Archaeobotanical Evidence for Early Date Consumption on Dalma Island, United Arab Emirates

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Recent archaeological excavations carried out on Dalma island, located in the southwestern part of the Arabian Gulf some 45 km off the coast of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (FIGURE 1), have revealed exciting new evidence for the early harvesting and consumption of dates (Phoenix dactylifera). Work carried out at the site (DA11) between 1992 and 1994 as part of the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey established the presence of an early Neolithic beach settlement with structures and middens (Flavin & Shepherd 1994). Small quantities of imported painted `Ubaid ware from southern Mesopotamia were recovered, along with a large assemblage of what appear to be locally made gypsum plaster vessels. Many thousands of flint flakes and numerous tools (including drills, arrowheads, scrapers and tile knives) were found, as well as nearly a hundred ornamental beads and pendants of varying type. Food debris took the form of marine mollusca and animal remains, including a substantial assemblage of fish bones. Sondages excavated on the site in 1998 on the basis of earlier work revealed important further traces of the settlement, confirming the presence of at least two roundhouse-like structures with surviving post-holes and floors (Beech & Elders 1999; Elders & Beech 1998).


Radiocarbon dating of the Dalma date stones

During the excavation in 1998 of a burnt layer or possible hearth (context 15, first identified in 1993), located about 25 cm above the floor level of one of the structures, several interesting archaeobotanical finds were made. These were a complete carbonized date stone as well as two fragments of burnt mud-brick which had impressions of date stones within them (FIGURES 2-3). A further carbonized date stone had been recovered during the 1994 season from a redeposited sand layer just below the present-day ground surface (context 4, FIGURE 2). As no other suitable dating material had been recovered during previous work at the site, it was decided to submit both these carbonized date stones for AMS radiocarbon dating.


The date stones were sent to the Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre (SURRC) radiocarbon laboratory at the University of Glasgow who, in conjunction with the University of Arizona AMS facility, performed the dating of the samples. The details of their findings are presented in TABLE 1. Calibrations are made using the University of Washington, Quaternary Isotope Laboratory, Radiocarbon Calibration Program, Rev. 4.0 1998, using the datasets derived from Stuiver et al. (1998). The decadal atmospheric calibration curve is used. Calibrated age ranges are calculated with 2-sigma errors from the probability distributions. The relative area under the probability distribution is given in brackets after the age range.



The previous earliest evidence for date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) remains in the United Arab Emirates were the date palm imprints excavated from Hili 8. These were from the Building VI deposit in Period 1, dating to around 3000 BC (Cleuziou & Costantini 1980). Dates also occur in late 3rd-early 1st-millennium levels at Tell Abraq, UAE (Potts 1990). Very recently date palm phytoliths have been successfully identified from a 1st-century BC--AD 1st-century layer near the main entrance of a temple at ed-Dur, Umm al-Qaiwain, UAE (Haerinck et al. 1998). This particular deposit, along with a bronze ring seal, illustrating a person holding what appears to be a palm leaf in their hand, clearly illustrates the symbolic as well as economic importance of dates in the region. Date stones have been recovered from other Gulf sites at Failaka, Kuwait, dating to 2000 BC (Rowley-Conwy 1987) and from Qala't al-Bahrain, Bahrain, dating to 1475 BC (Potts 1990).

Elsewhere, a number of carbonized date stones have been reported from the mid 3rd-millennium BC `Royal Cemetery' at Ur (Ellison et al. …