They Found This in Saudi Arabia

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Written by Caleb Strom

Written by Bryan Hill

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.


Laas Geel Complex and The Magnificent Ancient Rock Art of Somalia

Thousands of years ago, humans from the Neolithic age, decorated the walls of rock shelters with paintings of animals and humans at a site called Laas Geel in Somaliland. Their work would last 5,000 years and would one day attract the attention of the 21st century. The caves provide a glimpse into the little known history of this part of the world. Even with the history of political instability, war, natural weathering, and other factors, the paintings have survived intact, retaining their clear outlines and vibrant colors. They are thought to be among the best and oldest preserved rock paintings in Africa.

Laas Geel, meaning ‘source of water for camels’, is a complex of rock shelters and caves located 55 kilometers (34 miles) northeast of Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, an autonomous region of war-torn Somalia. In an area encompassing a nomadic village, the Naasa Hablood hills, the site overlooks a wide district of countryside, where nomads graze their livestock and human settlement is sparse. Much of Somalia is now comprised of vast badlands and the parched Laas Geel region no longer draws herds of cattle coming to graze and water. The complex is located near a confluence of two dry rivers, which lends credence to its name.

Locals knew of the place for centuries but avoided it due to what they believed to be the haunt of demons and evil spirits.

“We believed it was drawn by the devil with blood,” said caretaker Musa Abdi Jama [via csmonitor], “and believed that when we slaughtered a goat for protection, the devil would come and suck the blood from the sand.”

In November and December 2002, an archaeological survey was carried out by a French team in Somalia to search for rock shelters and caves containing stratified archaeological infills. On December 4, French archaeologist Xavier Gutherz from Paul Valery University, and his team ‘discovered’ the Laas Geel caves and spectacular paintings scattered among ten rock alcoves. In November 2003, a mission returned to Laas Geel and a team of experts undertook a detailed study of the paintings and their prehistoric context.

As is the case with rock art sites, the dating remains a problem even at Laas Geel as the only thing it is based on seems to be small fragments of pigments found in layers believed to date to 3500-2500 BC. There is not a single ceramic segment found at Laas Geel’s Shelter 7, which is the only excavated shelter and upon which the dating estimation is based on. Little is known about the civilization at the time and which painting techniques were used to create the rock art, and some scholars believe the paintings could be anywhere from 5,000 to 11,000 years old.

The complex is comprised of approximately 20 shelters or rock caves made of naturally occurring rock formations of varying size, the largest being ten meters long with a depth of about 5 meters. These shelters feature polychrome (multi-colored) painted panels that are considered to be the oldest known rock art in the Horn of Africa, a peninsula in Northeast Africa. Shelter 1 is one of the most important shelters at Laas Geel due to the richness of variations and composition of its rock art. The size of this shelter is 170 m2, with a ceiling that is completely covered with paintings and is considered the artistic and creative center of the complex.

It is estimated that there are 350 animal and human representations, as well as numerous tribal marks among the rock art at Laas Geel. Some of the cave paintings are stunningly well preserved as they have been sheltered from the elements by the granite overhangs. Others have faded due to rock degradation and the effects of weathering and erosion. The caves house a constellation of brown, orange, white and red pre-historic sketches on the walls and ceiling.

The paintings depict mostly animals, including cows and dogs, but they also show humans, some in touching scenes, such as a woman giving water to a dog. Lesser animals depicted in the artwork include monkeys, antelope, giraffes and possibly jackals or hyenas. The herders and wild animals point to the interglacial period when the now arid Horn of Africa region was lush and green, and home to many wild animals.

The most frequently depicted animal in the rock art paintings is the cow. Some are schematic outlines, others are drawn in elaborate detail with radiant neck stripes and decorated with what looks like traditional fabrics and ceremonial robes. The painted bovines at Laas Geel are depicted with heads appearing like beakers and situated close to the horns, often large ones. This could also be a symbol of fertility joining the body through a line (possibly representing the spine). These parts are combined in various colors and produce a complete polychrome figure. The colors are comprised of various shades of red, orange, yellow, white, and violet.

In nearly all the artwork, human representations are found, though less numerous than the cows. Ancient humans of the area are shown raising their hands and worshipping cows with large lyre-shaped horns. A few tiny hunters run amidst the herds. They are painted in the same colors and techniques as the cows, usually with chests striped in white or red. These mostly appear under the udders or the hind areas of the bovines. Some appear to be wearing trousers, but no feet appear. A circle or radiating lines surround the heads, which narrow into the shape of a tulip. The representation of the human figures at Laas Geel are ambiguous, and some researchers have suggested they may depict deities or imagined figures.

Today the archeological site is at risk due to destruction, looting, and clandestine excavation. Dust continues to destroy the rock art and according to chief site guide, Muse Abdi Jama, the once clear pictures on the rocks are fading on a daily basis as a result of wind propelled dust that has ensued with a strong dark coat on top of the paintings. Adding to the difficulties is the fact that Somaliland is not internationally recognized, and this ambiguous political status has prevented the historic artwork from being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In recent years, the Laas Geel rock paintings have become tourist attractions drawing visitors from around the world. We can only hope that with more attention comes greater efforts to conserve and protect these treasured artworks from the past.

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