x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Jigsaw of bone, glass and pottery

Now that the digging is done, archaeologists have the job of piecing together hundreds of kilograms of porcelain, pottery, bones and glass to tell the story of the medieval port city of Julfar.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // Now that the digging is done, archaeologists have the job of piecing together hundreds of kilograms of porcelain, pottery, bones and glass to tell the story of the medieval port city of Julfar.

The thriving hub at the Gulf's entrance was a fertile harbour, safe from the monsoons of the Indian Ocean. At its height in the 14th to 16th century, Julfar was one of the most important Gulf ports with trade from India, Africa and the Far East.

Traders left Julfar westward for Basra, which led to Arab and Ottoman empires and into European markets. With the arrival of the Portuguese, trade expanded down to the Horn of Africa.

Though referenced in writing, the extent of this trade and daily life in the port city was much of a mystery until recent weeks.

Nearly 50 coins were found, including two silver coins, bronze Mughal coins and a coin from the reign of Shah Ismail, the first Safavid monarch and a prolific poet who had united Iran by 1509. The coins tell us that Julfar was well integrated into the Iranian economy.

At the RAK museum, the conservator Dana Goodburn-Brown scraped away the earth from a coin, a fraction of the size of a fingernail. Coins arrive as chunks of greenish rock before they are X-rayed to test for plating and then put under the scalpel.

She averages about a coin an hour, though it can take days to work through the sandy crust. After a morning's toil on this diminutive coin, Ms Goodburn-Brown began to decipher what looked to be Arabic writing.

"It's going to be nice, there's a nice surface there," she said. "You don't really know when you start. This one is a nice surprise."

Once cleaned, coins are examined by a specialist before they are taken to the UK to reference them in the British Museum.

At a villa on the site, there is dirtier work to be done. Here, archaeologists work at hunks of soil to uncover pots and pottery shards. Daniela Boos Pedroza, an American conservator from University College London, chips at shell speckled soil to uncover an oven made from an inverted clay pot, a technique still used until the 20th century.

At another table, Ben Saunders, a ceramics specialist from Durham University, sorts through 450kg of pottery shards.

As much as 70 per cent of earthenware was locally produced with clay from riverbeds, perhaps fired at the kilns found from the same period in Wadi Haqil.

Known as Julfar ware, the 14th to 16th century pottery was for daily use such as water jugs. Painted motifs included red and white stripes and red globs that represented dates.

"All the sources from Julfar have this red palette," said Mr Saunders, shifting through a collection of rims and spouts on the table before him. "Looking at the colour, texture and the inclusions, nearly everything here is Julfar."

There are a few fragments of blue glazed pots, possibly Iranian.

Shards of porcelain from Myanmar and Longquan, China were also unearthed. Chinese porcelain was highly prized and multiple repairs suggest it was passed through generations as a family heirloom.

There were other surprises, Mr Saunders said.

"We had a very nice piece of porcelain that looked like it was for the European market because it has a crown insignia on it," he said. "Chinese pottery trade went through Iran, through the Tigris and into the Ottoman empire."

High quantities of Damascene glass indicated strong trade links from Basra up the Euphrates. Glass bangles, bottles and sticks for applying kohl were found in abundance, evidence that eyeliner has remained in style through the centuries.

Summer migration to inland date gardens was another Julfar tradition that carried through the centuries. Fertile date gardens a few kilometres inland supported the port city, which had a fluctuating population of 50,000 to 70,000. The date garden population stood at 30,000 to 50,000.

The analysis of old bones revealed the typical diet. "What we've realised is that they are eating a lot of goat, and they ate a couple of camels as well," said Dr Kevin Lane, the field director.

Archaeologists found two date presses for making date syrup identical to those used into the 20th century.