Roman camps found with Google Earth shines light on ancient campaign

Archaeologists have identified three new fortified Roman marching camp sites in north Arabia with the help of a surprising tool — Google Earth. The team from the University of Oxford detected the sites in satellite images, lying along a straight line headed towards Dûmat al-Jandal, an ancient city that today lies in the Jawf region of Saudi Arabia, but was once part of the Nabataean kingdom. The Nabataeans are most famous today for their capital city of Petra, half-built and half-carved into the rock in the desert of Jordan, between the Red and Dead seas. 

The finding hints at an undocumented military campaign when Rome annexed the kingdom after the reign of the last Nabataen king in the early second century AD.

There is little doubt as to the age of the camps, said study leader and landscape archaeologist Dr Michael Fradley, who first identified the camp sites on Google Earth.

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.”

The researchers believe that the camps were likely built as temporarily defended stations when they were marching on campaign.

Dr Fradley added: “The level of preservation of the camps is really remarkable, particularly as they may have only been used for a matter of days of weeks.”

The Roman soldiers, he explained, “went along a peripheral caravan route linking Bayir and Dûmat al-Jandal.

He said: “This suggests a strategy to bypass the more used route down the Wadi Sirhan, adding an element of surprise to the attack.

“It is amazing that we can see this moment in time played out at a landscape scale.”

Rome took over the Nabataean Kingdom in AD 106, following the death of the last king, Rabbel II Soter. According to surviving Roman history, this transfer of power was a peaceful event. The truth, however, may be more complicated.

Paper co-author and archaeologist Professor Andrew Wilson said: “These marching camps — if we are correct in dating them to the second century — suggest the Roman annexation of the Nabataean Kingdom […] was not an entirely straightforward affair.”

It appears, he added, “that Rome moved quickly to secure the kingdom” with force.

Given that the distance between each camp is around 23–27 miles, the team believe that such were too great to be crossed by infantry in a day.

Instead, they said, they may have been built by a cavalry unit capable of traversing such barren terrain in a single day — possibly on camelback.

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Given the distances between the camps, the researchers have speculated that a fourth camp might also have been located further to the west, at the site of the later Umayyad caliphate fort and well station at Bayir.

Further analysis of the sites is needed, however, with questions outstanding.

As Prof. Wilson himself ponders: “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?”

Archaeologist Dr Mike Bishop is an expert on the Roman military and a research assistant at the University of Oxford who was not involved in the present study.

He added: “These camps are a spectacular new find and an important new insight into Roman campaigning in Arabia.

“Roman forts and fortresses show how Rome held a province, but temporary camps reveal how they acquired it in the first place.”

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Antiquity.

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