x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Relics prove snakes had ancient charms

Fresh evidence has been found of an Iron Age snake cult that once existed in the UAE.

One of the 34 bronze snakes discovered at the Masafi archaelogical site in Fujairah.
One of the 34 bronze snakes discovered at the Masafi archaelogical site in Fujairah.

Fresh evidence has been found of an Iron Age snake cult that once existed in the UAE. A 3,000-year-old snake temple, unearthed in Masafi, Fujairah, points to a complex ancient society that had separate roles for priests and bureaucrats, and trading links across the region. The building contained dozens of bronze snake statues, as well as scores of pottery fragments emblazoned with snake designs.

Dr Anne Benoist, an archaeologist at France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, made the discovery at the house of Sheikh Mohammed Al Sharqi, the father of the Ruler of Fujairah, Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed. Peering down an old well, Dr Benoist saw large stones that made her suspect the wall was part of an ancient building. Initial surveys revealed an underground structure, which her team then excavated.

They first uncovered a public building, which appears to have served as a place for festivities, official decisions and discussions about water allocation, as well as for storage of goods. Discussing her find at the Second International Conference on the Archaeology of the UAE, which began this week, Dr Benoist said there was evidence that the structure had burned down and then been rebuilt. Parts of what appears to have been a religious building were discovered later, buried under a metre of soil. The building was surrounded by a thick wall, 1.7 metres wide.

Dr Benoist and her colleagues found more than a hundred pieces of pottery decorated with snake elements, as well as 34 bronze statuettes of snakes. The items date back to between 1,100 and 600 BC. "It appears to be a cultic site," said Dr Benoist. "Snake representations are in the majority of the material collected." The bronzes were found at the northern tip of the building - as has been the the case in other, similar sites. Previous evidence of the snake cult has been found at several sites in the UAE, including Bithnah - where offerings of then-precious bronze were made to a god represented as a snake - and the Mound of Serpents, in Al Qusais, in Dubai. Further cultic sites in Oman, Yemen, Bahrain and southern Iran, suggest Iron Age connections - and, in all likelihood, trade - between the various parts of Arabia and beyond.

"We have many elements indicating this cult," she said, explaining that snakes were then thought to be a symbol of knowledge and prosperity. "The cult was later fought by monotheistic religions but there are references to it in some religious texts such as the Old Testament," she said. The site is also significant for its distinct official and religious buildings. "They were not far away from each other but they were separated," said Dr Benoist.

"The fact that these are in different places suggests there could have been different people in society, holding different positions." vtodorova@thenational.ae