Antiquities from Saudi Arabia displayed at Carnegie Museum

Text 2013 by J. Pint; Photos
by their authors, as indicated

Photo Gallery

Golden Mask. Model: Susy Pint. Photo by J. Pint
In 1998, near the ancient city of Thaj, Saudi archaeologists found a burial chamber of a little girl (about six years old)  The girl's face was covered with a golden funerary mask. On her neck lay two gold necklaces with rubies, pearls and turquoise and a third necklace of eighteen gold beads... More. Photo by J. Pint 

“It is truly an awe-inspiring exhibit!”
Simin Yazdgerdi Curtis
President & CEO
American Middle East Institute
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

HRH Prince Sultan bin Salman al Saud. Photo by J. Pint

Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan Bin Salman al Saud speaking at the inauguration of the Roads of Arabia archaeological exhibition. The Prince heads the Saudi Tourism Commission and made history as a crew member of the Space Shuttle Discovery, June 17 to June 24, 1985. Photo by J. Pint.

Stele from Roads of Arabia Exhbition

An anthropomorphic, stylized stele (vertical slab of stone) about 6,000 years old, found in northern Saudi Arabia.
Exhibition image,“Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian. Photo by John Tsantes.

Lioness with baby. Photo by J. Pint

Lihyanite sandstone panel showing a lioness suckling her young.  Al 'Ula, 6th to 4th  Century B.C.  Photo by J. Pint

Coffee served in the Saudi Arabian tradition

Coffee served Saudi style, in a tiny cup and well flavored with cardomom.  Photo by J. Pint

Oven tomb. Photo by J. Pint

Al 'Ula, seen from within an "oven tomb."  Photo by J. Pint

Naturally mummified red fox. Photo by J. Pint
This naturally mummified Arabian Red Fox was found in a cave near Riyadh and was carbon dated at about 2000 years before present.  Saudi Arabia’s many caves have not yet been investigated by archaeologists, suggesting that many new discoveries have yet to be made.

Throwing sticks found in Saudi cave. Photo by J. Pint

These two wooden throwing sticks were found inside Ghostly Cave in Saudi Arabia and were probably used to hunt Rock Doves, which nest underground in the desert. They may be Neolithic. Their discovery is described in the book Underground in Arabia. Photo by J. Pint.

4000 year old skull from Jirsan Cave. Photo by J. Pint
Geologist Mahmoud Al-Shanti inside Jirsan Cave. The skulls are from 150 to 4040 years old. At least 400 kilometers of lava cave passages in western Saudi Arabia have never been studied, suggesting that many more archaeological treasures are waiting to be found. Photo by J. Pint.

Tomb at Mada'in Saleh. Photo by J. Pint
Many of the artifacts in Roads of Arabia come from Mada'in Saleh, famed for its elaborate Nabatean tombs, carved in red sandstone. Photo by J. Pint.

Just the tip of the archaeological iceberg?

By John Pint

A cast bronze head, originally part of a life-size statue. The sensitive face recalls Greco-Roman models, while the curls are more typical of southern Arabian workmanship. It may be from the first or second century A.D. Photo by J. PintHis Royal Highness Prince Sultan bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Governor Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania launched an astonishing exhibit of artifacts entitled Roads of Arabia at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA on June 21, 2013.

The 240 pieces on display tell the story of life and art in the Arabian Peninsula from 7,000 years ago to the early 20th century. I am happy to report that Saudicaves was on hand for this event, thanks to a kind invitation extended by the Prince himself, but before describing what can only be called a landmark exhibition, I must say a word about an aspect of the evening that will probably not be recorded by other journalists.

A crowd of about 200 people attended the inauguration ceremonies and dinner. Many of them were benefactors of the Carnegie Museum or sponsors of the event. The others, my wife and I discovered as we mingled with them, turned out to be “just people” from all walks of life who, over the years, had formed warm bonds of friendship with Prince Sultan.

Take Betty Murphy, widow of Pat Murphy, former publisher of the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette, whose family became acquainted with Prince Sultan at age 17 when he attended the University of Arizona. "It has been a wonderful relationship and we are so proud of what he has accomplished in his young life," she said.

Well, this was a theme we heard again and again. We heard it from Ken Hoffman, who taught Sultan to fly a plane and from Doctor Michael Saba, who got to know the Prince while writing a book on Captain Joe Grant, the pilot of an airplane donated to King Abdulaziz 1945 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (“King Abdulaziz, his Plane and his Pilot” published by Gulf America Press in 2009). Again, this theme was echoed by Governor Corbett, who began his speech by saying, “This encounter with Prince Sultan has been an absolute treat for me and if I ever need a tourist guide, somewhere in the world, I’m coming to him.”

Colossal sandstone statues found in Saudi Arabia. Photo by J. Pint 

Colossal sandstone statues from the 4th to 3rd century B.C., recently discovered at al-‘Ula in northern Saudi Arabia and now on display at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. The men are wearing belted skirts which were originally painted with white plaster. Photo by J. Pint

So, what archaeological wonders did Prince Sultan, who is the head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, bring with him to Pittsburgh? Well, I think few people would have expected breathtaking sandstone statues of Lihyanite kings dating back 6000 years, anthropomorphic stelae from the 4th millennium BC, a bronze head in the Greco-Roman tradition and even the gold burial mask of a six-year-old girl (1 AD), found in a tomb outside the fabled city of Thaj. In addition, for the very first time outside Arabia, we see an object from the Ka’aba in Mecca, an ornate wooden door gilded in silver leaf, dating back to the Ottoman period.

This collection of ancient treasures from Arabia was first put on display at the Louvre in Paris in 2010. This is quite astonishing considering that only thirty years earlier, there were few archaeologists and few museums in the country, even though the Arabian Peninsula has a long and rich history.

Inauguration of Roads of Arabia at Carnegie Museum. Photo by J.Pint

Inauguration of the Exhibition “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” by Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. This collection was first shown at the Louvre in Paris in 2010. Photo by J. Pint

In his speech at the Carnegie Museum, Prince Sultan said he hoped that this exhibit would “tell a story and open a window” and he stated that “What is happening in Saudi Arabia today is beyond belief.” I think he was referring to a fresh, new outlook permeating Saudi society, an outlook which he said paralleled his own experience as an astronaut, when he flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1985. “On the first day,” he continued, “we looked at Earth and each of us pointed out our countries; on the second day we were referring to continents and by the fifth day we were only aware of one place, our earth: how small it is, out there in the middle of nowhere.”

Some thirty years ago, when I first went to live and work in Saudi Arabia, archaeology and ancient sites were looked upon differently than today.

In particular, I remember facing the wrath of an angry guard at the ruins of Al ‘Ula, in northern Saudi Arabia, which was a commercial hub linking Syria and Egypt with southern Arabia in the 6th century B.C. It was a tourist site, but the guard was upset because we had spent two hours visiting the fascinating oven tombs of Al Ula. “Why did you take so long when most people only stay for 15 minutes?” he cried, “and why are you carrying two cameras?” Fortunately, we had in our party a speaker of fluent Arabic who was finally able to convince the old man that I was not a spy, as he imagined, but simply a person who genuinely appreciated that ancient site…and wanted to get really good pictures of it.

The point of view of that old guard may give some idea of the sort of obstacles that Prince Sultan has had to overcome during his years as head of the Saudi Commission on Antiquities.

As a cave explorer and a former consultant to the Saudi Geological Survey, I suspect that many more astounding treasures will be unearthed in Arabia simply because no archaeologist has yet (to my knowledge) carried out a single study inside the many subterranean passages which lie beneath this vast country’s deserts and mountains. Just by way of example, let me mention a lava field north of Medina called Harrat Khaybar where we explored a system of lava tubes 1.4 kilometers long (and probably well over a million years old), now known as Umm Jirsan Cave. Deep inside, we found what seem to be crude knives and scrapers made of basalt as well as two human skull caps carbon-dated at 4000 years before present. All of these were lying on a dirt floor at least two meters deep. What ancient marvels will be found once shovels are used to dig down beneath the surface? Considering that mankind’s forebears have been passing next to and through Harrat Khaybar nonstop for at least the last 70,000 years, we could expect to find a fine record of human history inside those caves. And the best part of all is that there are at least 400 kilometers more of huge lava-tube passages in this area, none of which have been studied or mapped. For more on the archaeological potential of Saudi caves, see The Lava Caves of Khaybar .

The stupendous pieces in the Roads of Arabia exhibit may someday be considered only the tip of the iceberg as far as the archaeological treasures of Saudi Arabia—and the world—are concerned.

Many thanks to Prince Sultan bin Salman for inviting Susy and me to Pittsburgh and I hope, after touring the USA, that this extraordinary collection will next head south into Mexico where we make our home.

You can see more of the articles on display in Pittsburgh at Roads of Arabia.

  Prince Sultan bin Salman with obsidian statue from Jalsico, Mexico.
John and Susy Pint, founders of, present Prince Sultan of Saudi Arabia with the statue of a cat carved in rainbow obsidian from Jalisco, Mexico. The Pints were invited by the Prince to Pittsburgh for the inauguration of the Roads of Arabia archaeological exhibition.

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