December 1995, Pages 56-57
The United Arab Emirates Today
Long UAE Archeological Record Shows Links to Earliest Civilizations
By Richard H. Curtiss
With the explosion of industrial, commercial and residential development over the past three decades in the United Arab Emirates, archeological expeditions often are rescue efforts just weeks or days ahead of the bulldozers. In June of this year, archeologists visiting a site at Abu Dhabi international airport where 7,000-year-old stone tools previously had been found, discovered excavations for an extension of the airport were in progress. The digging equipment was only two meters away from mysterious stone cairns that dated to at least 5000 B.C. when the archeologists intervened to have the construction project temporarily halted.
This was followed by an intensive month-long campaign to survey and map what remained of the site, to collect all of the pottery, flint tools and other artifacts, and then excavate the two cairns. The entire rescue operation was carried out in the stupefying heat and humidity of June and July, a time when archeologists in the Arabian Gulf generally retreat to air-conditioned museums and university laboratories to study, record and catalogue the treasures unearthed under more temperate conditions during their winter expeditions.
The hardships endured by two professional archeologists and a crew of volunteer excavators—both UAE citizens and expatriates—were somewhat alleviated by on-site sandwiches and cold drinks donated by the airport catering service, and cash donated by the duty-free shops to pay for equipment required to complete the operation. The Abu Dhabi municipality also supplied paid laborers to help with the heavy shovel work. They were the same laborers originally engaged to plant trees on the site as part of the development of a leisure area by the civil aviation department. It is now planned that two collapsed bronze-age stone structures uncovered by the rescue operation will be reconstructed on the site in their original form and preserved as part of the modern development underway in the area.
Another 7,000-year-old settlement contemporary with the Ubaid period in Iraq has been almost miraculously preserved in a recently developed portion of Abu Dhabi's offshore Dalma island. There, instead of digging into the area to construct foundations for new buildings, the local Women's Association had persuaded developers to build a children's playground over the site before any of the local inhabitants realized its archeological importance.
Despite (and sometimes because of) frequent interruptions for rescue operations, the various archeological departments and offices in the United Arab Emirates have compiled a fascinating record of human occupation of the area that may have begun as early as 60,000 years ago with the presence of Paleolithic hunters. During that period, when glaciers covered much of northern Europe, the entire Arabian peninsula probably enjoyed regular rainfall that turned it into fertile savannah land. With the melting that accompanied the end of the last glacial epoch, however, world-wide sea levels rose, and much of the evidence of the earliest human occupation in the vicinity presumably now lies beneath the waters of the Arabian Gulf.
However, there is clear evidence of the presence of nomadic hunters living in a still fertile countryside in the Neolithic period of 20,000 to 7,000 years ago. Fine flint arrowheads (pictured below) have been discovered on Abu Dhabi's Merawah island dating to 5000 BC and marking a camp-site probably used by hunters who used simple boats to hunt dugongs and turtles.
Almost contemporary with the nomadic Merawah hunters were settlements of people who had trading links with the early Ubaid culture in Mesopotamia. That culture produced the earliest pottery found in the area of southern Iraq which subsequently was inhabited by the Sumerians. The Sumerians, by devising the world's first writing system and building the world's first cities, generally are credited with giving birth to civilisation. In their own writings the Sumerians cite the holy land of "Dilmun" as the source of wisdom and the land of immortality. Written evidence such as references to pearls and fresh water springs points to the ports and islands of the Gulf as that ancient land, with a culture perhaps centered around the islands of present-day Bahrain.
Ubaid potsherds from Iraq (see lower picture on facing page) and local imitations of Ubaid styles have been excavated at Jezirat al Hamra in Ras al Khaimah and in a cemetery in Umm Al Qaiwain, as well as in the extensive ancient settlement found under the children's playground at Dalma island in Abu Dhabi.
Around 3000 B.C. the lifestyle of the people in the present UAE changed, probably as the result of the discovery of copper in the Hajar Mountains. With the copper came a new culture, relative prosperity, and the beginnings of the local bronze age. In tombs of that period in Al Ain are artifacts that closely resemble goods found in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and in Baluchistan, in present-day eastern Iran and Pakistan.
The oasis of Al Ain presumably was a way station for the overland transportation of the copper from the mountains to ports on the Arabian Gulf for export. Tombs at Jebel Emalah in Sharja show the evolution of culture over the next 300 years in the area among people who probably mined copper and also used the water from springs in the foothills to cultivate nearby fertile plains.
By 2500 B.C. another culture, first identified on the island of Umm an Nar in Abu Dhabi, appeared. At that site archeologists found finely made stone tombs, including the one pictured below, and evidence of a settled community that was trading with Mesopotamia.
Sumerian tablets from Ur and other Mesopotamian sites refer to the import of copper from a land to the south called Magan. Archeologists long assumed that Magan was some more distant site in Africa or Asia. Now, however, with the discovery of ancient copper mining sites, historians identify Magan with the UAE and Oman.
Evidence of the Umm an Nar civilization or its influence has been found in Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Umm al Qaiwain and in the Hili Garden at Al Ain, in Abu Dhabi.
The Umm an Nar site was abandoned around 2500 BC, perhaps as a result of changing trade patterns or a change in the sea level. However, Tell Abraq, a high mound near Umm al Qaiwain, has successive layers of debris that point to continuous occupation from around 2600 B.C. to 500 B.C. At the base of the mound is an Umm an Nar-era tomb, while 10-meter-high stone walls indicate it was a major fortress. Excavations have produced goods from Mesopotamia, Iran, Pakistan, India and even Uzbekistan at the site.
During the late Bronze Age between 2000 and 1000 B.C., the area of the present-day UAE seems to have been extensively settled by people whose lifestyles were affected not only by climate changes but also by the rise and fall of the earliest civilizations. Sites of the period in Al Ain, Ras al Khaima, Fujairah and Dubai as well as from Tell Abraq in Umm al Qaiwain indicate that trade relations were maintained with the Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa civilizations in Pakistan, and with the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations in Iraq.
The Bronze Age blended into the Iron Age in the UAE between 1000 and 500 BC, to be followed by a civilization that was influenced by the Hellenistic empires founded by successors to Alexander the Great of Macedonia, who sailed down the Gulf in 324 BC.
By Roman times a new port had emerged on the Arabian Gulf coastline at Ad Door in Umm al Qaiwain. In a cemetery at the site which is estimated to contain as many as 40,000 graves, glass vessels and oil lamps like the one pictured below indicate a substantial population linked to Syria and other Mediterranean lands. A small temple of the period was dedicated to Shams, a deity generally identified with the sun.
Ad Door had declined by the third century AD, about the time that Arab tribes began to migrate into the UAE. Among new settlements that emerged during this period was one on Abu Dhabi's island of Sir Bani Yas dating to the fifth century BC. Among the discoveries there were pieces of plaster bearing Christian crosses, the only evidence to date of the presence of Christianity in the area of the UAE in the pre-Islamic period. The crosses seem to have decorated a building laid out in the form of a monastery, which has not yet been fully excavated. Interestingly, preliminary investigation indicates that the building was never destroyed, but instead fell into disrepair after it was abandoned. This is evidence that the advent of Islam from nearby Saudi Arabia was a peaceful one in which the local population voluntarily converted to the new religion.
It was during the pre-Islamic period that the Gulf reached its highest levels, about 80 centimeters above the present coastline. The sabkha salt flats along the present coast line were submerged areas that have emerged as the sea level has fallen during the past 1,500 years.
With the coming of Islamic times and the arrival of indefatigable Arab travelers and writers, the archeological record is replaced by written records that document events in the UAE up to modern times. However, prior to the beginning of archeological work just over 30 years ago, virtually nothing was known of the pre-Islamic periods in the United Arab Emirates, or their direct and sustained links to the great civilizations that first arose in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers of Mesopotamia, and the Indus River of Pakistan—all at the dawn of recorded human history.