There are few more iconic images of the Middle East than the desert nomad leading a camel caravan across the dunes. Certainly the nomadic culture of the Bedouin is integral to the region, but this is only part of the story. As the study of an Iron Age site in Sharjah proceeds - unearthing evidence of the early domestication of the dromedary, the UAE's oldest example of script and of a settlement model previously unknown in the region - clues to a more complex story are being pieced together.
Camels are not only the proverbial ships of the desert. The archaeologist Peter Magee, who has worked on the Muwailah site since 1993, explains that camel husbandry was a vital foundation for greater economic integration, fuelling a transformation that contributed to the rise of seats of civilisation such as Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo. While Al Ain and Sharjah may appear humble settlements by comparison, their development over the millennia was subject to social and economic changes that were felt throughout the region.
For the history enthusiast, there is the uncomplicated thrill of age-old adventure. Muwailah's defensive perimeter, for example, and its destruction by fire, provide a fertile field for the imagination. But there is a greater skein to be unravelled. Conflict, but more often economic and cultural interaction, leads to the building of cities and the rise of civilisations. Today's Middle East emerged from this process. The finds at Muwailah show that the secrets of how this jigsaw came together may lie beneath our feet.