Rewriting The History Of AlUla

Beneath towering sandstone cliffs, each sweep of the archaeologist’s brush shifts a little more of the desert sands in a patient peeling back of the layers of time. And in time, this patience pays off as the sand gives way to reveal something new—or rather, something very, very old. AlUla is a land steeped in the history of long-forgotten peoples, and is finally giving up its secrets so their stories can be told.

At the height of the excavation season in AlUla, more than 230 archaeologists across 12 teams are working in dig sites spanning 7,000 years or more. Together, the studies are said to contribute to one of the world's most ambitious archaeological research programs in the world.  It’s an archaeologists dream to be working on such a vast expanse of land with so many secrets to uncover. 

One such secret is a colossal, headless statue called DDN_B_40_S1. Despite its formulaic name, this remarkable find is dramatically rewriting an important chapter in AlUla’s ancient history, enriching and transforming our understanding of the enigmatic desert kingdoms of the Dadanites and Lihyanites and why their name and legacy almost disappeared forever.

Archaeologists now think that the site that became the capital city of Dadan was occupied from the Bronze Age. Dadan (900 to 600 BCE) was known to be one of the most developed kingdoms in northwest Arabia at the time. With abundant water sources giving rise to fertile soils, the residents flourished, growing cereals, fruits, and dates in ingeniously irrigated fields. And to this agricultural prosperity, Lihyanite people - who may have taken over from the Dadanite people or maybe an evolution of the same civilisation - increased the profits of trade from the Incense Road along which travelled caravans carrying near-priceless frankincense from its sole source in southern Arabia to the distant temples of ancient Egypt and Greece. For merchants making this arduous desert crossing, Dadan was a crucial stop - and they paid for the privilege.

With this wealth came monumental building projects, among them the Great Sanctuary of Dadan dedicated to the Lihyanite deity, Dhu Gabbat. Among its features were at least 15 colossal statues including DDN_B_40_S1. Originally some 2.7 metres tall, this sandstone statue depicts a bare-chested man wearing a belted loincloth and an arm ring. 

As such, artistically, DDN_B_40_S1 reflects the important cultural exchange the Incense Route brought to Dadan: its pose is Egyptian, its face Arabian, its clothing distinctly Northern Arabian tribal. However, what’s most intriguing is what’s missing. All of these colossal statues were found collapsed, many without their heads, hands, and feet. Suggestions of a catastrophic earthquake gave way to a suspicion that such extensive destruction might have been more deliberate—man-made. This was confirmed by the discovery of DDN_B_40_S1.

The mutilated statue was unearthed inside a poorly built wall: it had been toppled on its side and used as building material. At the time, statues were considered to be living things, so cutting off DDN_B_40_S1’s head, hands, and feet was intended to deprive it of its power. Its reuse as mere building material shows that it was no longer respected or valued.

The Nabataeans appeared in AlUla during the 1st Century BCE and rose to become the dominant power. What’s never been clear is whether this was a peaceful transition through trade and diplomacy or a conquest.

The answers may lie buried in the sands of the desert, waiting to be discovered. And as more historians, archaeologists,  and increasingly inquisitive locals embrace the quest to uncover and celebrate their past, the story continues to unfold. With every sweep of the archaeologist’s brush, these forgotten desert peoples, their lives and achievements, are being restored to their rightful place in history.