Big dig: Professor preserves rock art, an ‘archaeological treasure,’ in Oman

Rock art climbing trees

Ancient peoples painted on rock deep in caves in the Dhofar region of the Sultanate of Oman. William Zimmerle, assistant professor of humanities, has been documenting these "archaeological treasures," including this rock art depicting humans using ladders to climb trees and pick coconuts, dropping them into nets. (Photos by Zimmerle)

By Kenna Caprio

April 18, 2017 — Deep in cave shelters in the Dhofar region of the Sultanate of Oman, families and tribes finger-painted images on rock formations — these creations date back to between fourth and fifth B.C. to fifth century A.D. With paint made from hematite and carbon, elements found in soil, they painted scenes of warriors, animals, ships, and trees.

For the past three years, William Zimmerle, assistant professor of humanities at FDU’s Metropolitan Campus, has dedicated his research to documenting these rock art paintings, in photographs and writing.

“Rock art is so important to humanity as a whole. It’s pretty universal. It’s all around the world. It tells us about the human spirit to survive and to write and to create images,” says Zimmerle, BA’97 (Flor). “To be human is to be a part of culture.”

It all started with a history class. As an undergraduate student at FDU, Zimmerle took an ancient history course with professor R. Thomas McDonald and was hooked. McDonald mentored Zimmerle, and the two were in contact up until his death last fall. “He knew that I had gotten this position [at FDU],” says Zimmerle.

Jinn drawings

According to local legends and lore, the Jinn — ghosts, spirits or ancestors in Arabia — painted these particular images and figures.

After FDU, Zimmerle studied Semitic languages, which include Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic, at Harvard University, and then archaeology and digital humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. He wrote his dissertation on incense burners, “a marker of early frankincense trade.” During that time, while living in Jordan, as the Samuel Kress Fellow in the history of art and archaeology at the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman, Zimmerle discovered that potters still make the burners today. That knowledge inspired his first trip to Oman.

While continuing his study of incense burners the following year in Dhofar, then as a Fulbright scholar, local Omani friends showed Zimmerle the extensive rock art in the caves. He had a new project.

“We found this one cave shelter that had extensive weathering, but also had the most impressive rock art. The locals call this cave the “Drawings of the Jinn.” Jinn are ghosts, spirits, even ancestors in Arabia. It’s where the Anglicized word genie comes from. It’s so vivid, it’s hard to find and it’s pretty mystical,” says Zimmerle. “Always, in the history of Arabia, this area has been enchanted and mystical.”

In the 1930s, British explorer Bertram Thomas visited Dhofar, traveling all through Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, too. “He documented so much. Standing stones in the desert, ‘pecking’ rock art and more,” Zimmerle says. Rock art can be painted or “pecked,” with one stone used as a hammer and the other as a chisel. “If you look at his maps, he came within ten kilometers of the painted rock art. He missed it because the caves are deep.”

But Zimmerle’s Omani colleague Ali Ahmed Al Shahri knew where to look, having extensively studied and collected data, just by walking the landscapes for his entire life. “Without that kind of work, we’d be lost out in the field,” Zimmerle says.

Omani colleague Ali in Dhofar

Ali Ahmed Al Shahri, Zimmerle's Omani colleague, surveys a cave site and rock art in Dhofar.

In Dhofar, the terrain and climate affected the art. “Everyone thinks this is all desert, but this area gets hit with a lot of rain. In the summertime it becomes like the hills of Scotland. Just gorgeous,” says Zimmerle. When the monsoons came, ancient peoples sought shelter in the caves. “You brought all your animals into the caves to live. That’s why the soil is very fertile.”

The scenes show men climbing trees, collecting dates and coconuts using ladders and nets; packs of Arabian camels; caravans; warriors on camels and horses; handprints; baboons, foxes and Nubian ibex; and ships. Researchers also discovered figures that could be women, but it’s not definitive. For now, most of these determinations are speculative.

“A lot of people think that women are responsible for making the art,” says Zimmerle. “The men went off, and the women were protecting and organizing their space, creating their space and making images.” Creating the cave paintings, like the burning of incense, is ritualistic.

Some scenes also feature letters and inscriptions.

“The inscriptions are made with the Thamudic alphabet. It’s pre-Islamic,” says Zimmerle. “We can’t read it yet. We can read the letters, but when we try to read what it says, it’s almost gibberish.” Researchers plan to add these images to a database and give access to linguists and other scholars. With their expertise, Zimmerle is hopeful that in a few years people will be able to read the inscriptions and understand more about ancient South Arabian languages.

Rock art Arabian camels

Researchers believe that these creatures, painted in red, are Arabian camels. Note the singular hump, distinctive to the dromedary.

“One find can change the entire history and narrative of an area,” he says.

One of the next phases of the project is for scholars to share and examine the digital photographs and discuss ideas and interpretations of the findings in a digital database to be housed at FDU.

The royal court of Oman and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., has provided funding for Zimmerle’s research, and for a recent exhibition of his images. The exhibit and accompanying catalogue were the project’s first benchmark. Zimmerle is in talks to show the exhibit elsewhere, with sights set on London, Berlin, the United Arab Emirates and Muscat, the capital of Oman, where he intends for the images to reside.

“Sultan Qaboos is a renaissance king. When he took the throne [in 1970], he invested in his people. He took the revenue from oil and brought it back to the country and invested it in education, science, infrastructure, culture and arts,” says Zimmerle. In Oman, “we can do this kind of work safely,” he says. “It’s much harder to do this work in Yemen and other countries. We’ve had unhindered access everywhere we’re wanted to go, and that’s been the big key.”

Though many archaeological, cultural and heritage sites have been ravaged and destroyed in other Middle Eastern countries during decades of unrest — not in Oman. “Oman still has its cultural treasures,” says Zimmerle.

His job, he says, is to preserve and protect.

“Most people have 19th-century colonial views of archeology and that’s not the case. We work alongside locals, who are the keepers of their own heritage. We train them in some of the latest techniques and they train us often in aspects of ethnography and local traditions,” says Zimmerle. “There’s no one person like Indiana Jones getting all the glory. The glory belongs to the country and the people.”


On these painted rocks are packs of animals trekking across the land in a caravan, according to Zimmerle.

Going forward, Zimmerle wants to build the digital humanities program at the Metropolitan Campus, and continue photographing the rock art, using 3D cameras and Infrared technology. Down the line, he wants to explore the conservation aspect of the project, and protect sites for archeological tourism. There are so many projects within projects, he says. Right now, the paint residue is out for laboratory testing so researchers can determine if plant dyes or other minerals were added to the materials.

“FDU students are working in the art department on drawings of the panels,” Zimmerle says. “They will walk away with skills in museum drafting and illustrating. They can draw artifacts. They can actually go to sites and draw.”

Eventually, he’d like to take students to the sites for fieldwork.

“Students tend to say they love these culture classes, but they want to take majors that are more economically productive,” says Zimmerle. “I tell them that you can still find work. There’s great work to be done.” He recommends students interested in archaeology study with him, and also select a science minor, like chemistry. With that dual expertise, graduates can work on archeological projects, testing residue in ancient burners, for example, to determine the composition of incense.

“It’s not humanities versus science. Ultimately, it’s bringing these two into discussion and tandem together. We’re asking macro humanities questions, and we’re using science on a micro level to answer them,” Zimmerle says.