Carnegie exhibit takes deeper look at mysteries of Arabia

| Friday, June 21, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

For many Americans, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia might seem somewhat shrouded in mystery. Thoughts of the country might conjure images of camels trudging past sand dunes, or perhaps of oil refineries tapping into the land's plentiful resource.

A new exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History attempts to offer a deeper understanding of the rich culture and history of a place whose trade routes to the Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman world created an opportunity for the exchange of objects and ideas.

“We hope to enlighten people about this terra incognito,” says Sandra Olsen, renowned archaeologist and the Carnegie's director of the Center for World Cultures. “Many think of Arabia as being extremely remote, but in ancient times, it was a bridge, a crossroads and a center.”

Olsen, whose works includes examination of ancient Saudi petroglyphs — or rock art — was instrumental in bringing “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” to Pittsburgh. The display runs June 22 through Nov. 3. The museum is one of only five North American venues to host the exhibit.

There are nearly 300 artifacts, many excavated in the past five to 10 years, representing more than 7,000 years of Arabian Peninsula history. Objects include tools, vessels, inscriptions, tablets, jewelry, funerary objects, sculptures, coins and textiles.

“The Arabian Peninsula was a crossroads for humanity, from migrations out of Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago, to trade along the frankincense trail, to modern pilgrimages,” Olsen says.

Exhibit visitors can stand among the nearly 8-foot-tall red sandstone statues of men, likely representing Lihyanite kings and dating back to the 4t h-to-3rd century B.C. All are either headless or missing parts of their faces. They have no hands or feet. This is not by mistake nor decay, Olsen says.

“It's called ‘defacing,' ” she says. “It's about taking away power.”

One section of the exhibit is devoted to rows of basalt tombstones, representing those who perished during their journeys to Mecca, the spiritual center for the religion of Islam. Followers are expected to make the journey to the city at least once in their lifetime, provided they have the means and ability to do so. In ancient times, that could take weeks, Olsen says.

“It was very difficult to make the journey,” she says. “For some, it was the end of their lifetime.”

The stones are covered in Arabic calligraphy and include the name of the deceased and quotes from the Quran.

A gold funerary mask, bracelets and glove help visitors envision a 1st-century A.D. tomb. One wall painting, dating back to the 1st-to-2nd century A.D., shows a banquet scene, giving the viewer a glimpse directly into then-modern-day life. Statues of men exemplify the heavy Greco-Roman influence that came to the peninsula.

Placed throughout the show are a series of large vividly detailed photos taken with GigiPan technology, developed by Carnegie Mellon University and NASA and used to create digital images with billions of pixels. They depict rock art — pictures carved into the surfaces of towering boulders throughout the Arabian Desert.

All these and the many more artifacts offer “Roads of Arabia” visitors a true sense of the region's vibrant history.

“This exhibit captures the depth and richness of Arabian culture,” Olsen says.

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or

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