Experts gather in Saudi Arabia amid push to become global archaeological centre

First AlUla World Archaeological Summit in Saudi Arabia described as groundbreaking

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Hundreds of experts, students and enthusiasts gathered at the first AlUla World Archaeological Summit in Saudi Arabia this week.

The event is a global platform for promoting archaeology and cultural heritage to wider audiences, organisers Royal Commission For AlUla (RCU) said.

Philip Jones, chief tourism officer at RCU, told The National the idea of the summit came from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself.

“It comes from recognition that archaeology is I think misunderstood and underappreciated sort of globally," he said.

"And because we are sitting on such an amazing collection of archaeological sites in AlUla, I think he felt like this was an opportunity for us to sort of be the epicenter of archaeology from a technology perspective, from an academic perspective, from a youth perspective.”

epa08920462 A handout photograph made available by the Saudi Royal Court shows Gulf Cooperation Council leaders: (L-R) Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani , Deputy Prime Minister for the Council of Ministers' Affairs of the Sultanate of Oman Sayyid Fahd bin Mahmoud al Said, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, UAE  Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and GCC Secretary General Dr. Nayef Mubarak Al Hajraf, posing for a family picture after attending the 41st GCC ( Gulf Cooperation Council)  Summit at AlUla, some 1040 km East of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 05 January 2021.  According to official Saudi sources, the 41st GCC Summit organized by Saudi Arabia on 05 January, will aim at unifying the path of Gulf countries.  Saudi Arabia agreed on the reopening of its border with Qatar on 04 January evening. Qatar had been imposed with a diplomatic and travel boycott by Saudi Arabia and allies since 2017.  EPA/BANDAR ALAJALOUD/SAUDI ROYAL COURT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

About 95 per cent of AlUla's archaeological treasures have not been uncovered yet, he added.

“From that perspective, we want to sort of become known as the entity or the organisation that hosts a thought leadership conference like the AlUla World Archaeology Summit, model after Davos, model after FII [Future Investment Initiative]," said Mr Jones

"So that, on an annual basis, we will continue to sort of showcase archaeology as a profession, as a guide to the future, looking at the past, and as a place where you know you can converge thought leadership around this very important topic.

AlUla is home to Hegra, the ancient city that was declared Saudi Arabia’s first Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008.

With more than 200,000 years of human and natural history, the region hosted one of the oldest civilisations in the world and was once a thriving trade route.

Carved tombs at the ancient city of Hegra, which is Saudi Arabia's first Unesco World Heritage site. AFP

The AlUla World Archaeological Summit will be held annually, the RCU told The National.

This year, 327 delegates from 39 countries attended the inaugural summit between September 14 and 15, and participants got a chance to meet experts from around the world.

They held discussions on the future of archeology, climate change, sustainability, youth participation and digital aspects of the new age of archeology.

A team led by Dr Wael Abu-Azizeh excavates the chamber that contained 'an exceptional discovery' of skull and horn fragments at AlUla. Photo: RCU

Prof Abdullah Masry, a Saudi anthropologist and archeologist, told The National, that the gathering of experts at such a grand scale, is a boost for the kingdom's archaeology and tourism sector, "which is developing very fast."

"I started my archaeological mission around 50 years ago when we had six missions from Chicago, Paris and others, in total. Today we have 30-40 missions and joint expeditions across Saudi Arabia," he said.

"I realised after attending the summit that this is entirely a new window for Saudi archeology. What's going on in Saudi Arabia is vastly different than what was perceived in the past."

Rebecca said the themes this summit were identity, ruinscapes, resilience and accessibility.

'Dream come true'

International archeologists at the summit told The National they were “blown away” by the sites in AlUla and the youths participating at the summit.

Prof Bettany Hughes, a British historian and author, told The National she was pleasantly surprised by the amount of women in the workforce and will be back soon to start working on a project in AlUla.

Arriving for the AlUla World Archaeology Summit. Photo: RCU

“We have had amazing conversations with people from all across the world. It’s been extremely intense and productive," she said.

“It’s my first time in AlUla and it’s archaeology is extraordinary and the heritage is incredible – with the connected roadways and context all around is fantastic,” she told The National.

Academics discussed early settlement and migration patterns, as law and policy makers shared the importance of planning and maintenance to avoid environmental disasters.

Courtesy Royal Commission for AlUla

“It’s a dream come true to work here,” said Guillaume Charloux, co-director of the Khaybar Longue Duree Archaeological Project, during a panel discussion.

He is studying the region around AlUla, including Khaybar, where thousands of structures, between 4,000-7,000 years old were found. Khaybar was an important centre developed around a remarkable system of irrigation and ancient dams.

A lot more to discover

RCU is sponsoring one of the world’s largest archaeological research programmes.

There are currently 12 excavations and research projects underway in AlUla and Khaybar, ranging from ancient inscriptions in 10 different languages to the study of agricultural practices.

About 200 archaeologists and specialists will be involved in the upcoming dig season.

More than 300 inscriptions at Jabal Ikmah have been documented so far and 110 well-preserved monumental tombs have been found at Hegra.

Rock art at AlUla. Photo: RCU
Updated: September 16, 2023, 2:37 PM