Omani cave art to arrive at UHCL ahead of visit from ambassador

April 9, 2018 | UHCL Staff

Omani cave art to arrive at UHCL ahead of visit from ambassador

On April 4, a large crate filled with 35 photographs of prehistoric, pre-Islamic Omani cave art never displayed before on any American college campus was delivered to University of Houston-Clear Lake to be exhibited the week of April 16. Her Excellency Hunaina Sultan Ahmed Al Mughairy, Ambassador of the Sultanate of Oman to the United States will visit the UH-Clear Lake campus to view the exhibition of the collection.

This summer, young art students from the Houston area participating in the celebration of UH-Clear Lake’s Art School for Children’s 40th Anniversary will experience Oman from a carefully crafted curriculum steeped in the history and archeology of the Dhofar province and its ancient cave art. Children will learn about culture and artistic traditions through printmaking, sculpting, drawing, storytelling, and building their own mock cave wall, which they will paint together in the style found in the cave art.

The artworks were found inside numerous caves in the Dhofar region of Oman, a region important for frankincense production, seafaring, and trade. The photographs, on loan from the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., represent the work of archeologist William Zimmerle, assistant professor of humanities at Fairleigh Dickinson University's Metropolitan Campus, and his colleague, Ali Ahmed Al Shahri.

The collection of reproductions, including photos and prints, have made an 8,400-mile journey to UHCL and its cross-global odyssey begins with Associate Professor and Director of Anthropology and Cross-Cultural and Global  Studies, Maria Curtis.

“I’ve always had a thing for cave art,” Curtis said. “When I was a kid, my dad and I read books about archaeology at home. I am just fascinated with cave art because it is at once artistic, historical, and often spiritual expressions from people who lived so long ago.”

Last year, as one of the advisers for Model Arab League representing Iraq, Curtis went to the Iraqi Embassy, having just returned from a study trip to Oman. “I was invited to the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., which is a cultural center and extension of the Omani Embassy,” Curtis said. “The Center’s Executive Director, Kathleen Ridolfo, asked me if I’d like to see some Omani cave art they had on exhibit. She showed it to me and our students, we were all awestruck by the clarity and the variety of images.”

Kathleen Ridolfo told her that arrangements could be made to send the art to Houston. “I’ve been working on getting this collection of cave art here to our campus for about a year,” Curtis said. As a frequent traveler to Oman, Curtis said she had seen the general area where the caves were located, but that they were inaccessible to the general public. “The rock is soft enough to have large openings in this particular region of Oman,” she explained. “This part of the Arabian peninsula is the only one where there are monsoons, so there are times of year when it’s green and cool and misty. Prehistoric people moved in and out of that area. It’s been said that the Queen of Sheba had her palace there.”

The caves were temporary seasonal dwellings for people to survive the lengthy monsoon seasons. “People lived in the caves with their families and they brought their camels to the region to graze in the mild green valleys, where they probably also engaged in long distance trade,” Curtis said. “The area was an ancient center of frankincense production and distribution. We can tell from the art that people came to trade and then moved on because there are pictographic images of what appear to be caravan journeys and seafaring with beautiful vessels. Materials for crafting the dhows is also abundant in this region, probably explain why there are so many images of ships and sea journeys depicted on the walls.”

The art, Curtis said, can be divided in two categories: pictographs and petroglyphs. “The petroglyphs are a kind of prehistoric carving. “The pictographs tell more of a complete story about people moving around and amazingly, we see they had boats, they are done with finer precision and thinner lines,” she explained. “That tells us that these prehistoric people were really sophisticated in their ability to craft shifts, move across great distance, and their ability to express themselves in epic stories captured in images they obviously took great care and time to create.

“They built boats by hand, with no machinery at all. I’ve never seen any other examples of cave art in which actual vehicles were depicted,” Curtis continued. “My colleague, (Assistant Professor of Anthropology) Dawit Woldu, worked on archaeological projects in Ethiopia and Eritrea and he is struck by their stylistic similarities.  This tells us clearly that these regions have shared long cultural and economic ties and exchange.”

There are so many possible interpretations of why there were so many ships, Curtis said. But no matter how they’re analyzed, it demonstrates that these ancient people were communicating with each other, they possessed wealth, they endured conflict, and that they certainly moved around a great deal.

Looking closely at the pictographs also demonstrates how serious these prehistoric people were about business and trade. “This art predates an actual written language, so it’s an important historical record. It’s beyond art because it wasn’t created for purely for aesthetic purposes,” she said. “It’s a written record left behind by the people who lived in the caves, and often one cave might have been inhabited by multiple families across the years, and they added on to what was there.  The images represent continuations of stories, perhaps, or can be seen as being in dialogue with each other across generations,” she said.

Ambassador Al Mughairy will visit the UHCL campus to view the cave art, which will be displayed in the Arbor Building as the focal point of the Art School for Children’s 40th Anniversary celebration. This summer, young art students will be studying archaeology and prehistoric cave art using this collection as their guide. Al Mughairy will also tour the UHCL campus lead a discussion entitled, “Women in International Diplomacy and Global Leadership” at the Student Research and Arts Conference taking place at UHCL April 16-19.  The art will be on display in the Garden Room in the Bayou Building.

For more information about the Art School for Children, visit


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