Prehistoric Small Scale Monument Types in Hadramawt (Southern Arabia): Convergences in Ethnography, Linguistics and Archaeology

Article excerpt


Between 1996 and 2008, the RASA Project has directed multi-disciplinary approaches to an understanding of the lives and landscapes of southern Yemen's highland (Jol) prehistoric inhabitants. Although the research has been fundamentally archaeological, the contributions of palaeoecological, geological, faunal and botanical studies have yielded important insights and underscored the need to pursue multiple lines of evidence in constructing interpretations of the prehistoric past. During this period, ethnographic-ethnohistoric and archaeological collaboration has also interwoven several complementary lines of evidence about the dating and meaning of various types of stone monuments in the ancient southern Jol (Hadramawt province). Classifications of monuments and tombs used by archaeologists can be better interpreted, and indeed differently structured, by the addition of semantic-linguistic and ethnographic evidence available through such collaboration,

The regional geography of Hadramawt province includes two uplifted plateaux bisected west-east by the main Wadi Hadramawt-Wadi Masila drainage (Figure 1). The southern Jol drains mostly toward the north into a series of deeply incised wadis with major channels. In the high headlands of these drainages are gentle basins with broad stretches of alluvial fill and small runoff-irrigation supported settlements. Precipitation is less than 100mm per annum, mostly July-September, and the sparse vegetative cover is dominated by Acacia-Commiphora parkland.


Most of the region today lacks permanent water and can only support mobile pastoral lifestyles; this was also true for most if not all of the Holocene period (McCorriston 2006; McCorriston et al. 2002). Consequently, one of the most striking features of the highland plateaux is the lack of ancient buildings, villages and settlements. This landscape history differs from the deep and sediment-rich Wadi Hadramawt and the mouths of its largest tributaries, in which agriculturally-based settlement appeared as early as 1000 BC. As tribal pastoralists pass through the high plateaux and smaller drainages today, they build and reuse a variety of stone monuments and structures in traditional fashion. Most are non-domestic. Many ancient structures are and remain enigmatic, albeit of regular form and patterned in their distribution.

We have selected some of the most significant non-domestic types for study. The visible remains of Hadramawt's ancient inhabitants are high-placed tombs and stone alignments, monuments, upright stelae, hearths and other alterations of the lower terraces. Our categories are the outcome of three inter-related observations: linguistic-semantic, ethnographic and archaeological. Our typology has some but not full overlap with archaeological classifications and is not comprehensive of all monument types.

Arabic terms for burial practice (see annotated end-table for transliterations)

The principal term for a burial cairn is 'Qubur rukamy', meaning pile of stones, and other terms for stone piles provide interesting insights into ancient practice. In Ibn Manzur's ((d. 1232-1311 or 12) [1981]) Lisan al-Arab, the term 'al-rujm' (1) (from 'rjm' (1)) means stones put together, particularly large stones, in a manner said to be like the tombs of the people of Ad (pre-Islamic inhabitants of Hadramawt named in Holy Qur'an). Rujm also means upright stones around which people performed an encircling ritual ('yatuwfuwna huwlaha' (3)), the 'tawaf' (4). Furthermore, rujm can mean a tomb. Common to all these is the sense of a collection of stones, especially large stones, but specified as smaller than 'al-rudham' (5). And it is therefore also implied that these are stones brought together to build a tumulus ('musannam' (6)) over a tomb. Ibn Manzur quotes the family of Abdallah Bin Mughaffal al Muzni as attributing to him, 'La tarjmuwa qubry' (7) 'Do not make a rujm as my tomb', and interprets this to mean an injunction against making a tumulus over a grave. …