ABU DHABI // There remains little today of the civilisation that flourished 5,000 years ago on Umm al Nar. But the momentous discovery on the island in 1959 of cracked pots, green copper flints and the ruins of ancient circular tombs prompted exploration that since then has uncovered thousands of archaeological treasures, a conference heard.
"It was the first archaeologically significant discovery in the region," said Walid Yasin, manager of archaeology at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. He was speaking on the sidelines of the Second International Conference on the Archaeology of the UAE, which began this week. The event also commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Umm al Nar excavations. "The whole region was terra incognita from an archaeological perspective. When Umm al Nar was discovered, people did not believe that a culture from the third millennium BC existed in Abu Dhabi," Mr Yasin added.
Umm al Nar, an island to the south-east of the capital, is now the site of an oil refinery, power plant and military installation. Some time between 3,000 and 2,500 years ago, however, the local population, which had trade links with the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, began to establish a permanent settlement on the island. At first, the site was only temporary, but after time, homes and graves were built.
More than 50 circular grave mounds have been discovered at Umm al Nar, some containing the bodies of up to 200 people. Mr Yasin said the culture was a local one, and existed for about three centuries until the site was suddenly and inexplicably abandoned. Climatic conditions could have caused the decline, as could a shift in ancient trade. What is certain are the traces of life that the people of Umm al Nar left behind.
"We know about their community and economy, the architecture of Umm al Nar and the items they traded with," Mr Yasin said. "Every single object, from the copper to the stone, shines a light on what kind of people they were." Pottery found in the burial mounds showed that the people imported their pots from Mesopotamia and relied largely on fish and other seafood for nutrition. Since its discovery in 1959, Umm al Nar has become one of the largest archaeological sites along the coast. It was found in an era when the Emirate had yet to enjoy the proceeds of oil. In the late 1950s, archaeologists from the Moesgård Museum in Denmark received permission from the then Ruler, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, to explore the site, where burial mounds had long been rumoured to exist.
The £2,000 (Dh10,320) bill for the excavation could barely be afforded by the Ruler at the time. With support from the museum, the archaeologists built a palm-frond shack by the sea, shipped canned food from the small, canvas souk in Abu Dhabi, hired local men and set to work. They uncovered graves, stonework and simple sites that were then shipped back to Denmark. Many of the artefacts found at Umm al Nar were returned to Abu Dhabi after the inauguration of the Al Ain National Museum in 1971, according to Flemming Hojlund, a representative of the Moesgård museum who spoke at the conference.
"Whatever they asked to be returned, it was," he said. firstname.lastname@example.org