A team of researchers is carrying out the first in-depth archaeological survey of part of Saudi Arabia, in a bid to shed light on a mysterious civilisation that once lived there. The Nabataean culture1  left behind sophisticated stone monuments, but many sites remain unexplored. The rock-strewn deserts of Al Ula in Saudi Arabia are known for their pitch-black skies, which allow stargazers to easily study celestial bodies without the problem of light pollution. But the region is becoming even more attractive for archaeologists. 


Flying at between two and three thousand feet2, the integrated survey group led by Oxford Archaeology's Jamie Quartermaine has already covered half the anticipated 11,500 sites. Often known as preventative surveys, this work is usually carried out to ensure that no future building work will come near archaeological sites. 

"We've learned from the mistakes of other countries and we're taking the time to prevent any damage here," he says. "Being accessible to the general public, as is planned for the future, doesn't mean a free-for all." 

The survey also helps provide answers for specialists in fields such as rock art. "Even five years ago GPS just wasn't accurate enough," Jamie Quartermaine explains. "Today we are using several different methods of photography including drones, cameras suspended below the body of light aircraft and cutting-edge aerial orpho-photography." 


  • 1. A long-lost culture known as the Nabataean civilisation inhabited the area starting from around 100 BC and persisted for some 200 years.
  • 2. Providing an adjusted image every two to three seconds, the thousands of pictures measure true distances - having been adjusted for topographic relief. Specialist software combines these into a high-resolution, detailed model of the landscape.