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Excavating Zabid

Royal Ontario Museum Yemen Project Overview

Rock paintings of al-Mastur

Edward Keall
Curator Emeritus
Royal Ontario Museum

 al-Mastur rock-face

Rock paintings of al-Mastur

In the foothills behind Hays, in the Wadi Fuwayl district, a rock face carries images painted in red ochre. Lithic tools were excavated in the talus below the painted rock-face. A feasible explanation for the al-Mastur site is that it was a natural entrance into the wadi, potentially a perfect place to sit in wait for game to approach water sources. It is logical to associate the tools with these hypothetical hunters.  No cultural association has been attributed to these tools (apart from emphasizing the a-ceramic context in which they were found, and their lithic characteristics). The painted motifs include stick figures, as well as symbols that could conceivably be interpreted as proto-alphabetic letters. This implies that they were most likely designed before 1850 BCE, the earliest proposed date for the invention of the first alphabetic script (proto-Sinaitic).


In conjunction with what is known about pre-Islamic Zabid and al-Midamman (late Bronze Age culture ca. 2000-800 BCE) the question arises – who were these people at al-Mastur? Surely, if they had existed when the people of al-Midamman had been exploring for megaliths in the Sarat foothills, there would have been some contact and interchange of ideas.


At the far end of the al-Mastur valley, the lithic tools found on a settlement site can be classified as Palaeolithic. Their presence on a now exposed bare rock surface, at the end of the al-Mastur valley, can be interpreted as reflecting a time when the terrain in the Pleistocene era was vastly different than it is today, and even from that of the Bronze and Iron Ages.


al-Mastur rock shelter


Red-painted figures on the al-Mastur rock-face


Stylized symbols

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