Hammat Al-Qa and the Roots of Urbanism in Southwest Arabia

Article excerpt

Arabia is not known for its early towns and there are few records of urban-scale settlements before the 1st millennium BC. Our aim here is to announce the existence of numerous large settlements of the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC in highland Yemen, and to illustrate the layout of one of the best examples. In 1999 the site of Hammat al-Qa was planned stone-by-stone to reveal a complex and dense pattern of buildings over a total site area of 5 ha, together with off-site features such as terraced fields and threshing floors. Chronological control is provided by radiocarbon assay of excavated charcoals and a local ceramic sequence. The site will be placed in the broader context of urbanism in Arabia in order to highlight the significance of the site, and to show how it differs from comparable large settlements found elsewhere in the peninsula.

By the end of the 3rd millennium BC large settlements were evident at Tarut Island in Saudi Arabia (Potts 1990: 66-7, 105-9), Qalat al-Bahrain (Hojlund & Andersen 1997), Saar (also on Bahrain: Crawford et al. 1997), Tell Abraq (UAE: Potts 1991), Hili in the UAE (Cleuziou 1982), and Bat in Oman (Frifelt 1976) (FIGURE 1). Qalat Bahrain, a tell measuring 700 x 400 m, is the largest of these settlements, and if occupied to its fullest extent in the late 3rd millennium, this must have been a town capable of housing some 3000 people (Hojlund 1989). Unfortunately owing to the overburden of later occupation, the layout of this as well as other large sites on Bahrain is little known, and we must therefore turn to sites such as Saar for evidence of settlement layout (Crawford et al. 1997). Similarly, in interior Oman and the Emirates although settlements may have been extensive, their location within cultivated oases has resulted in their plans being obscured or disturbed by later agricultural activities (Cleuziou 1982). Thus Frifelt's (1976) estimation of 30-40 ha for Bat is based on an assumed continuity of settlement between fortified towers; if only extant building remains are used the settlement decreases to around 4 ha in area (Brunswig 1989).


In Yemen pre-Iron Age settlement was first documented in 1981 in the Khawlan district of the eastern highlands, where an Italian team investigated numerous small 3rd-millennium settlements (de Maigret 1990). Similar small sites sharing the same architectural and ceramic tradition appear in the desert fringes of interior Yemen (e.g. Blakely et al. 1996; Cleuziou et al. 1992; Breton & Darles 1994). Finally, at Sabir near Aden recent investigations have demonstrated the existence of a massive town of the late 2nd millennium and early 1st millennium BC (Vogt & Sedov 1998).

In the Yemen highlands, where rainfall in excess of 300 mm per annum fails on intermontane plateaus between 2000 and 3000 m above sea level, recent archaeological surveys indicate that large Bronze Age settlements were common. Unlike the settlements of the Gulf and southeast Arabia, those of Yemen are on hilltops and are distinguished by the clarity of their building layouts which consist of collapsed and heavily weathered walls. A key factor for settlement is that as a result of their location in the zone of summer monsoonal rainfall these highlands are the best watered part of the Arabian peninsula. The potential for significant crop production is high as long as there is sufficient soil for cultivation, a deficit that is usually addressed by the construction of terraced fields.

The Dhamar survey

Since 1994, a team from the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago has surveyed and conducted limited excavations in the intermontane plains and surrounding highlands of the Dhamar region, some 80 km south of Sana'a in Yemen. As this part of Yemen had not previously received systematic study, the project has developed a ceramic sequence using comparisons with pottery from the drier eastern highlands (Khawlan, Jawf, Wadi al-Jubah, Wadi Markha) and radiometrically dated excavated samples (Edens 1999). …