern Levant is set at approximately the mid-late third millennium BP. Osteological evidence from Israel points to a Late Bronze–Early Iron Age date for the introduction of horses although they seem to have become common only in later periods. Horses are less adept to the desert climate than the donkey and camel, yet they seem to have played an important role in the Byzantine and Early Islamic economy. Several stables have been excavated at the different Byzantine towns of the Negev. Researchers in the 1980s recognized horse petroglyphs as a reflection of stallion breeding in the Early Islamic period. Horses are often portrayed with a rider, at times in a combat or hunting scene (Figure 7).

Camels were introduced in the Iron Age (ca. 3000 BP) and had a substantial effect on nomadic culture and livelihood. Using the camel as a pack animal, the nomad or herder could venture deeper into the desert with heavier loads, for longer periods of time. Most camel petroglyphs are of females, she-camels. While some camels are presented with a rider, both the ridden and unridden camels are generally portrayed as static in an ambiguous setting (Figure 8). Horses and camels were popular motifs throughout the Roman, Byzantine and Early Islamic eras. Yet, without additional chronological anchors, such as inscriptions or specific weapon types, the dates of many elements remain unknown.

The Bedouin Phase of Negev Rock Art

Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Figure 9
Numerous wusum engraved on a single boulder overlooking terraced fields below
With so much of the data on Negev rock art yet to be fully assembled or analyzed, its continued research, particularly of the historically accessible Bedouin rock art phase, can possibly lend insight into the complexities of rock art phases that precede it. The engravings from the Bedouin Phase are unique in that they can be defined and dated by association with the historical arrival of the present-day Negev Bedouin to the region in the late 18th and early 19th century. Responding to an administrative vacuum in the region resulting from an internal power struggle within the Ottoman Empire, during this period Bedouin tribes from the Sinai, Jordan and the Hejaz moved into the Negev Highlands and began supplementing their herding income with runoff agriculture. It was these people who repaired the earlier terraces and rock channels and who are responsible for introducing a distinct style of rock art consisting mostly of abstract marks.

With few exceptions, the motifs of the Bedouin Phase of Negev rock art are aniconic in nature and stands in contrast to pre-existing Negev rock art styles. Even though some zoomorphs and anthropomorphic elements are attributable to this period, the overall abstract makeup of the Bedouin Phase is apparently tied to their non-iconic religious beliefs. Based on recent and ongoing research, over 130 different abstract marks attributed to the Bedouin were collected from rock art sites in the Negev Highlands.

Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Figure 10
Bedouin wusum are often engraved on panels containing pre-existing rock art
Some of the motifs from the Bedouin phase have been recognized as wusum (Bedouin tribal insignia, wusum = plural, wasm = singular) belonging to the tribes residing in the area (Figure 9). Wusum are used to signify ownership over animate objects and, for instance, were branded on camels and livestock. Each tribal confederation had (and has) a symbol. These are simplified abstract marks composed of a few lines such as a triangle, square, parallel lines, H-shapes etc. These symbols were also employed to designate territorial boundaries, sign documents, mark graves and label property such as tents and camp sites.

The wusum/rock art were instrumental in enabling the Bedouin, who until recently were an illiterate society, to express their ownership rights over certain land-parcels and/or other precious natural resources. By engraving old, new and personalized symbols, Bedouin rock in the form of distinctive wusum art performed a unique socio-functional role by facilitating communication among different tribal factions who variously dwelled in the region. Analogous to animal branding, wusum convey nuanced discourse messages, denoting authority or entitlement of a certain object or territory. Many rock art panels possess more than one type of tribal mark, suggesting that more than one group periodically visited the same site.

Multiple marks using the same symbol may convey a bond among certain sub-tribal groups. In other cases, amity between tribal groups may be expressed by engraving a mark next to the mark of the tribe controlling the land or site. This manner of affiliation is arguably like contemporary urban graffiti tagging where size, style and strategic location are used to express meaning and allegiance. Within the desert environment, wusum performed like signs on a gatepost by announcing to visitors the protocols for engaging with a specific locality. Akin to contemporary graffiti tagging, while clear and understood among initiates, Bedouin territory markers were essentially unrecognized and incomprehensible to outsiders, apparently arranged in such a way so as to restrict knowledge of these markings from outsiders. Desert rock art communication and the use of tribal marks to delineate land division agreements is likewise found in other parts of the Middle East such as in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Oman.

Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Figure 11
Different Negev rock art phases engraved on the same panel
The specific positioning of certain panels from the Bedouin Phase of Negev rock art tradition suggests that their placement adheres to an internal systematic logic. The logic underlining this system emerges when combining two separate but complementary points of reference for viewing the rock art panels from this period. That is, panels from the Bedouin Phase may be viewed both in terms of the diachronic dialogue occurring between the various artists from different historical periods and in terms of the localized contexts to which individual markings directly relate. These multiple points of reference provide researchers with information on the artistic styles and preferences for certain motifs as well as the motivation for the composition of particular images within a given panel. By comparing the different artistic phases, researchers can gain a clearer indication of their chronological sequencing and thus may detect and categorize the changes that occurred to the rock art over time. Viewing a sequence in this manner, differences between the early ibex and anthropomorph phase, the post-camel phase and Bedouin Negev rock art are more readily perceived.

Beyond the use of rock engravings as tribal marks, the Bedouin Phase also contains artistic and doodled material often executed via the refreshing of older petroglyphs, especially ibex (Figure 10). Nearly all the panels that the Bedouin marked with abstract motifs already bore earlier imagery such as riders on donkey, horse and camel back, combat and hunt scenes, orante (anthropomorph with upraised arms, usually interpreted as a stance of prayer) anthropomorphs and numerous ibex. Arabic inscriptions occasionally appear alongside the abstract markings.

Since the older phases are weathered and at times difficult to discern, in many instances it is not clear if this is a deliberate act of defacement, as in the exertion of one’s pictorial control over an earlier marking/mark maker. In other examples, the Bedouin marker appears to have deliberately engraved their marks alongside earlier rock art elements. The non-random placement of Bedouin marks alongside previous markings seems to be a means of transmitting kinship and may suggest an affinity with the graphic traces left behind by preceding occupants (Figure 11). Instances in which entire images were defaced or reworked are rare and the Bedouin markings appear mindfully drawn in deference to previous imagery. In the cases where the Bedouin markers did engage with altering pre-existing panels, they lightly retouched or superimposed their markings upon earlier works in ways that suggest spatial solidarity and an affiliation with the past. It is therefore entirely possible that Bedouin markings were made by people who considered the earlier rock art - including the rock art panels and surrounding outcroppings on which they were constructed - as part of their cultural heritage.

Information passed in interviews with Bedouin informants, elder tribespeople who continue to reside near the rock art, confirm that some of the Bedouin rock art was indeed made by shepherds who were ‘passing time’ while in the field with their goat herds. Some Bedouin Phase markings therefore appear to have initially been produced as doodles or “unofficial” marks and later, in subsequent generations, converted into territorial markers. It is probable that the Bedouin artists, likely local shepherds, regarded themselves as participants in a historical continuum in which, within the context of a single panel, their layer of rock art interconnected with markings made by earlier generations of Negev inhabitants.

The IMPART Research Project

Negev rock art is a vital component of Negev cultural heritage that provides a profound link with the past. Recently, significant growth in public awareness of rock art in the Negev desert coupled with fast advancing plans to develop the region for tourism threatens to inadvertently harm this currently unprotected historical resource. To address some of the complex issues pertaining to restoring, preserving, valuing and managing rock art, the researchers undertook the Integrative Multilateral Planning to Advance Rock Art Tourism (IMPART) research project.

IMPART combined the first digitally enhanced archeological survey of Negev rock art with ethnographic fieldwork on tourism development among diverse national stakeholders and local residents with the goal of offering guidelines for formulating a comprehensive tourism management plan for Negev rock art while establishing a methodology for a data-base meant to ensure its continued preservation. IMPART was jointly funded by the Israeli Ministry of Science, Technology and Space and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and brought together researchers from the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center, the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Department of Hotel and Tourism Management, Ben-Gurion University and the Higher Institute on Territorial Systems for Innovation (SiTI), in Torino, Italy.

Coordinated by one of the authors, Joshua Schmidt, an anthropologist from the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center, the IMPART study entailed two concurrent streams of research: archeological and socio-touristic. Over the course of the two-year study, the archaeology unit conducted in-situ fieldwork in the Negev Highlands, applying digital mapping technologies to survey the abundant rock art located on a spur known as Ramat Matred (Figure12). The researchers divided the data collected in the survey between elements related to rock art typologies and characteristics associated with tourism development. The documented categories took several key criteria into consideration including physical data of the rock art; spatial data; data pertaining to chronology; and data pertaining to conservation schemes and plans for tourism development. The results from this survey, which included both rock art and other archaeological remains, enabled researchers to establish a baseline for contextualizing a forthcoming conservation management plan for Negev rock art.

Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Figure 12
Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Figure 13
Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Figure 14
Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Figure 15
Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Figure 16
Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Figure 17

Figure 12 IMPART archaeologists applied digital tools to conduct their field survey at Ramat Matred, a spur in the Negev Highlands with an abundance of rock art.

Figure 13 Italian-Israeli pioneering rock art researcher, Emanuel Anati, and Israeli desert archeologist Uzi Avner confer during the IMPART dissemination symposium, December, 2016, Mitzpe Ramon, Israel.

Figure 14 Participants in the IMPART dissemination symposium debate Negev rock art interpretation during a field outing to the Ramat Matred rock art site in the Negev Highlands section of the Negev desert, Israel.

Figure 15 British rock art expert, Dr. George Nash, delivers a talk at the IMPART dissemination symposium, Mitzpe Ramon, Israel.

Figure 16 While on the IMPART symposium field outing, Israeli artist Itzu Remer records a photo of a rock art panel, unique due to the inversion of its patina, to be examined later in the studio.

Figure 17 Temporary shelters fashioned from a mixture of corrugated iron and fabric at an ‘unrecognized’ Bedouin encampment situated below a Negev rock art site. IMPART symposium delegates discussed the past connection the Bedouin have with Negev rock art traditions and conceivable ways to gainfully integrate these communities in forthcoming development efforts occurring within the region.

One important aspect of the IMPART archaeological survey was that it provided an opportunity to systematically study Negev rock art by comparing emerging research with limited past efforts. Within this context, researchers found the Ramat Matred site to be part of a continuum of rock art sites located in the Negev Highlands. That is, the surveyors found that, typical to what might be termed “the Negebite” rock art tradition, the rock art in Ramat Matred comprises abstract images, zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures - some of which are riding and pack animals - and representations of feet and sandals and Thamudic and Arabic inscriptions. Abstract representations comprise about 80% of all surveyed elements. The overwhelming majority of the petroglyphs were engraved using the pecking technique, a method applied throughout the various rock art phases.

The database assembled from the Ramat Matred survey also provided information pertaining to the degrees of touristic attractiveness, susceptibility to damage, visibility of the petroglyphs and their integration with other existing archaeological remains located across the spur, information that can be applied during the design of hiking trails for visitors. Other factors that the researchers found relevant for consideration were the historical significance of the elements, their apparent degrees of distinction and their susceptibility to both potential human and environmental damage.

Concurrent to the archaeological study, the socio-tourism Israeli-Italian IMPART unit combined existing theoretical research on world standards for rock-art conservation and tourism development with applied ethnographic fieldwork to ascertain a ‘best practices’ benchmark for the development of rock art tourism in Har Hanegev. To this aim, the researchers gathered extensive ethnographic data through Key Informant Interviews (KII) and a series of questionnaires disseminated among central stakeholder-informants from the public and private sectors as well as national and international tourists. 

In December 2016, the IMPART team held a dissemination symposium in the Negev desert settlement of Mitzpe Ramon, entitled “Integrating the public-private sectors for successful planning, conservation and management of rock art tourism development in the Negev”. The aim of the gathering was to present the key findings and research results from the IMPART study to various professionals in the public and private sector and academics, and then discuss ways for integrating the diverse parties in the future planning, conservation and management initiatives for the development of rock art tourism in the Negev (Figure 13). 

The symposium was also open to the public and included invited attendees from the Israeli Ministry of Science, the Embassy of Italy, academics and international experts in rock art as well as representatives from the Israeli Antiquities Authority, the Ramat Negev Regional Council, the Mitzpe Ramon local municipality, the Israel Government Tourism Corporation, the Har Hanegev Tourism Board, the Authority for the Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev, the National Parks Authority. Also invited were regional tourism operators, some of whom had previously participated in the study as informants and interviewees.

The event began with IMPART archaeologists giving a guided tour of the Ramat Matred rock art site (Figure 14). Afterwards, the symposium participants reconvened in the Negev town of Mitzpe Ramon for lunch and two sessions. In the first, the IMPART team presented their findings relating to the overall thesis question: ‘Should we and how can we conserve and develop rock art in the Negev'?

The second session consisted of a panel discussion. The panel delegates, local stakeholders and Negev rock art experts, debated topics related to their vision for the conservation of Negev rock art versus its development; the current stance and potential future role for the authority that they represent regarding management and development of rock art in the Negev; how specifically could their organization contribute to the success of this undertaking; and if, in fact, they thought there was a need for another rock art park beyond what is currently being developed in the Negev (Figure 15). 

The researchers assembled a summary report of the IMPART project that integrated the findings from the combined archaeological, ethnographic, environmental and tourism research and the feedback received at the symposium. Overall, the IMPART team found that future valorization and sustainable development of Negev rock art may be divided into four potential scenarios:

  • (1) Public management of the rock art by government agents such as the National Parks Authority;
  • (2) Formation of a public-private partnership managed by the Regional-Local Council (the public component) and supported by an array of private tourism operators (local and incoming);
  • (3) Pause all future development in favor of continued socio-archaeological research pertaining to Negev rock art while also setting in place viable best practices for its sustainable conservation;
  • (4) Enable 100% private development.

The researchers stipulated that regardless of the path forward, all instances of development or use of Negev rock art must adhere to guidelines set by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Relating to these diverse management scenarios, the IMPART researchers offered five guidelines for fostering sustainable Negev rock art conservation, preservation and tourism development.

  • Conceptually: The absence of a precise narrative and/or knowledge of the historical role of Negev rock art lends tourism developers, promoters and local operators leeway to create storylines per their particular design. (Figure 16).
  • Administratively: Ineffective cooperation among the central public and private stakeholders stymies successful regional development. Large scale rock art tourism development will likely be destructive in terms of environmental sustainability and further scientific research.
  • Scientifically: A small scale site combining archeological research and tourism could serve as an initial pilot for determining specific best practices for future rock art tourism development. Visitors to the field gain a participatory experience by being exposed to genuine research questions, issues and dilemas.
  • Ethics: Due to the politically-charged nature of region (Figure 17) all conservation plans must adhere to an ethical code that is universally accepted across the major rock areas of the world, with the Negev rock art tradition being one such area.
  • Functionally: The uncertain origins of Negev rock art embody a desert mystique; its distinct iconic visual component may be employed for cultivating local identity and destination branding for regional tourism activities. Shared icongraphy will also help unite diverse stakeholders whose common interest is the sensible – environmentally, economically and socially sustainable – development of this exceptional cultural heritage resource (Figure 18).
Rock Art Negev Desert Archaeology Sahara Gaza Israel Mediterranean Dead Sea
Figure 18
Ibex and ostriches are two Negev rock art motifs that could be enlisted as icons
both to cultivate local pride and advance destination branding

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