At first glance, it looked like a simple piece of sandstone. But there were line carved into its weathered surface, and they caught his eye.
That second glance, 36 years ago, led Thomas Barger, CEO of the Arabian American Oil Company, to an archeological discovery that is changing modern understanding of the reach of imperial Rome in Arabia. Recently unveiled as the centerpiece of the Barger Collection in Saudi Arabia's National Museum in Riyadh, the inscribed stele tells a story that began almost 2000 years ago in Bostra, capital of the province of Roman Arabia, and ended last month in Saudi Arabia's capital city.
Barger's chapter of the story began on February 5, 1965, at the end of a seven-day sightseeing expedition he had organized for some 30 people to the Nabataean tombs at Madain Salih in Saudi Arabia's Hijaz Province. The group had just finished a picnic in the shadow of the tombs when Barger and several others wandered over to look at what they knew were Nabataean wells. As two Bedouins accompanying them tossed stones out of one of the wells to partially clear it, Barger noticed the stele, and arranged to keep it. In a note added to his wife Kathleen's account of the trip, he wrote: "On our last morning, we bought a stone about two feet high and five inches square [60 x 12 x 12 cm] that had been dug up in cleaning out one of the Nabataean wells. It has a Greek inscription carved on it, which I have photographed in various angles of light. As soon as we get the photos back, I shall try to write out the inscription and get it translated."
The following year, Barger submitted a photograph of the stele to Archaeology magazine, along with his account of its discovery. When Harvard University historian Glen Bowersock saw the photograph, he realized he could read the text. He contacted Barger. "He seemed very excited," recalls Bowersock, who is now on the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Barger sent him more photographs, as well as a rubbing, and the translation was published in a second Archaeology article in 1969, which illuminated the significance of the find.
"To [honor] the good Fortune [Tyche] of Bostra / Hadrian, a painter with the Third Cyrenaican Legion, [set this up,]" it read. Because the painter/donor of the stele is named for the emperor Hadrian, who reigned from AD 117 to 138, the stele is believed to date to the second or third century.
"What is so exciting about this stele is that it shows the presence of a legionary force in Madain Salih," says Bowersock. This Nabataean stronghold lies some 500 kilometers (300 mi) farther south than any portion of the Third Cyrenaican Legion, which dominated Roman Arabia from its base at Bostra [south of Damascus], is believed to have been stationed. For some time, archeologists have debated the inclusion of Madain Salih and the northern Hijaz in the Roman province of Arabia: Lacking evidence to the contrary, the province was often asserted to have ended at Aqaba.
"The stele provides powerful evidence that the Hijaz was included in the Roman Arabian province, just as it had been a part of the Nabataean kingdom," explains Bowersock. "In fact, if the occupying army of Arabia was represented by a painter in Madain Salih, then he hadn't wandered across the frontier by mistake. A painter would not go down there [with the legion] to deal with incursions, he would be there because there was a settled legionary presence." Madain Salih had been the southernmost city of the Nabataeans.
In the 1970's, British archeologists found a bilingual inscription in Nabataean and Greek at Ruwwafa, northwest of Madain Salih. The inscription describes how the governor of Arabia supported and approved of the construction of a temple at Ruwwafa. This find and Barger’s Bowersock claims, "seem to" put beyond any doubt that this area was indeed part of the Roman province."
Dr. Khaleel al-Muaikel, chairman of the department of archaeology at King Sa'ud University in Riyadh, offers a clue as to why the stele was found in a well. An invading force would likely destroy or contaminate the water supply of a settlement it had overrun to discourage the inhabitants from returning, often by filling in the wells. "The burying of steles in wells is an ancient practice," he says.
"My dad knew right away that the stone was important," says Timothy J. Barger, who recently edited and published his father's letters from the early years in Arabia as a book, Out in the Blue. "He knew the inscription was Greek and he was puzzled that a Greek stone would be found in a Nabataean well." In addition to being "in the right place at the right time," Barger also credits his father's experienced eye as a geologist, coupled with his passion for archeology.
Knowing what he did, Thomas Barger was determined that the stele be preserved as a part of Saudi Arabia's history. When he retired in 1969, he took the stele and nine other artifacts with him to the United States for safekeeping, until a national museum could be built. His eldest daughter, Annie Barger Hebert, recalls her father talking about the eventual return of the artifacts. "My father admired and deeply respected the Saudis," she says. "We knew it was always his intent to return these objects, once there was a safe and appropriate place for them to be stored and catalogued."
In 1981, Barger turned to Father Carney Gavin, then curator of the Harvard Semitic Museum, for help in securing the artifacts' return. Aware of Gavin's monumental work in preserving and cataloguing the 19th-century photographs known as the Bonfils Collection, Barger entrusted the artifacts to Gavin with the understanding that, when a suitable museum was built in Saudi Arabia, Gavin would return them on his behalf. Barger did this, Gavin says, after being diagnosed with a fatal illness, knowing that he would not be able to accomplish the task himself. "I accepted a charge from a dying man who very deliberately put this upon me, and it is satisfying for me, as someone trained in classical Roman imperial archeology at Oxford, to be involved in the return home of this document," says Gavin, who is now president and curator of the Archives for Historical Documentation in Boston.
During the 16 years between Barger's discovery of the artifacts and his passing them to Gavin in 1981, Saudi scholars themselves had begun to focus on the history and archeology of the kingdom, and their careful excavations and publications had enormously increased understanding of the Peninsula's pre-Islamic history. Regional museums and a small national archeological museum had been built, and the nation's interest in its past culminated in the opening of the National Museum in Riyadh in 1999. With that, the artifacts could go home.
On April 1, Annie Barger Hebert and Timothy Barger, along with Gavin, Dr. Roger Fisher of Harvard and more than 100 Saudi scholars and dignitaries, attended a ceremony at the National Museum hosted by Prince Sultan ibn Salman and celebrating the return of what is now called the Barger Collection.
That evening, Saad al-Rashid, Deputy Minister for Antiquities and Museums, credited the collaboration among the Barger family, Prince Sultan, Prince Muhammad ibn Nawaf—Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Italy—Gavin and Harvard University for facilitating the return. "What has happened here tonight," explained Gavin, who also spoke at the ceremony, "is the result of many good people working very hard to fulfill the late Mr. Barger's wish. As these treasures are presented to the future of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it is very touching to realize that the basic message of this Roman stele is, 'Thank God,' or 'Thanks to divine Providence.' What a fitting inscription for this event!"
"The return of the stele and the other pieces from the Barger Collection has many meanings for us in Saudi Arabia," explained al-Rashid. "It links two institutions— the National Museum and Harvard—and it particularly gives credit to Thomas Barger, a man who loved Saudi Arabia, the land and its people. It may also open the way for other American friends to return artifacts they obtained in Saudi Arabia."
Prior to the ceremony, al-Rashid explained, "What we now have on display in national and regional museums is only a small part of our history. Therefore, any item discovered provides additional knowledge for us."
Faisal al-Muamma, director of the King 'Abel al-'Aziz Library, put the ceremony in perspective. "Twenty or 30 years ago, the country was busy building its infrastructure," he said. "Today, there is a greater interest in the past, and now it's time to take care of our culture and build something for future generations."
"This would have been a wonderful event for my father," commented Timothy Barger, explaining that Thomas Barger would have appreciated the museum's state-of-the-art design and its broad portrayal of Saudi Arabian history. In a sense, he said, the discovery and return of the stele is all a reflection of Tyche. "It was good fortune that my father found and identified the stele, and that it has now been returned. May it continue to be a symbol of the good fortune of Saudi Arabia."
Piney Kesting is a free-lance writer in Boston who specializes in the Middle East.
Elizabeth Carella is a photographer for the Archives for Historical Documentation in Boston.