Carnegie Museum of Natural History

For more information, contact: Leigh Kish
Carnegie Museum of Natural History
412.622.3361 (0), 412.526.8587 (C)

June 15, 2012


Carnegie Scientists Share the Writing on the Wall with the Public
New website featuring Saudi Arabian rock art launched

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania… Armchair explorers can use their computers for a scientific expedition in search of answers to history’s mysteries, thanks to the work of a team led by two scientists from Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Sandra Olsen—director of the Center for World Cultures, world-renowned zooarchaeologist and authority in horse domestication—along with K. Christopher Beard, a leading expert in primate evolution and movement of species over continents, have been working with award-winning photographer Richard T. Bryant, and petroglyph—or rock art—expert Dr. Majeed Khan to document, study, and interpret the ancient stone engravings in remote areas of the Saudi Arabian desert. Now, the public can explore art depicting many aspects of ancient life, such as hunting and daily activities, through high-resolution images and read the experts’ thoughts and interpretations via a new website, Arabian Rock Art Heritage (, launched on May 24, 2012. Arabian Rock Art Heritage, including this website, is made possible through the generosity of the Layan Cultural Foundation in Saudi Arabia established by HRH Princess Adela bint Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and HH Prince Faissal bin Abdullah bin Mohammad al-Saud. Without their personal as well as financial support, this project would not have been possible.

            Visitors to the website can navigate through the images by subject (such as horses, humans, warfare, wild animals, and plants), artistic renderings, or imaging technique. One such technique, GigaPan, developed by Carnegie Mellon University and NASA, allows users to zoom into large-scale, high-resolution photographs to see small details. The images are so detailed that scientists such as Olsen can study the petroglyphs from her lab in Pittsburgh, leaving the original art on the cliff faces undisturbed in Saudi Arabia.

            “The application of GigaPan robotic panoramic photography to ancient rock art is ideal for scientists and, via our website, the public at large. By placing our enormous panoramas on the website, anyone can navigate them, zoom in on minute details, and develop his or her own conclusions about what the artists were trying to convey. The website brings some of the world’s most inaccessible places to your computer, giving anyone access to the amazingly rich Saudi cultural heritage,” explains Sandra Olsen.

            As a zooarchaeologist—a scientist who studies the historical relationship between humans and animals—Olsen is a perfect fit for this project. She is particularly knowledgeable about the domestication of horses and how life with horses affected human society. This expertise allows her to interpret the petroglyphs from a unique anthropological standpoint. She has also studied the famous cave paintings in southwestern France and petroglyphs in Kazakhstan. In the Saudi Arabian rock art, Olsen is looking for, among other things, evidence of the origins of the Arabian horse.

 “These extraordinary petroglyphs will continue to form a discussion point about the origins of the Arabian horse for archaeologists for many years to come. We were privileged to be able to explore these sites in Saudi Arabia with the generous and knowledgeable help of local experts who gave us so much of their time and with the support of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities. We are delighted that we can now share the results of that work in detail with archaeologists around the world,” said Olsen.

            Beard’s focus on the project is to study the movements of animals, calling on his vast knowledge of primate migration from Asia to Africa. Many of the animals found in the art do not have evolutionary origins in the Arabian Peninsula, so Beard’s experience with the migration of ancient species and climate change helps him reconstruct the ecology at the time the images were created. This evidence corroborates information found in other scientific investigations, indicating that the Arabian Peninsula was not always as arid desert.

The public launch of the Arabian Rock Art Heritage website coincides with the opening of The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot at the British Museum, which features an interactive GigaPan display of samples of this Saudi rock art. Another interactive display about this project is available for visitors to explore in M is for Museum, an exhibition running through August 30, 2012, at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Center for World Cultures  

Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Center for World Cultures is devoted to the study of how cultures have developed over time as humans evolve, react to, and change the natural environment. A major focus for the Center’s researchers and educators is the search for new approaches to studying and sharing the museum’s archaeological and ethnographic collections. The Center also produces exhibitions, public programs, and publications that celebrate the diversity of cultures around the world. The Center for World Cultures was launched in December 2011 and is under the direction of Sandra Olsen.


Carnegie Museum of Natural History, one of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, is among the top natural history museums in the country. It maintains, preserves, and interprets an extraordinary collection of 22 million objects and scientific specimens used to broaden understanding of evolution, conservation, and biodiversity. Carnegie Museum of Natural History generates new scientific knowledge, advances science literacy, and inspires visitors of all ages to become passionate about science, nature, and world cultures. More information is available by calling 412.622.3131 or by visiting the website,