x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A history of the UAE set in stone at the Sharjah Archaeology Museum

Ther are 115 artefacts and archaeological finds on display at the museum as part of the Our Monuments Narrate Our History exhibition.

A view of the displays as part of the exhibit "Our Monuments Narrate Our History" at the Sharjah Archaeology Museum. Charles Crowell for The National
A view of the displays as part of the exhibit "Our Monuments Narrate Our History" at the Sharjah Archaeology Museum. Charles Crowell for The National
SHARJAH // If monuments could narrate our history, they would tell a fascinating story of a nation and the people that once lived here.

A piece of head stone discovered in Mleiha and dating to 150BC is inscribed with the south Arabian letters 'q, b, r', which translates to 'a grave' in Arabic. Another small stone from Mleiha dating to 100AD bears the Arabic letters, 'shams', or sun, second line has the letters 'dha, ba' and the third has a carved 'noon' or n letter, giving an insight into the language of the area.

Then there are objects frozen in time that leave a lasting impression, like those found inside a large subterranean tomb in Dibba dating to 1st Century. Alongside skeletal remains were found many personal objects, such as glass flasks, ceramics, jewellery and two beautiful ivory combs, one of which was still gripped by in death by the fingers of the person who was once used it while alive.

These are just some of the 115 artefacts and archaeological finds on display at the Sharjah Archaeology Museum as part of the Our Monuments Narrate Our History exhibition which runs from now until October.

"Every artefact tells a story and captures a different side of the history of Sharjah and the UAE in general," says Nasir Al Darmaki, the curator at the museum.

"We picked out an interesting, never before seen selection from various fields and time periods to highlight the migration of mankind, the way of life then, the traditions and beliefs, the accomplishments and importance of the area's location along ancient trade routes," he explains.

It is 20 years since the establishment of the archaeological mission of the Directorate of Antiquities and the museum itself, with the exhibition highlighting the wide range of discoveries, including a model of an excavated palace in Mleiha dating to first century AD that will be the largest monumental building discovered from that era in the Arabian peninsula once excavations are complete.

"We are still discovering and researching the stories behind our finds," says Al Darmaki. "What was found so far are unprecedented and significant discoveries from the Bronze, Iron and Hellenistic ages as well as the Pre-Islamic period."

Some of the oldest items include hand axes dating back to the dawn of human technology. These earliest tools from the Acheulian period are about 1.5 million years old and were found in Suhailla in Sharjah, bringing to life one of the emirate's oldest settlement.

The exhibition includes elaborate wall maps and artefacts that highlight human migration and the ancient human settlement found at the foot of Jebel Faya in the centre of Sharjah. This discovery showed that ancient humans came to Sharjah from Africa over 125,000 years ago, offering evidence of migration from Africa much older than the 60-70,000 years once believed.

Scientific theories on modern migration of groups of humans from the east of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula include the southern route of Bab el Mandeb as well as the northern Sinai passage. The water was shallow at Bab el Mandeb, allowing people to travel to Yemen using simple boats. Some of them continued the journey until they reached the Jebel Faya area, while others continued moving towards the east. Archaeological evidence of ancient Sharjah settlements has also been discovered in Al Buhais and Al Faya, where signs of early nomadic life has been found dating back to over 10,000 years.

"There is talk that perhaps some of the immigrants had rested at Faya Mountain, because of its lushness and rocky shelters, and then they continued their way to Asia and headed deep towards Australia. There are continuing excavations at Jebel Faya and other sites which may help give clues to many questions about our past," says Al Darmaki.

Visitors can admire the artistic side of these ancient settlements captured in statues of animals and human figures, including a bronze human arm that emerges from the ground in a defiant fist. Other artefacts highlight industrial skills in copper extraction and mining.

Discoveries at Wadi Al Hilo show copper mining started there in the third millennium BC and that the site continued to be mined throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. A ingot of pure copper weighting five kilograms was unearthed there, evidence of how workers transformed copper into ingots for export or to send to remote workshops for manufacturing. At Dibba, glassware and large quantities of glass ingots indicate that it was once a centre for glass workshops.

From how these ancient peoples of the Arabian Penninsula lived, and how they died, the monuments tell their version of the story.

A glimpse of warfare comes with a collection of 23 bronze artefacts that includes spearheads, draggers and blades. Dating back to 2000-1300BC, this impressive haul of weapons was found in a corroded heap in Al Buhais.

In death, the people of the Bronze and Iron ages constructed elaborate tombs, shown here by models that include one shaped in a cloverleaf designs and another that resembles a horseshoe. Their contents are also displayed including jewellery, jars and weaponry. It was believed that the souls of the dead would use the objects to help them move on in the afterlife.

"You can see the different classes and types of vessels and jars, where even before you had the VIPs having their own more expensive jars and pottery, like the alabaster vessels that were imported from Yemen," says Al Darmaki, pointing to a pair found in Mleiha. "There were different social classes before like there are today."

Hellenic civilisation arrived with Alexander the Great and lasted over 400 years until the first century. During this period, the territory that now forms the UAE was part of an international trade network where the new Hellenistic kingdoms in the Middle East and Greece were connected to important Arab trade centres in Yemen. Mleiha became one of the oases where different cultures mixed together, and its people learnt craftsmanship and building techniques from many sources, changing their Bedouin lifestyle.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a large stone incense burner with a cylindrical shaped body, around a metre high and dating to 100AD. It reflects the area's importance as a trading post for incense.

Incense and Frankincense were the earliest 'Arabian oil,' and brought great wealth to the Yemeni kingdoms of the first millennium BC and the first century AD, which in turn spread riches to the commercial stations where the caravans passed through the Arabian Peninsula south to north and east along the Arabian Gulf coasts.

"These stations became trade centres and souqs where caravans would stop for food and water. They would also sell some of what they carried to satisfy the needs of their families and visitors from nearby places. Some of these stops included Al Fau in the south, Hajr Al jarhaa and Taj in the east and Meliha in the south-east," says Al Darmaki.

Prosperity prevailed in the Arabian Peninsula, so much so that the Greeks and Romans called it Felix Arabia, the happy or blessed Peninsula.

"One can't help but be impressed with the amount of detail and hard work that went into manufacturing all these items and how diverse and connected this area was to the rest of the world," says Al Darmaki. "One should never underestimate the stories a single monument can tell."