Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 January 2019

Remembering Ernie Haerinck, the archaeologist who shone a light on the secrets of the UAE's past

Peter McGee writes about Prof Ernie Haerinck, who worked tirelessly to bring the UAE's history to the world
Despite his scholarly achievements, Professor Ernie Haerinck remained accessible to his students. Courtesy Peter Magee
Despite his scholarly achievements, Professor Ernie Haerinck remained accessible to his students. Courtesy Peter Magee

Professor Ernie Haerinck, one of the pioneering archaeologists who worked in the UAE, died on October 5. His excavations at many sites revolutionised the way we understand the ancient history of the UAE, the Arabian Gulf and Iran.

Born in Belgium on June 20, 1949, he graduated from the University of Ghent in 1971 with a degree in the archaeology of the Ancient Near East. As a PhD student he studied under Professor Louis Vanden Berghe, one of the great scholars of ancient Iran. He accompanied Vanden Berghe on his excavations in Luristan and this sparked his interest in the lesser-known regions of the ancient Near East. His PhD on Parthian pottery in Iran was awarded by the University of Ghent and is widely considered a seminal work.

In 1982, Haerinck attended a conference (Arabie orientale, Mésopotamie et Iran méridionale) in Lyon on the archaeology of the Gulf which sparked his interest in southeastern Arabia. In 1986, with two other eminent scholars, Rémy Boucharlat and Daniel Potts, he began excavation at the site of Ed Dur in Umm Al Quwain. The results of these excavations fundamentally altered our understanding of the UAE’s trade networks in the centuries before Islam. One of his most remarkable discoveries was a temple of Shamash, at Ed Dur. The site also revealed Roman material, including glass and coins, and local artefacts. Typically, he began work on a series of beautifully illustrated and comprehensive volumes.

His long-time colleague, Dr Bruno Overlaet, of the Royal Museums of Arts and History in Brussels, has noted that Haerinck “thought it was a moral and professional obligation for an archaeologist to publish final reports on excavation. Even in his last days, he was working on the final publication of the Ed Dur volumes.”

Haerinck quickly became an accomplished scholar and he rapidly rose through the ranks at Ghent. In 1991, he was appointed professor of archaeology and art history of the Middle East, becoming a full professor in 2006. He retired in 2014, but continued his research. He was editor of the international journal Iranica Antiqua and served on many other editorial boards, including Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy.  

Despite his scholarly achievements, he remained accessible to his students. His most recent PhD student, Thomas Van de Velde, notes: “Ernie came across as an imposing lecturer and initially I wasn't too comfortable entering his office. But I learnt that he was quite the opposite; very accessible and never shy for a friendly chat. He belonged to a generation of scholars who shaped the archaeology of the Near East.”

He also had an encyclopaedic knowledge about the region. Daniel Potts, professor of Ancient Near Eastern archaeology and history at New York University, recalls: “Ernie never seemed to forget anything he’d ever seen – no type of pottery, seal, architecture, metalwork, once seen, ever escaped him if he encountered it again.” His knowledge of the ancient Near East was vast but he was equally comfortable talking about medieval Ghent, a city he dearly loved. His passion for Flanders, its culinary delights, and history was readily apparent to all who met him.

In the last few years, Ernie did less fieldwork. His colleagues and students, however, carried the mantle. Most recently, Dr Bruno Overlaet discovered a 2,200-year-old inscription in Sharjah which is one of the earliest mentions of Oman, and speaks of an official of a king who was buried at Mleiha, near modern Dhaid. That work, conducted in conjunction with the Sharjah Archaeology Authority, is continuing.

Haerinck will not only be remembered for his scholarship. He saw the humour in so many things and was able to joke in many of the languages he spoke. He often disagreed with people’s interpretations and could be firm with his students, but he never allowed that to affect the way he viewed colleagues or students as fellow people. He had a gentle kindness to him. As Prof Potts noted: “He was simply a great guy and one of the most modest, nicest people in our field.”

His pioneering work set the agenda in many ways for archaeology in the UAE. The many scholars who continue to work here owe him a debt of gratitude. The people of the UAE owe a similar debt, for he worked tirelessly to bring their important history to the world. Haerinck had no children. His beloved wife, Bernice, predeceased him by several years.

Peter Magee is professor of Near Eastern archaeology at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania

Updated: October 23, 2016 04:00 AM