Sunday, March 10, 2024

About Ancient Arabia, Investing and mapping Ancient Arabia

The starting point: the Maparabia project

The Ancient Arabia website was launched as part of the French National Research Agency research project Maparabia (2018-2023, ANR-18-CE27-0015, P.I. J. Schiettecatte, CNRS, UMR 8167). It is devoted to the study of the Arabian Peninsula through data analysis and mapping of the territorial, historical and cultural dynamics. The funding allocated to the project has enabled a group of researchers from various backgrounds, fields (history, archaeology, epigraphy, linguistics, geomatics and geography) and institutions (CNRS, CNR, University of Pisa), to work hand in hand to produce a much-needed set of scientific tools.


Whoever has had the opportunity to consult maps of the ancient Near East will have noticed the absence of most of the Arabian Peninsula, showing at best the northern fringe or the shore of the Persian Gulf. The area was often relegated to the background, assumed to be empty barren desert. Yet, 50 years of intensive research on the pre-Islamic history of the Peninsula has shown quite the opposite. And this last decade has been marked by an incredible boost to research in this area, fostered by the production of corpuses, the investigation of new territories (Saudi Arabia) and its share of breakthroughs.

It has now become vital to optimize the available data; to develop tools for data analysis and to produce syntheses incorporating the results of recent research.


The objective of Ancient Arabia is to produce a set of tools with a common aim: to model territorial and cultural dynamics by cross-referencing the various available sources. These analyses yield an updated regional history from the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE to the 7th cent. CE.

The issues addressed in the scope of the project are as varied as the settlement urbanization process in one of the most arid places on Earth; the nature and evolution of religious beliefs and practices and the underlying problem of characterizing pre-Islamic polytheism, its evolution into henotheism, the adoption of Judaism and Christianity and the topical issue of the origin and spread of Islam. In parallel, linguistic features, languages and writings, for their intrinsic values as much as for their significance as markers of identity and the socio-political organization of Arabia and its evolution, are examined at the scale of tribes and kingdoms.

Scientific approach and tools

One of the most effective ways of visualizing cultural dynamics is the cartographic approach. Up until now, tools such as a web mapping platform (Geographic Information System) and a gazetteer of places names (Knowledge Organization System) were still missing from the spatial approach to the data analysis of the ancient Arabian Peninsula. The datasets underpinning these tools were implemented by the aggregation of researchers’ desktop databases, and close collaboration with researchers developing two major archives: DASI — Digital Archive for the Study of pre-Islamic Arabian Inscriptions (UniPisa/CNR) and OCIANA — The Online Corpus of the Inscriptions of Ancient North Arabia (University of Oxford).

In addition, the need for a synoptic history of the ancient Arabian Peninsula led to the development of a Thematic Dictionary of Ancient Arabia. This dictionary aims to cover a wide range of topics, such as tribes, kingdoms, languages, deities, religious aspects, important historical figures etc., which are key to understanding the dynamics at work in Ancient Arabia. Entries are to be as significant and varied as possible in order to present an updated vision of the history of the Arabian Peninsula, without aiming to be exhaustive.


The project brings together sixteen researchers and engineers from various institutions in Europe. They form a highly complementary work group with a range of skills covering fields such as history, archaeology, epigraphy, palaeography, philology, geomatics and geography.

The scientific coordinator of the Maparabia project, J. Schiettecatte, is a researcher at the CNRS, France. The French-Italian team groups together research fellows, engineers, post-doctoral researchers and postgraduates from four of the major laboratories dedicated to pre-Islamic Arabia: Orient et Méditerranée (UMR 8167, Paris), Archéorient  (UMR 5133, Lyon), Dipartimento di Civiltà e Forme del Sapere of the University of Pisa, and the Istituto di Scienze del Patrimonio Culturale at the CNR (CNR-ISPC, Milano).

The project is backed up by the resources of the TGIR (Très Grande Infrastructure de Recherche) Huma-Num, offering secured data storage, and repository and website hosting. The project meets the national requirements for open access concerning data and publications. Interoperability is ensured at repository and record level by standard protocols, metadata schemas and formats. Open data licences will be released.


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