Hasat Bin Sult

June 2009

 

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Extraordinary Rock Art on route to Al Hamra in the western foothills of Jabal Shams.

Also known as Hasat Bani Salt or Coleman's rock


A must see, particularly because it is so close to the very popular route to Al Hamra and Jabal Shams. Easy to miss if you don't know, although it is clearly signposted. I had bypassed it many times, not making the connecting between this name on a signpost and this intriguing rock that I had heard of before, but did not know where it was located.

The formal name of this site appears to be Hasat Bani Salt, but the name used for this web page is the name that is listed on the signpost to the road: Hasat Bin Sult.

What is it? A 6 meter high block of massive limestone (marble quality) at the edge of a wadi next to the palm grooves of Al Hamra. The block is carved, in relief, with four life-size human figures on its main face. Not the normal petroglyphs one sees so much in Oman. This is the work of an artists, hammered out of the rock. Luckily now out of reach for most of us, unless you use a ladder or climbing gear. Luckily, because the rock is disfigured at its base by graffiti, but the carvings are higher-up and relatively safe.

The carvings were "discovered" in the 1970's by Coleman, the famous geologist who made a fundamental contribution to the understanding of the ophiolites. Hence the rock is also known as Coleman's rock.

Story
An Omani colleague, coming from this area, told me about the local story about this rock. He mentioned the name Malik Bin Salt, or 'Al Malik'. Malik is a name closely associated with one of the first famous Omani leaders (Malik bin Fahm). One of the Imams of Nizwa was Assalt Bin Malik Al Kharusi (ca. 840 AD). Not surprising perhaps therefore to hear the name 'Al Malik' associated with this rock. The story goes that 'Malik Al Salt' was pursued by a group of enemies and made his escape by jumping over this rock. Another story that I found in Oman Today (Arnhem, 2008) tells us that the man who gave his name to the rock had a deformed child, and killed it by dashing it against this rock. To punish them, the heavens stamped the forms of both parents and child into the rock as an ageless memorial to the crime of infanticide.

How old?
How old are these carvings? Difficult. They are clearly eroded and worn, testifying their antiquity. A bit of searching on the internet will tell you they are some 3000 years old, but this is unsubstantiated and copied from one website to another without check. It could be, but there is no way to directly date rock carvings. Pre-Islamic for certain as Islamic art does not depict people and certainly not lady characteristics. Their unique character does not allow a comparison with other carvings in this part of the world. It is safer just to consider them pre-Islamic, old and unique.

And More
Some call the rock a monolith, but this is generally a name given to a rock that has been put in place by humans and that is not the case. A geologist will notice the steep mountain of the same massive rock at the back. This is Jabal Abri and it is part of the "parautochthonous" of the Al Hajar Mountains, emplaced by huge thrusts (nappes) from a closing  ocean (Neo-Tethys) to the east. In the process the limestone got cooked-up and recrystallised, turning it into marble. That's why it is currently being mined. After emplacement the rocks were subject to deep erosion and karstification. At one stage this big block split-off and fell down. Because of its massiveness it is a very attractive rock for carving and that's what people did a long time ago. Not petroglyphs; that is what most of the rock art in the Al Hajar mountains is, scratched or pitted into flat rock surfaces (limestone). These figures have been carved in low relief. The faces have very clear expressions.

The nature of the carvings and their quality suggest that they must have been important. One of the characters looks dominant, macho and strong, whereas the expressions on the other faces are more friendly, or perhaps even 'dead', each with a very own distinct character. You will discover a loose head while walking around the rock, high up, with only the ghosts of a body below. A weird head, not human-like. Children would see a likeness with spiderman. In fact, except for the female (because of the circles on the place where breasts should be), these carvings could have walked away from a superman cartoon. Perhaps that's exactly what they intended to be: super-human.

One definitely gets a feeling that there are more carvings, but worn beyond easy recognition. This needs early morning light to enhance the image.  
How to get there: Please note: all coordinates and tracks are with reference to WGS84, UTM zone 40. Take road from Nizwa to Bahla. Zero the odometer at the second roundabout in Nizwa, the one with the piles of books in the middle. Almost 32.5 km in the direction of Bahla you will get to a roundabout near a big Toyota garage and Oman Oil Petrol station where you need to turn right in the direction of Al Hamra. Approximately 8.5 km from the roundabout (23° 4' 9.8569" N - 57° 16' 16.6768" E, or UTM 527789.7E, 2551015.1N) you will see a track to your right, signposted "Hasat Bin sult". It leads along a little farmhouse into a wide wadi. You will see a lightbrown peak right in front that is quarried for marble. The rock you are looking for is right at the bottom of this peak at the edge of the wadi (23° 4' 26.9668" N - 57° 16' 48.3076" E or UTM 528688.7E - 2551542.9N). The Google Earth track file (unzip and opens directly in Google Earth if installed on your computer) is linked here.
 

Hasat Bin Sult: the big block at the edge of the wadi, a distinctive peak at the background (now quarried for marble)

Notice the massive rock, smoothed and worn, eroded in the wadi. The block is protected by concrete-irons surrounding it from all sides.

Hasat Bin Sult: the main southern rock face. The main carvings are 3/4 up, safely above the graffiti.

Hasat Bin sult: the main human figures highlighted. Notice Muscle Man to the right, the lady in the middle, and 'dead' face a bit lower on the left.

Hasat Bin Sult: the main human figures, about life size upper torsos. 1) Muscle man, with a threatening face to the right, holding up a fist. 2) In the middle is the "lady", recognisable because of rounded shapes, where breasts should be. She seems to have a kind of head-cover, or perhaps this is a poor-man's carving of a hair-style. 3) The third figure is at the extreme left, looks like another man. His face is expressionless, hence the nickname 'dead face'.  4) To the lower left is a small carving "little man", perhaps a child?

Muscle Man. Like a Superman, but with a rather aggressive expression on his face

It seems muscle man is holding something in his fist

"Lady" and "dead face"

Close-up of "lady". Notice the gentle carved face with hair or head-cover. The pitted surface is probably caused by the hammering that was used to sculpt the figures from the marble. Notice the fist of muscle man in the upper right.

Hasat Bin Sult: Another head carved in the rock. Compared to the others this one is definitely less realistic and more stylistic, almost like an insect face with large rounded 'bug' eyes. A bit looking like "Spiderman". There is a hint of a torso, but except for the shoulders mostly eroded and rather unclear.

Hasat Bin Sult. The rounded rock-surface could hide more carvings, but these are very difficult to distinguish from the natural rock. Right in the lower middle of the image above seems to be another torso.
One side of the block has a big crack and holes have been hammered along it, undoubtedly to be able to access the top of the rock. Would there be more carvings hiding there?
A very distinctive anthropomorphic (man-like) carving style with triangular / trapezoid torsos, strong shoulders, oval heads and big, hollow 'bug' round eyes. Faces that draw your attention and have clear expressions. A style that is very different from the other carvings in the Al Hajar Mountains. A bit like "shamanistic art" known from other parts of the world. Intriguing. 

What do we further know about this rock art? Yule (2001) describes it as the largest and most important rock art monument in South-eastern Arabia. He recorded the monument in very much detail in 1997 and published an overview in 2001. As it turns out, he describes a total of seven figures and distinguishes different groups and phases of carving, linking it possibly with Persian rock art. He suggests that the violent looking man has been added later.
The rock was subsequently discussed by Reade (2001) and the following is fully quoted from his paper:

QUOTE

I am grateful to David Insall for the information that this is its correct 1ocal name, meaning 'bin Salt's Boulder'. Known to many archaeologists as Coleman's Rock, after the geologist who first drew it to the attention of the outside world, Hasat bin Salt was originally published with several excellent photographs by Keith Preston (1976: 21-5, 30-1, pls. 1-4), who called it Jebel al Abri. The boulder stands isolated in the bed of a wide seasonal watercourse. Two of its roughly vertical sides are crudely carved in low relief with several full-face broad-shouldered beardless human figures, roughly life-size. Many details are obscure because of weathering. There is a group of four figures on the south face. Their positions relative to one another may have been partly dictated by the availability of suitably regular rock surfaces, but the central pair clearly look the most important One of them, closest to the centre and dominating the whole group, is preserved from the head to just below the waist (P1. 5). The figure has slightly raised breasts, and is presumably female; she has hair or a crescentic headdress, and a line at the waist may have been the top of a garment; her shoulders are square, and her arms hang woodenly down on either side. To her right (seen by the viewer), striding away from her, is a figure who is probably male (P1. 6). He has prominent humped shoulders; he brandishes in his raised right hand (for the viewer's left) a weapon described by Preston as a mace, and raises his left hand, which is probably empty; he wears a loin-cloth attached to a twisted belt. His head is at a slightly lower level than that of the central figure, while his right elbow is uncomfortably close to her shoulder and his weapon is higher than her head; he is also more deeply cut into the rock. These details suggest that he was carved later than her, though the work could possibly have been part of the same operation, done by a sculptor who had to work within a restricted area of suitable rock-face and who had little or no experience in planning a large-scale composition. There are two more figures in the group. One is lower down, or the right corner, which has been cut away to provide a regular surface for carving (P1. 6). The figure is half the size of the others, perhaps a child, with at least its left arm hanging at its side in the same wooden posture as that of the central woman; the lower half of the body is obscure. On the left of the group, slightly lower than the central pair, is a figure in the same posture, with slightly raised breasts and wearing a belt and loin-cloth; her left hand at least is empty, and her feet may be turned to the right.


Muscle Man and sketch from photo (right). Notice 'skirt', belt and 'boots'

 On another face of the boulder, in Preston's illustration (1976: pl .1), there are three more figures of similar size, again full-face and beardless. The one on the viewer's right may have a belt; the arms hang down woodenly, and the right hand, the only one visible, seems unnaturally large. The figure on the left has hair or a crescentic headdress, and the same seems to apply to the central figure, which is at a lower level. One of these last two figures, perhaps because it was left unfinished, is described as having a body that has been indicated by pecking rather than relief carving. This last feature suggests a relationship with some of the many pecked figures that have been discovered on Omani rock-faces elsewhere, some of which have similar characteristics: notably the square shoulders of the " rectangular-bodied" style, and the unusually large hands (Preston 197 6: 2I , 34, pls . 1141). One of Preston's examples shows a figure whose feet rest on a pair of bodies, a feature which could suggest that it is a god. Jackli (1980: 8) remarked, of Hasat bin Salt itself; "Does it depict a myth or a ceremony or is it itself part of a myth or a ceremony?" The likely explanation is indeed that the figures are goddesses and gods, worshipped at this spot. It is perhaps worth remarking that elsewhere two elemental phenomena, fecundity broadly associated with the land and water, and strength broadly associated with mountains and storms, have often acquired supernatural personalities as goddesses and gods. It would be somewhat surprising if there was nothing comparable in ancient Oman, but the identity of the seven figures of Hasat bin Salt remains unknown. The carving of the boulder was evidently a time-consuming process, and it must be regarded as an official monument. Most archaeologists would probably tend to place the carvings in the third or second millennium BC, and Maurizio Tosi in conversation has suggested relationships with the art of eastern Iran and Afghanistan.

I am grateful to David Insall, who has been responsible for several improvements in this paper, for further information about the boulder. F{e has told me that there exist at least two stories about Hasat bin Salt, although recent  enquiries among the Beni Hinai at Bilad Sayt, in the immediate vicinity of the boulder, failed to elicit one. According to sources among the 'Abriyin and Hatatilah of Al Hamra three of the figures represent a father, a mother, and their child; the child had been born deformed at Bilad Sayt, and the distraught parents hurled it at the rock, killing it, whereupon they were all three turned to stone. The second story, which derives from elders at Nizwa, relates that the man, who was a white magician (colloquially 'Adil), feared his deformed son had black magical powers (colloquially Qalam) that would affect his own. One day both were at the rock with friends having a party. The father split the rock, took off his son's hat, threw it into the gap between the two halves and told him to fetch it. Using his powers to join the rock again, he imprisoned the boy whose face can still be seen. One might have supposed that the other faces belonged to other people at the party, but that was not said. There are many other impressive boulders in Oman. Insall has noted one about 7 metres high near Mesha'iq Diyan, in the northern Batinah plain, that appears to be associated with the many prehistoric tombs on top of the low hills around it. An even larger one called Hasat al Wadima, by the main road near Doqal, Khaburah, bears some old eroded pecked images as well as more modern ones. He also tells me that he has looked, so far without success, for comparable deep carvings on boulders of this kind. This raises the question of why Hasat bin Salt was carved in this fashion. If one stands back from it, however, at a distance of several hundred metres, a possible explanation presents itself. In the hills rising abruptly just east of the boulder, there is a high vertical outcrop of rock, a huge thumb or phallus projecting upwards, remarkable even among Omani mountains (P1. 7). This outcrop can be seen from as far away as Bahla, possibly also from the hills outside Nizwa. It is a natural phenomenon demanding respect, and this is a plausible reason why a place of worship should have been situated at its foot.

UNQOTE

The drawing of the southern rock face taken from Yule (2001) -and shown below- is a must for anybody interested in this puzzle. It is clear that the rock has suffered from a lot of vandalism more recently and is in need of strong protection measures. The steel stakes surrounding the rock keep the wadi at bay, but do not stop the graffiti monster.

By publishing this location more widely I hope that it helps to increase awareness about its significance. I hope it does not result in yet more destructive visitors. Omani's please be proud of your inheritance and keep this rock for future generations to wonder.

Last but not least a thank you to Iwan de Lugt for helping me to pin down the location of this monument.

Hasat Bin Sult (Hasat Bani Salt), drawing of the southern rock face taken from Yule (2001).

References

  • Arnhem, R., 2008. Hamra, Capital of Abriyin. Oman Today, January 2008 issue.
  • Reade, J. 2000. Sacred places in Ancient Oman. Journal of Oman Studies 11: 133-138
  • Yule, P., 2001. The Hasat Bani Salt in the al-Zahirah Province of the Sultanate of Oma. In: Lux Orientis Archäologie zwischen Asien und Europa, Festschrift für Harald Hauptmann zum 65. Geburtstag, R.M. Boehmer/J. Maran (Hrsg.), Rahden, 2001, S. 443-450. PDF File linked

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@ J. Schreurs June 2009