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Rock varnish on petroglyphs from the Hima region, southwestern Saudi Arabia: Chemical composition, growth rates, and tentative ages

TitleRock varnish on petroglyphs from the Hima region, southwestern Saudi Arabia: Chemical composition, growth rates, and tentative ages
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsMacholdt D.S, Jochum K.P, Al-Amri A., Andreae M.O
Date Published2019/08
Type of ArticleArticle
ISBN Number0959-6836
Accession NumberWOS:000479265000010
Keywordsarchaeometry; Art; dating; desert varnish; dust; early holocene; Geology; Growth rates; Iron; mineral; mineral dust; mojave desert; negev desert; origin; Physical Geography; pleistocene; positive Ce anomaly; radiocarbon; rock varnish

We investigated rock varnish formed on sandstone and petroglyphs in the Hima area, southwestern Saudi Arabia. To characterize the rock varnish, we made in-situ measurements by portable x-ray fluorescence (pXRF) and analyzed samples by femtosecond laser-ablation inductively coupled-plasma mass spectrometry (fs LA-ICP-MS). Detailed chemical analysis of the rock varnish samples and adjacent soil or aeolian dust yielded information about the varnish's geochemical context and formation mechanism. Untypically low positive Ce anomalies in the rock varnish samples correlated with negative Ce anomalies in the dust, supporting the hypothesis that the dust is the source of the varnish material. To study the varnish development, we made use of the fact that engraving the petroglyphs exposes a fresh bare sandstone surface without varnish, on which varnish regrows subsequently. We determined by pXRF the areal density of manganese (Mn) and iron (Fe) that had been deposited as rock varnish since the creation of the rock art. The rates of Mn deposition in the newly formed varnish were then estimated by correlating the areal density of Mn in Ancient Arabian and Old Arabic inscriptions with their known age ranges. The observed deposition rates showed substantial variability resulting from differences in exposure conditions of the rock surface, but were in a range comparable with that of our previous measurements in northwestern Arabia. This variability could be reduced significantly by referencing the measurements to the intact varnish adjacent to the individual petroglyphs. This normalization provided a much clearer relationship between varnish deposition and age, and enabled tentative ages to be assigned to rock art motifs without previously known ages. These tentative ages spanned most of the Holocene period and were consistent with the culturally or ecologically derived ages of the animal and human figures depicted in the rock art and the styles of scripts used in different periods.

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