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Oxford archaeologists find Roman military camps in northern Arabia using Google Earth

Oxford’s School of Archaeology has recently found three new Roman camps across northern Arabia using Google Earth, through a remote sensing survey. The camps were identified using satellite imaging and may provide evidence of a formerly undiscovered and undocumented military campaign that spanned across east Jordan into Saudi Arabia.

The camps were identified by the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa project (EAMENA) and were later photographed by the Aerial Archaeology in Jordan project (APAAME).

A report on the findings, published on the 27th March in the journal Antiquity, suggests the discovery may be linked to a possible Roman takeover of the Nabataean Kingdom in AD 106 CE. The Nabataean Kingdom was famously a wealthy, political entity centred on the flourishing city of Petra, Jordan.

Chief researcher, Dr Michael Fradley, who first identified the camps on Google Earth, explains that there is little uncertainty regarding the date of the camps. He said: “We are almost certain they were built by the Roman army, given the typical playing card shape of the enclosures with opposing entrances along each side. The only notable difference between them is that the westernmost camp is significantly larger than the two camps to the east.”

Experts are indicating that these camps are extremely important in providing new insight into Roman campaigning in the Arab world and the establishment of power. Roman military expert Dr Mike Bishop highlights that “Roman forts and fortresses show how Rome held a province, but temporary camps reveal how they acquired it in the first place”.

These newly found camps are located in a straight line from Bayir to Dûmat al-Jandal, a former settlement in the eastern region of the Nabataean kingdom (now modern-day Saudi Arabia).

The team estimates that the distance between each camp is between 37 km and 44 km. Due to this information, they speculate that it would have been too far to have been crossed by infantry in a day, and were therefore instead built by a unit, possibly on camels, which could have been able to cover an extremely barren terrain in a single day.

The distance of the camps also suggests that other camps may have existed further west at the later Umayyad fort and well station at Bayir.

Surviving Roman history suggests that the transfer of power was a peaceful event at the end of the last Nabataean king’s reign, yet new evidence of the camps indicates a forceful Roman takeover instead.

Though archaeologists still need to confirm the date of the camps through in-person investigation on the ground, there are other questions that remain unanswered concerning the camps. Co-author of the paper, Professor Andrew Wilson asks: “Why does the western camp have twice the capacity of the other two? 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?”

The research is ongoing and supported by the Arcadia Fund. The full paper can be found at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/lost-campaign-new-evidence-of-roman-temporary-camps-in-northern-arabia/538421A1D1F89C6EA23F1B757D08CB9

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