Three new Roman fortified camps have been identified across northern Arabia by a remote sensing survey by the University of Oxford’s School of Archaeology. 

Their paper, published today (April 26) in the journal Antiquity, reports the discovery may be evidence of a probable undocumented military campaign across southeast Jordan into Saudi Arabia.

The camps were identified using satellite images and according to the research team, they may have been part of a previously undiscovered Roman military campaign linked to the Roman takeover of the Nabataean Kingdom in AD 106 CE, a civilisation centred on the world-famous city of Petra.

Dr Michael Fradley, who led the research and first identified the camps on Google Earth, suggests there is little doubt about the date of the camps.

He said: "We are almost certain they were built by the Roman army, given the typical playing card shape of the enclosures with opposing entrances along each side.

"The only notable difference between them is that the westernmost camp is significantly larger than the two camps to the east."

Dr Mike Bishop, an expert on the Roman military, said: "These camps are a spectacular new find and an important new insight into Roman campaigning in Arabia. 

"Roman forts and fortresses show how Rome held a province, but temporary camps reveal how they acquired it in the first place."

The camps would have been built by the army as temporary defended stations when they were marching on campaign.

Dr Fradley added: "The level of preservation of the camps is really remarkable, particularly as they may have only been used for a matter of days or weeks.

"They went along a peripheral caravan route linking Bayir and Dûmat al-Jandal.

"This suggests a strategy to bypass the more used route down the Wadi Sirhan, adding an element of surprise to the attack.

"It is amazing that we can see this moment in time played out at a landscape scale."

Given the distance between each camp is 37 km to 44 km, the team speculate it was too far to be crossed by infantry in a day and were instead built by a cavalry unit who could travel over such barren terrain in a single day, possibly on camels.

On the basis of the distance between the camps there is also a suggestion that another camp may have been located further west at the later Umayyad fort and well station at Bayir. 

The newly discovered camps run in a straight line toward Dûmat al-Jandal in what is now Saudi Arabia, but which was then a settlement in the east of the Nabataean kingdom.

It suggests Rome had to force its takeover, whereas the surviving Roman history argues the transfer of power was a peaceful event at the end of the reign of the last Nabataean king.