Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The United Arab Emirates Today: Long UAE Archeological Record Shows Links to Earliest Civilizations

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The United Arab Emirates Today: Long UAE Archeological Record Shows Links to Earliest Civilizations

Article excerpt

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, worldwide 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. …

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