07: Circles [7 March 2013]

Al Jassasiya is a site of petroglyphs, stone carvings of indeterminate age, about an hour's drive north of Doha. Initial discovery placed them at 'older than we really know how to think about', but recent studies claim they're not more than a couple hundred years old. Regardless of their age, there's nothing definitive known of their origin or significance. The area surrounding the glyphs is fenced off, and includes an abandoned dwelling that can't be more than a few decades old, and remnants of a lot of dynamite blasting. Signs all around the area claim that it's a preserved archaeological site that one must obtain permission to enter, but since the gate was wide open and no one was in sight, we weren't too shy about exploring for a few hours.

The glyphs mostly took the form of carved circles that appeared in a few patterns, repeated over and over again wherever there was a wide section of smooth, flat rock. The most frequent formation was pairs of circles forming lines, usually two by seven, but sometimes longer, and sometimes three by six. A common interpretation is that they were mankala boards, but it didn't seem right once I looked at them; I can't imagine why anyone would need a dozen mankala boards pointing in all different directions but crowded closely together, and some of them appeared on steep slopes. A few of the patterns were very geometric, and most notable was a bisected right triangle that appeared in a couple different places at different scales. Some of the circles seemed likely to be constellation charts.

Once we knew what we were looking for, we started seeing them everywhere, including on some rock several miles away at Fuwairit and on chipped off flakes as part of a Bedouin exhibit in someone's private museum. Whenever I pass exposed flat rock of that sort that hasn't been blasted away or buried from construction rubble, I'm looking for circles. But I keep thinking back to the Al Jassasiya site, and particularly to a feeling that passed while I was feeling the indentations with my hands. I had the unshakable thought that the hundreds and hundreds of circles carved there were done by one person, that some of the scattered circles on one rise was just scratchwork, polishing his technique and trying out some patterns, and the more organized, deliberate work on the neighboring hill was a final draft. I thought of graffiti artists who leave inscrutable marks just because they can, and copycats who spread a particular motif they find interesting.

I have the urge to carry a chisel with me the next time I'm up in the mountains when I'm back stateside and start scattering circles everywhere.

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