Bronze Age Camel Petroglyphs In The Wadi Nasib, Sinai

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Excerpt Most scholars believe camels were not domesticated until the end of the second millenium BC. Yet evidence continues to amass that camel domestication was widely known earlier. Randall Younker adds Late Bronze Age I petroglyphs (Greek = rock/carving) depicting domesticated camels from the Sinai to that evidence... Continue reading

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This article was first published in the Summer 2000 issue of Bible and Spade.

Most scholars believe camels were not domesticated until the end of the second millenium BC. Yet evidence continues to amass that camel domestication was widely known earlier. Randall Younker adds Late Bronze Age I petroglyphs (Greek = rock/carving) depicting domesticated camels from the Sinai to that evidence.


In July 1998, a small party of colleagues from Andrews University,1 undertook an expedition to Wadi Nasib (the valley of the stone altar) to visit Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions found by Dr. Georg Gerster in 1961 (Gerster 1961: 62; Albright 1966: 3).2 The inscriptions are located on the vertical face of a large rock on the north side of the pass, through the N-S running ridge that serves as the eastern boundary of the Wadi Nasib. The pass itself is at the head of a tributary wadi of the Wadi Nasib that is located immediately east of the bedouin cemetery of Bir Nasib. The settlement of Bir Nasib, proper, is located just to the south of the cemetery. Just east of the cemetery there is a trail (actually several meandering trails) which climb eastward along the edge of this tributary up to the cut or pass. The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions were easy to find and were found to be still in the same state of preservation as when Gerster first found them.

Visiting the Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions

The actual reading of the inscriptions has been a matter of some discussion. Albright (1966) failed to recognize the fourth column as belonging to the inscription and tried to make sense of only the remaining three. Albright’s transcription was: ‘D ‘[L]T[N] L H B[R] [N]H ‘LW. He translated the inscription as “O father E[l], gra[nt] to Heber re[st] beside him!” Rainey (1975), who was able to personally examine the inscription, subsequently noted that there is a fourth column that Albright ignored or overlooked. Also, he modified the readings of a few of the characters. Rainey’s reading of the whole text is: [B]RKT / ‘D[‘] / RB HWT / W L ‘H[ ... ] or Blessing(s) (on/of) ‘Ad(d)a’, chief of the stockades(s), arid (on/of) ‘h[ ... ]. Other scholars have proposed still other variant readings (e.g., Shea 1987).

Two meters (six ft) to the right of Gerster No. 1, however, is an Egyptian rock-inscription in the form of a stele from the 20th year of Ammenemes III (Gardiner and Peat 1952; pl. XIV; no.46; 1955: 76).3 This inscription is quite weathered and the surviving portion measures only 20 x 23 cm. It is clear that the inscription was originally written in three horizontal lines of hieroglyphics at the top, while the lower part was divided into six vertical columns. It is these six vertical columns that have pretty much eroded away. The translation of Gardiner and Peet of the surviving top portion of the inscription reads, “Year 20 under the majesty of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt Nema’re’, son of Re’ Ammenemes, living like Re’ eternally” (Gardiner and Peet 1955: 76).

The camel’s anatomy led to its value and domestication. Its hump serves for fat storage and probably developed as a body-heater. For water storage, the animal has several sac-shaped extensions in its stomach where liquid can be retained for a long period. Even today camels are bred in the Near East and sell for up to $2,000 each.

About 20 cm (2.5 in) to the right of the Ammenemes III stele is the second, brief Proto-Sinaitic inscription (Gerster No. 2).’ Only two characters and part of a third have survived the ravages of time. The two discernable characters include the bull’s head (aleph) and the zigzag (mem). Obviously, there is too little of this inscription to make out a coherent translation. Like Gerster No. 1, this second Proto-Sinaitic inscription is later than the Ammenemes III stele. It is better preserved and the patina is lighter than the Ammenemes III inscription, indicating that Proto-Sinaitic was carved more recently. Most scholars agree that based on the style of the characters and the color of the patina, both Gerster Nos. 1 and 2 are contemporary.

The date of the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions has also been a matter of some discussion. Originally, it was thought that they should be dated to the Middle Kingdom. This date seemed to make sense in view of the presence of the Ammenemes III stele (Gardiner 1962). Currently, however; most scholars seem to agree that these should be dated later to the New Kingdom’s Eighteenth Dynasty, i.e. the Late Bronze Age in archaeological terminology. This is because additional examples of this script which were subsequently found in Israel at Shechem, Gezer, and Lachish, appear to be older in that they appear to be associated with an archaeological context dating to the 17th-16th centuries BC and they are drawn more realistically (i.e., primitively). The characters of the Bir Nasib inscriptions, on the other hand, are drawn in a more schematized form suggesting some streamlining of the pictographs through time. Most scholars thus accept a date in the 15th century BC for the Proto-Siniatic inscriptions (Naveh 1987: 26).4

Discovery of Camel Petroglyphs

After examining and photographing the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions and the Ammenemes III stele, I stepped back to look at the rest of the rock. Generally not mentioned in the reports of the inscriptions is the presence of a number of petroglyphs found on the same rock face near the inscriptions. From the color of patina and the close association with the inscriptions, it appeared that the petroglyphs generally span the same time period as the Ammenemes III and Proto-Siniatic inscriptions. As I examined the petroglyphs, I followed the rock face to the right (east) 2 or 3 m (6–9 ft) until I could look down the other side of the pass. As I continued to scan the petroglyphs, I suddenly noticed a couple of distinctive animal petroglyphs—camels—that were represented as walking caravan style across the rock to the right (easterly direction). The camels are about .15—.20 m (6–8 in) high and .20—.25 m (8–10 in) in length. The camel figures were quite distinctive, although the first camel (to the right) had been somewhat defaced by later engravings. The trailing camel, however, was not defaced or eroded, so it is quite distinct. The long neck, large head and single hump of the dromedary can easily be made out. What made the camel petroglyphs even more interesting was the presence of human figures in association with them. The lead camel appears to be followed by a walking man. A second walking man is clearly leading the trailing camel. The petroglyphs certainly are depicting domesticated camels.

Dating The Camel Petroglyphs

Petroglyphs are, of course, notoriously difficult to date.

In the same rock face where the Gerster inscriptions and the Ammenemes III stela are found, the author noted additional petroglyphs nearby. Seldom mentioned in reports of the inscriptions, among these petroglyphs is a camel caravan. Seen here is the second camel in the caravan, a single humped dromedary about .15—.20 m (6–8 in) high and .20—.25 m (8–10 in) long, being led by a man. It certainly depicts domesticated camels. Difficult to date, the author proposes a date around 1500 BC. While this is earlier than most scholars date camel domestication, it agrees with Biblical references.

One way is to note the archaeological evidence for human activity in this region. In this case we have a record of activity from the Middle kingdom down to the New Kingdom of Egypt. Archaeologically, the peak of activity in this region was during the 12th and 18th Dynasties of Egypt. There is evidence for later activity during the 19th and 20th Dynasties over at Serabit el-Khadem, although this was at a reduced scale when compared with the earlier periods of activity. At Wadi Nasib proper, there is presently no evidence for activity later than ca. 1500 BC during the Late Bronze Age. This wadi is somewhat isolated and was probably not the main route between Serabit el-Khadem and Egypt. Rather, this route likely had a more restricted use, perhaps connecting the mines with the smelting area (Gardiner and Peet 1955: 5, 30). Perhaps camels were used to bring ore to the smelting area.

A second way of dating is to attempt to reconstruct the sequence of rock engravings (e.g., Anati 1968). The amount of erosion and the color of tile patina of the camel petroglyphs are close to that of the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptionS, providing yet another small bit of evidence that the two are roughly contemporaneous. That the camels are not the latest rock engravings is indicated by a bit of defacing or attempts to draw new characters over the outline of the lead camel.

A third, and perhaps best, way to date a petroglyph is when it is accompanied by inscriptional evidence. In the case of the Wadi Nasib camel petroglyph, we have already noted at least two datable inscriptions that appear on the same rock face. The first is the rock stele of Ammenemes III of the 12th Dynasty. The second inscription is the Proto-Sinaitic inscription known as Gerster Inscription I. As noted, there is virtually universal agreement that these inscriptions date to the 15th century BC, about the transition from the Late Bronze Age I to Late Bronze Age IIA. The date of the inscriptional evidence at Wadi Nasib correlates precisely with the archaeological data that show that the peak of activity was during the 12th and 18th Dynasties of Egypt. There is evidence for later activity during the 19th and 20th Dynasties over at Serabit el-Khadem, although this was at a reduced scale when compared with the earlier expeditions. At Wadi Nasib proper, there is presently no evidence for activity later than ca. 1500 BC.

Taking all three lines of evidence together, it seems quite reasonable to date the camel petroglyph to about the middle of the period of peak activity in this region at nearby Serabit el-Khadem. That is, around 1500 BC.

The Ammenemes III stela. This very weathered Egyptian rock-inscription has three horizontal lines of heiroglyphics at the top and six vertical columns below. The surviving top portion speaks of the 20th year of Ammenemes III, a 12th Dynasty ruler (19th century BC). Dating this inscription helps determine the date of the adjacent camel petroglyphs.

Implications of the Wadi Nasib Camel Petroglyphs

The possibility that these camel petroglyphs are contemporary with the mining activity at Serabit el-Khadem provides new insights into the copper and turquoise industry with regard to transport of the mined materials. Previously, it has been assumed that donkeys were the primary mode of transporting copper and turquoise from the mining centers back to Egypt. Certainly donkeys were used. However, this petroglyph suggests that camels were in use, too. Indeed, these two camels could represent a small caravan (full size representations of a camel caravan have been recently found at Petra). Camels would be ideally suited for transporting loads of copper and turquoise. Keep in mind that part of the trail crosses over sandy stretches. Camels cannot only travel across sand easier; they carry twice the load of a donkey, move faster and need less feeding and watering (Davis 1987: 166). There does not appear to be a load on the back of the camels, although this may not be surprising since the camels are shown as headed in the direction toward Serabit el-Khadem and may not have picked up their loads [of ore?] as yet. Another possibility is that these camels were employed locally and may have just dropped off loads of ore near the smelting center in Wadi Nasib and are just returning to Serabit el-Khadem, a few miles to the east, to pick up more ore.

These camel petroglyphs also have implications for the history of camel domestication as well as their historicity in the Biblical text. There continue to be some scholars who follow Albright’s skepticism (1942; 1945; 1949: 207) that references to camels in the patriarchal narratives are anachronistic (e.g. Koehler-Rollefson 1993: 183). However, there is now a growing body of scholars who believe that camel domestication must have occurred earlier than previously thought (prior to the 12th century BC) and that the patriarchal narratives accurately reflect this (e.g., Ripinsky 1984; Coote and Whitelam 1987: 102; Zarins 1992: 826; Borowski 1998: 112–18).5 This is not to say that domesticated camels were abundant and widely used everywhere in the ancient Near East in the early second millennium. However, the patriarchal narratives do not necessarily require large numbers of animals. As Borowski (1998: 118) notes, the Biblical evidence indicates that the camel was used primarily as a pack and riding animal during patriarchal times. These data do not require large herds associated with later camel breeding nomads. In this regard, Gottwald (1974; 1978) is correct in not characterizing the patriarchs as pastoral nomads, camel or otherwise. Indeed, the Hebrews had a prohibition against eating camel meat (cf Lv 11:4; Dt 14:1) which probably extended to the drinking of camel milk (Davis 1986: 147). Thus, the patriarchs were not likely keeping large herds of camels for subsistence, the tradition of later camel nomads. Rather, camels were used in relatively smaller numbers, primarily as pack and riding animals. The smaller amount of evidence for domestic camels in the late second millennium BC, especially in Palestine, is in accordance with this more restricted use.

The camel petroglyph from the Wadi Nasib, nevertheless, adds to the growing body of evidence for the use of domesticated camels (albeit on a modest scale) in the ancient Near East prior to the 12th century BC. Borowski, Zarin, and others, thus appear to be correct in not dismissing the reference to camels in the patriarchal narratives as merely anachronistic.

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1. The party included the author, Dr. William Shea, Dr. Richard Davidson, Prof. JoAnn Davidson, Dr. David Merling, Devin Zinke, Rahel Davidson, John Davidson, Rebecca Younker, and Michael Younker.

2. Gerster notified William Albright about the Wadi Nasib inscriptions on March 7, 1960. The inscriptions were initially published by J. Leibovitch in Le Museon 74 (1961). They were also commented on by Sir Alan Gardiner in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, and by Albright himself, in his small volume entitled The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions and Their Decipherment (Harvard University Press, 1966: 28–29).

3. Immediately to the right of the Gerster text No. 1, Albright thought there was the outline of a rectangular panel with a rounded corner and a cartouche which appears to enclose the name of Sekhem-re’-khu-tawi, the 15th pharaoh of the 13th Dynasty who ruled over three years (ca. 1760 BC). However, Rainey doubts this reading (Rainey 1975: 108).

4. There was originally some confusion on the precise spatial relationship of Gerster No. 2 and the Ammenemes III stele. The original artist’s depiction, from which Gardiner worked, showed the bull’s head as directly under the Ammenemes III stele. In actuality it is about 20 cm to the right (Gardiner 1962: 45–46).

5. This discovery evokes a parallel found at Aswan, Egypt, that also depicts a man leading a camel by a rope. This petroglyph was originally described by Georg Schweinfurth in 1912 (see picture and discussion of this petroglyph in Ripinsky 1983: 27 and 1984: 139). Again, the petroglyph can possibly be dated by an accompanying inscription. The inscription is hieratic and was dated by Moeller to 2423–2263 BC (Sixth Dynasty), making it considerably older than the Wadi Nasib camel petroglyph (ibid.).


Albright, W. F.
1942 Archaeology and the Religion of Israel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.
1945 Review of J. P. Free’s Camel Article. Journal of Biblical Literature 64: 287–88.
1949 The Archaeology of Palestine. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth: Middlesex.
1966 The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions and Their Decipherment (Harvard Theological Studies, 22). Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Anati, E.
1968 Rock-Art in Central Arabia: The Oval-headed People of Arabia. Universite’ de Lovain: Institut Orientaliste.

Borowski, C.
1998 Every Living Thing: Daily Use of Animals in Ancient Israel. Walnut Creek CA: AltaMira Press.

Bulliet, R.
1975 The Camel and the Wheel. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Caesar, Stephen A. The Wealth and Power of the Biblical Patriarchs, Bible and Spade, Winter 2006.

Coote, R., and Whitelam, K. W.
1987 The Emergence of Early Israel in Historical Perspective. Sheffield, England: Almond Press.

Cross, F. M.
1967 The Origin and Early Evolution of the Alphabet. Eretz Israel 8: 10.

Davis, J. J.
1986 The Camel in Biblical Narratives. A Tribute to Gleason Archer: Essays on the Old Testament, eds. W. C. Kaiser, Jr, and R. F. Youngblood. Chicago IL: Moody Press.

Gardiner, A. H.
1962 Once Again, the Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 48:45–48.

Gardiner, A. H., and Peet; T. E.
1952 The Inscriptions of Sinai. Vol. 1. London: Egypt Exploration Society.
1955 The Inscriptions of Sinai. Vol 2. London: Egypt Exploration Society.

Gerster, G.
1961 Sinai. Germany: Darmstadt.

Gottwald, N.
1974 Were the Early Israelites Pastoral Nomads. Pp. 223–55 in Rhetorical Criticism: Essays in Honor of James Muilenburg, eds. J. J. Jackson and M. Kessler. Pittsburgh Theological Monograph Series 1. Pittsburgh: Pickwick.
1978 Were the Early Israelites Pastoral Nomads? Biblical Archaeological Review 4: 2–7.

Koehler-Rollefson, I.
1993 Camels and Camel Pastoralism in Arabia. Biblical Archaeologist 56.4: 180–88.

Leibovitch, J.
1961 Deux nouvelles inscriptions protosinaitiques. Le Museon 74: 461–66.

Neveh, J.
1987 Early History of the Alphabet (revised ed.) Jerusalem: Magnes Press.

Petrie, F.
1906 Researches in Sinai. London: John Murrey.

Rainey, A.
1975 Notes on Some Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions. Israel Exploration Journal 25: 106–16.

Ripinsky, M.
1974 The Camel in the Archaeology of North Africa and the Nile Valley. Popular Archaeology 3.6: 7.
1975 The Camel in Ancient Arabia. Antiquity 49: 196.
1983 Camel Ancestry and Domestication in Egypt and the Sahara. Archaeology 36.3: 21–27.
1984 The Camel in Dynastic Egypt. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 70: 134–141.

Shea, W. H.
1987 New Light on the Exodus and on Construction of the Tabernacle: Gerster’s Protosinaitic Inscription No. 1. Andrews University Seminary Studies 25.1: 73–96.

Zarins, J.
1978 The Camel in Ancient Arabia: A Further Note. Antiquity 52: 44–46.
1992 Camel. Pp. 824–36 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 1, ed. D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.

Reprinted by permission from Near East Archaeological Society Bulletin 42 (1997).


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9/25/2010 8:55 PM #

I was looking for something about the Camel and the Eye of a Needle but did not see anything about it, this information was very helpful in my research and has offered me many leads.

michael - 9/25/2010 8:55:23 PM

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