Wits University’s Professor Lee Berge speaks to delegates on the first day of the inaugural Saudi archaeological convention in Riyadh. Picture: Kevin Ritchie

Riyadh - South Africa’s Lee Berger has urged Saudi Arabian archaeologists to take a leaf from his book – to popularise science, get the country excited and make the world sit up and take note.

Berger was one of the keynote speakers at the first day of the inaugural Saudi archaeological convention on Tuesday in Riyadh, the kingdom’s capital.

Held under the patronage of King Salman and driven by his son Prince Sultan bin Salman, the three-day convention being held in the King Abdul Aziz Historical Centre, is the culmination of more than a decade’s co-ordinated, multi-disciplinary archaeological explorations blending international best practice from across the globe with the cream of local talent.

On Tuesday, scientists from across the world heard how archaeological teams had discovered that oases in the desert kingdom had played an integral role in the Bronze Age economy, between Egypt, the Levant and the Babylonian society, well before their role as critical refreshment stops along the north south incense road.

“We have to abandon our view of oases as palm trees and camel herds,” said German archaeologist Dr Arnulf Hausleiter, “the maps will have to be redrawn.”

Likewise, well-preserved shell mounds dating back 6 500 years ago on coastal plains suggested that prehistoric man had made his way up from Africa through the Middle East.

“The world has to appreciate that the Arab peninsula is not a cultural backwater but actually at the heart of human development,” said British archaeologist Professor Geoff Bailey, marvelling at what he had seen in the 11 years he has been working in the region as part of the Saudi government initiative. 

“There are only two ways out of Africa to the rest of the world; the Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea."

“The actual dates of what we have found don’t go very far, but there is undoubtedly other material waiting to be discovered.”

Berger agreed wholeheartedly. Using his own work, pertinently the Homo Naledi find, as a benchmark, Berger told the academics and scientists how his approach was to move to make his research as transparent and as broad-based as possible.

“A typical expedition will have a million people following us. We use everyone from students to senior scientists, from volunteers – including my own children – to highly paid experts.

“The experience we’ve gained has helped us develop new technologies and techniques. We work in extremely tough environments where no one thought anything was there. We are beginning to stretch the idea of where we explore. We began with the recognition that were more sites in the sandstone and dolomitic areas.”

This, he said, was precisely what needed to happen in Saudi Arabia, which had similar conditions, but were largely unexplored.

“I understand the importance of preserving the Islamic history and discovering the pre-Islamic history, I fully comprehend the need to know the past to know the future, but I want you to go beyond there to encourage your pursuit of the deep past, because it is even more critical to understanding the future.”
Most of all, said Berger, channel archaeological exploration for the good of the entire country.

“Publicity is important, it brings the interest, not just of other scientists but also the public. We’ve always believed in open access, we have allowed fossils that we have recovered to be reproduced by school kids and students on 3D printers up to 40 000 times (to keep that interest going).

“Make science and tourism work for you. We’ve brought thousands of tourists onto extremely remote sites, creating businesses and jobs where there were none before.”

* Kevin Ritchie is Independent Media’s Gauteng regional editor. He is in Saudi Arabia as a guest of the Saudi Commission on Tourism and National Heritage.