A huge multinational archaeological team has assembled in Saudi Arabia to uncover a "missing link" in the region's history.
The Royal Commission for Al Ula (RCU) has announced an excavation project that will explore newly uncovered tombs and structures from pre-Nabataean Dadan.
Al Ula, known as Hegra or Madain Saleh to locals, is a vast heritage site in north-western Saudi Arabia. It comprises the spectacular tombs that the Nabataeans built in the first century BC, when they travelled down the peninsula to move away from Roman power in the north, and established Al Ula as their second city.
But there is much beyond that. As it sits on a natural oasis, Al Ula was home to many civilisations over the years, including the Lihyanite dynasty, which made the site its capital, then called Dadan, which grew rich from the frankincense trade with Egypt and Mesopotamia.
The ruins of the ancient kingdom of Dadan have guarded its secrets for millennia, with its fate a mystery to archaeologists – until now.
A partnership between the RCU, King Saud University, the French Agency for Al Ula development and the French National Centre for Scientific Research, aims to determine why the kingdom came to an end.
“We traditionally date the end of that kingdom to about the end of the sixth century BC, but we don’t yet have strong evidence for that and can only guess about what caused its population to move on from the area," says Abdulrahman Alsuhaibaini of the RCU’s museum and exhibitions team.
"We’re also hoping to uncover more about the relationship between the Dadanites and the Lihyanites, another Arabian kingdom centred at Dadan, and how the Lihyan Kingdom in turn relates to the Nabataeans arriving later from the north.”
The excavations, which will take place across five years, are expected to explain the fate of the kingdoms, as well as shed light on their role at the heart of the ancient inland trading route.
The excavations will continue until 2024, with annual two-month digging seasons followed by analysis of new findings.
Building on the excavations completed by King Saud University in seasons conducted since 2004, the new digs will focus on four key areas: the so-called “Islamic Fortress”, apparently built when Dadan was reoccupied, to ascertain its true purpose and dates of occupancy; the already revealed Dadanite temple, to establish its chronology and layers of construction; a large, recently discovered building south of the Dadanite temple, to establish its purpose; and lastly, broader excavations of Dadan’s tombs to help archaeologists better understand Dadanite funerary practices.
Twenty four students from King Saud University will work alongside international students.
Artefacts from Dadan and Lihyan were recently part of the Al Ula – Wonder of Arabia exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris and will also take centre stage in the museums planned for Al Ula.