Incredible discovery: Using Google Earth, Oxford archaeologists uncover Roman military camps in the desert

Newly discovered Roman military camps in northern Arabia are shedding new light on the Roman takeover of the Nabataean Kingdom in AD 106 CE. The camps were identified using satellite images by the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa project (EAMENA), and were later photographed by the Aerial Archaeology in Jordan project (APAAME). According to Dr Michael Fradley, the leader of the research team and first person to identify the camps on Google Earth, the typical playing card shape of the enclosures with opposing entrances along each side suggests they were built by the Roman army.

The temporary camps, located in what is now Saudi Arabia, were likely built when the Romans were marching on campaign, and would have served as defended stations for a matter of days or weeks. The level of preservation of the camps is remarkable, especially given that they may have only been used for a short period. The team speculate that the camps were built by a cavalry unit who could travel across barren terrain, possibly on camels.

One of the most interesting aspects of the discovery is the distance between each of the camps. At 37-44km apart, it is unlikely that infantry units could have crossed the distance in one day, suggesting that these camps were built specifically for a cavalry unit. The team also speculates that another camp may have been located further west at the later Umayyad fort and well station at Bayir.

The new evidence challenges the previously held belief that the takeover of the Nabataean Kingdom was a peaceful event at the end of the reign of the last Nabataean king. The camps suggest that Rome had to take decisive action to secure the kingdom, possibly through a campaign that involved multiple camps and a cavalry unit. The discovery is an important new insight into Roman campaigning in Arabia, according to Dr Mike Bishop, an expert on the Roman military.

While the discovery is exciting, there are still many unanswered questions. Professor Andrew Wilson, a co-author on the paper, wonders why the western camp has twice the capacity of the other two, and whether the force split and if so, where did the other half go. The answer to these questions may provide even more insight into the Roman takeover of the Nabataean Kingdom, and the tactics they used to secure it.

The research was supported by the Arcadia Fund, and the full paper can be seen at While archaeologists still need to confirm the date of the camps through investigation on the ground, the discovery is a significant contribution to our understanding of Roman military tactics and their expansion into other parts of the world.

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