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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 April 2019

Priceless discoveries reveal hidden story of the UAE and humanity

Archaeologists find artefacts covering 125,000 years of human settlement

The first to come were also the last to be found. In 2011, a team of archaeologists announced the discovery of a cache of stone tools behind a collapsed rock shelter in Sharjah. The find was about 125,000 years old.

The discovery overturned existing theories not only about the history of the UAE, but also of humanity. The collection of hand axes and scraping tools were nearly twice the age of anything previously found.

Before the excavations at Jebel Faya, it was thought that early humans emerged from Africa about 60,000 to 80,000 years ago.

But evidence gathered in Sharjah suggests this took place many thousands of years earlier, as groups of humans made their way out of East Africa, up through Arabia – then a place of lush vegetation and lakes – and into Asia and Europe.

The UAE has been shown to have a rich and varied legacy of human settlement dating back well before recorded history. The story is all the more remarkable because excavations began just 60 years ago, with the discovery of a settlement on Umm Al Nar island in Abu Dhabi.

The discoveries in Sharjah date from the Palaeolithic era, which began about three million years ago – when human beings began to develop stone tools – until about 11,000 years ago, and the end of the Ice Age.

The Neolithic era that followed led to the beginnings of agriculture and human settlement. It lasted until about 6,500 years ago, to be followed by the Bronze and Iron ages, up to 3,000 years ago.

Numerous sites in the UAE reveal settlements established during these time periods. Jebel Faya contains finds from all four eras, showing the region was permanently settled rather than just being a stop on the trail out of Africa.

Archaeological dig at Jebel Faya in Sharjah. Courtesy Knut Bretzke
Archaeological dig at Jebel Faya in Sharjah. Courtesy Knut Bretzke

The same is true of Jebel Buhais, also in Sharjah. First explored by a French team in the 1980s, hundreds of graves and tombs have been discovered, along with painted pottery, weapons, jewellery and vessels. The most recent were fragments of glass from the Hellenic period, marked by the death of Alexander the Great in 323BC and the rise of the Roman Empire three centuries later.

A team from the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark carried out the first archaeological expedition in the UAE. The stone structures had been known for about four years and it was Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi at the time, who invited the team to explore further.

When work began on Umm Al Nar in early 1959, they were visited by Sheikh Zayed, who also took a keen interest in the early history of his people. Sheikh Zayed also revealed the existence of nearly 200 similar tombs and structures on a hillside outside the village of Hili at Al Ain.

The Al Ain discoveries are now categorised as belonging to the Hafit period, during the Bronze Age and from about 5,000 to 3,000 years ago. Finds include early falaj irrigation channels and pottery that shows trading links to Mesopotamia, one of the cradles of modern civilisation.

Umm Al Nar is thought to have existed for five centuries, from about 4,500 years ago. Its distinctive circular tombs and a section of a village were uncovered by the Danes and later a team from Iraq in the 1970s.

The island was linked to a mysterious people known as the Makkan, or Magan, who supplied copper through a trading empire in the Arabian Gulf known as Dilmun, believed to be centred on Bahrain. Copper mines in Abu Dhabi and Oman offer evidence that Umm Al Nar was a port for the Makkan.

Umm Al Nar-era sites have been found at Al Sufouh in Dubai as well as Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah. Saruq Al Hadid was first spotted by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, from a helicopter in 2002.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, inspects the excavations at Saruq Al Hadid, which he sighted from a helicopter in 2002. Wam
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, inspects the excavations at Saruq Al Hadid, which he sighted from a helicopter in 2002. Wam

The site, formed of the waste from copper and iron smelting, covers the Umm Al Nar and Iron Age periods, up to 3,000 years ago, and produced a treasure trove of finds, including ceramics, beads and bronze serpents, suggesting the site was used for snake worship.

Perhaps the most remarkable, and certainly the largest, archaeological discovery is the lost city of Ed-Dur in Umm Al Quwain. Discovered in 1973 by an Iraqi team, the site covers five square kilometres and was inhabited for thousands of years from the period of Umm Al Nar until at least 2,000 years ago when it was a major trading centre.

Roman glass and Greek coins have been found at Ed-Dur, along with the first alabaster windows on the Arabian Peninsula. The city seems to have been at its height in the pre-Islamic period when its inhabitants practised Sun worship.

Only this week more discoveries were revealed, including more than a dozen tombs, jewellery and coins known as “Arabian Alexanders”, because they bear the head of the Greek emperor, but were minted locally. They were widely circulated in the Arabian Peninsula during the early Christian era.

Some of the most important finds have been made on the UAE’s offshore islands and span nearly 9,000 years. The youngest is a Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas in Abu Dhabi.

Constructed by Nestorian monks between 700 and 800, the ruins were found in 1992 and were opened to the public in 2010.

The ruins of the Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. Martin Pfeifer / TDIC via AFP
The ruins of the Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. Martin Pfeifer / TDIC via AFP

Far older are the discoveries on Marawah Island, with 13 sites from the Neolithic to Islamic period identified by the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey in 1992.

Subsequent excavations uncovered the oldest human skeleton in the Arabian Gulf in an 8,000-year-old “house of the dead” dated by radiocarbon techniques. In six decades, the story of the UAE has been traced from 125,000 years to 1,300 years ago.

New discoveries continue to be made at Marawah, as they do at other sites in the Emirates, as the digging period winds down with the arrival of the hotter months. This year’s finds include stone arrowheads and plaster fragments.

They confirm that 8,000 years ago the UAE was once a wetter, greener and cooler place, with people who built permanent buildings, made decorative art, and navigated the seas to fish and trade. These reveal the UAE’s past, but also connect it to the present.

Updated: April 10, 2019 08:49 PM

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