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Petroglyphs provide glimpse of the past

Queen's archaeologist Barbara Reeves and her team made a surprise discovery of 157 rock carvings that detail life thousands of years ago.

Dr. Barbara Reeves stands with petroglyphs in Humayma, Jordan

Barbara Reeves’ team of archaeologists accidently stumbled upon the first of 157 ancient images just days before leaving the Humayma excavation site in Jordan.  

Humayma – located in western Jordan – has been an excavation site since 1986. Even though researchers have conducted many archaeological surveys in and around the area for years, the numerous carvings on the rocks, known as petroglyphs, remained undiscovered until this summer.

“The area had been inspected by surveyors many times in the past, but these petroglyphs appear to have been overlooked since each surveyor was typically looking for something quite specific, and that didn’t include rock carvings,” says Dr. Reeves, professor of archaeology in the Department of Classics and director of the Humayma Excavation Project.

After Dr. Reeves’ team discovered one petroglyph in the area, the archaeologists went looking for more information to help with the analysis. They discovered more than 150 other petroglyphs and 20 inscriptions that had been there unseen for years.

Carved footprints, like this, could mean the area was once a major pilgrimage site.

For Dr. Reeves, who has been excavating at Humayma since 1995, the discovery was a significant find.

“The petroglyphs show soldiers, hunters, worshippers, animals and feet,” says Dr. Reeves. “These petroglyphs are also all covered in what we call a ”desert varnish,“ which is a chemical process that happens on the surface of the sandstone that gives older inscriptions a darker tone than newer ones, allowing excavators to estimate ages of the inscriptions.”

After some initial analyses of the images, Dr. Reeves and her team have hypothesized that one site was a major pilgrimage site, with more than 50 carved footprints and inscriptions.

“Carved footprints commemorate a person’s presence at a religious site,” says Dr. Reeves. “This discovery aligns with a fifth century foundation myth, which suggests that the area and its landscape had some spiritual significance.”

Now that Dr. Reeves is back in Kingston, she plans to include some students in the analysis of Humayma’s data until she returns to the site next summer to continue deciphering the ancient carvings.

The survey at Humayma this past year was funded by a research grant from the Queen’s Senate Advisory Research Committee.