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Human-Landscape-Interactions and Global Dispersals: The SURFACE Record of Palaeolithic Arabia

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - SURFACE (Human-Landscape-Interactions and Global Dispersals: The SURFACE Record of Palaeolithic Arabia)

Reporting period: 2017-07-01 to 2018-06-30

Located at a key crossroads of global dispersals, and with a proven but little-studied record of Palaeolithic occupation, southwestern Saudi Arabia possesses a surface record key to understanding the conditions of Pleistocene dispersals out of Africa. How different Homo species (H. erectus, H. sapiens), utilised their landscapes, and subsequent implications for their abilities to disperse from Africa and eventually people the globe is poorly understood. Added to this, interpretation of past hominin landscape use from present-day artefact distributions is not straightforward. Distributions are the sum of varying behaviours over time, while landscape evolution alters the distribution and availability of resources linked to these behaviours (e.g. water, raw materials), and the differential preservation and visibility of archaeological evidence. Only by developing a robust, well-dated model of landscape evolution, and detailed recording of surface artefacts in relation to the geomorphological units comprising the landscape, coupled with theoretical paradigms that engage with the variable time depth of surface assemblages, can the potential of this record for informing on past hominin landscape interactions be realised.

SURFACE brought together researchers from the UK and Australia at the cutting edge of developing approaches to the surface record. Utilising remote sensing, geomorphology, archaeology and spatial analysis it developied interdisciplinary methods to record and analyse the globally-important southwestern Saudi Arabian Palaeolithic record, and its implications for our understanding the way hominins used their landscapes to disperse across the globe, with methodological and theoretical implications beyond the time period and region in question. In recording the >3,000 newly-discovered Palaeolithic artefacts at Wadi Dabsa, as well as their relationship to an evolving landscape including volcanic eruptions and periods of water flow in the basin, it provided the geoarchaeological framework for this important assemblage (the richest recorded to date in the region) that will be chronologically constrained with the conclusion of dating work currently underway, and will allow this assemblage to be understood in its environmental and wider behavioural context. In addition, by applying the regional landform mapping to locating new Palaeolithic archaeology in the under-researched northern Red Sea region, it has located a new, rich record of Paleolithic archaeology in another region key to understanding hominin dispersals.
Work carried out during the SURFACE included:
• Training of the ER in arid zone geomorphology and remote sensing analysis.
• Broad-scale landform mapping, using satellite imagery, of the Asir and Jizan regions, southwestern Saudi Arabia to understand the relationship between geomorphology and artefact distribution at the broad scale, and its restrictions on drawing behavioural interpretations from present-day artefact patterning, as well as its implications for cultural heritage management in regions undergoing rapid development.
• Detailed local landform mapping using satellite imagery, of the Wadi Dabsa basin, Asir Region. Discovered in 2015, the basin contains the largest concentration of Palaeolithic artefacts yet recorded in southwest Saudi Arabia (>3,000 artefacts).
• Archaeological and geomorphological fieldwork in January/February 2017 to record and analyse the Wadi Dabsa artefacts in their geomorphological setting, as well as to groundtruth remote sensing observations and collect samples with which to date the evolution of the basin and the deposition of the artefacts.
• Development of a landscape evolution framework and formation history of the Wadi Dabsa assemblage, frameworks that will be chronologically constrained by the soon to be completed dating programme, allowing the assemablge to be placed in its environmental and cultural context.
• Application of regional landform mapping methods to new areas in the northern Red Sea, close to the Nile/Sinai/Levant dispersal route, leading to the location of over 30 new localities with Palaeolithic archaeology in an area previously under-researched.
• Dissemination of results to academic audiences via conference presentations, invited talks and peer reviewed articles, and to non-academic audiences through the project blog social media, as well as to policy makers and cultural heritage professionals through close collaboration with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH), as well as the ER's selection for participation in the Royal Society Pairing Scheme with her Member of Parliament.
SURFACE adapted the novel methods developed by researchers working on tracing mobility in Aboriginal Australia Holocene populations through the distribution of stone artefacts within semi-arid landscapes to the study of the Palaeolithic record of southwestern Saudi Arabia. The deeper time spanned by the Arabian artefacts (hundreds of thousands or millions of years, rather than tens of thousands of the Australian record), and the contributions of multiple species (H. erectus, H. sapiens) to the Arabian record, presented a series of challenges. SURFACE, however, used the Australian focus on geomorphological frameworks and taphonomy of artefact distributions to critically redefine the constraints which must be placed on the interpretation of artefact distributions, as well as highlighting the possibilities these frameworks have for a novel approach to the cultural heritage management of archaeological landscapes. This latter aspect has been greatly aided by the close working of the ER with colleagues from the SCTH.
As well as impacting upon methodological approaches to the archaeological record and cultural heritage management, the project’s results have provided new information on early hominins in a region with a rich but under-researched archaeological record, which is important to understanding our ancestor’s spread across the globe. Dissemination of the results via the project blog and social media and a photographic exhibition brought the attention of these exciting new findings to the general public as well as raising the profile of the ER as a young woman working in a STEM career, promoting careers in archaeology and geography to young women.