Satellite images help identify 2,000-year-old desert sites
While carrying out a satellite survey of the Jordan-Saudi border region, a team of archaeologists from the University of Oxford made an unexpected discovery: three lost Roman army camps. While ground-truthing surveys have not yet been carried out, the team proposed in the journal Antiquity that the camps likely date to a previously unknown Roman campaign against the Nabatean kingdom following the death of the last Nabatean king in 106 CE.
The three Roman army camps are located in Jordan’s southeastern desert. Forming a line extending east from the oasis of Bayir, the forts are constructed at roughly 25-mile intervals leading toward Dumat al-Jandal and Sakaka in northern Saudi Arabia, which marked the eastern extent of the Nabatean kingdom. According to the researchers, the distance was too far to have been covered by infantry and thus the camps likely supported mounted cohorts, possibly camel cavalry.
“These camps are a spectacular new find and an important new insight into Roman campaigning in Arabia,” said Mike Bishop, an expert on the Roman military and member of the team.
The westernmost of the camps, which covered three acres, was large enough to hold two cohorts, around 1,000 troops, while the center and eastern camps were half the size. The team does not yet know why these camps were smaller. “Why does the western camp have twice the capacity of the other two?” asks Michael Fradley, who led the research and first identified the camps. “Did the force split, and if so, where did the other half go? Was it half wiped out in a battle, or did they remain in the western camp to resupply the other camps with water?”
Small Roman army camps were frequently used during short campaigns or sieges, such as siege of Masada. The presence of these camps indicates a previously unknown Roman campaign directed toward the eastern portion of the Nabatean kingdom. As proposed by the researchers, the campaign most likely took place during the annexation of the Nabatean kingdom in 106 CE, during the reign of Emperor Trajan.
“These marching camps suggest the Roman annexation of the Nabatean kingdom following the death of the last king, Rabbel II Soter in 106 CE, was not an entirely straightforward affair, and that Rome moved quickly to secure the kingdom,” said Andrew Wilson, a co-author of the paper. An earlier campaign against the Nabateans was carried out in 62 BCE, although this was mainly focused on the Nabatean capital of Petra, far to the west of these camps, and thus is unlikely to be related.
The location of the camps along a secondary caravan route—rather than the main road along the Wadi Sirhan—suggests a possible surprise attack or a flanking maneuver in concert with a main force through the Sirhan. It is possible that several other Roman army camps were built between the easternmost camp identified by the team and the settlements of Dumat al-Jandel and Sakaka, the major oases that were likely the goal of the campaign. However, the team was not able to identify additional camps, which suggests their remains may now be covered by desert sand. A fourth camp is believed to have been located near the oasis of Bayir, but it was destroyed in the early 20th century without sufficient archaeological documentation.
The three Roman army camps were identified as part of a larger project to document the location and condition of archaeological sites around the Middle East and North Africa. As many of these sites are hard to reach, the team uses satellite imagery provided by Google Earth. Although not known before the project, the three camps were identified based on their distinctive “playing card” shape. Following their identification, the team was also able to take high-resolution aerial photos of the sites.
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