Pierre Lombard flew into Abu Dhabi for the first time on December 26, 1976. Then a 22-year-old student, Lombard, from France, was about to embark on his first excavation in the ancient Near East. "It was exciting. This new country was really looking for its roots. They realised they have a lot of roots – interesting ones, different ones."
Now the head of the French archaeological mission to Bahrain, Lombard recalls a time when the main signpost for the Dubai-Al Ain Road was the World Trade Centre in the former city. But it was also an era of archaeological advancement. With practically a blank slate, finds made by French-led teams at sites such as Jebel Hafeet and Hili helped to show how a web of communities operated thousands of years ago in what is now the UAE.
Lombard was at the vanguard of what would become a 40-year archaeological partnership between the UAE and France. Since 1977, French-led teams have been involved in digs in Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Abu Dhabi and Umm Al Quwain.
The fruits of this extensive partnership are now on display in Sharjah. A new exhibition, 40 Years of Emirati-French Archaeological Cooperation, features more than 100 objects that have been excavated by the French Archaeological Mission to the UAE since it started work here.
Inaugurated last week by Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, Ruler of Sharjah, the show features jewellery, incense burners, pottery and weaponry, and sheds light on the country's role as a trading post for about 7,500 years. It is the first time that all these artefacts have been displayed together and they span five eras: the Neolithic, Bronze, Iron, Pre-Islamic and Islamic periods. Stand-out pieces include the oldest pearl in the world; an etched carnelian bead from the Bronze Age; an Iron Age incense burner in the shape of a standing man with raised arms; and a pilgrim flask from the 15th century.
“This exhibition is very special,” Ludovic Pouille, French ambassador to the UAE, tells me. “Since 1977, our archaeologists have worked hand in hand with Emirati archaeologists in five emirates and on 11 sites to discover the history of this country. And here we have the most beautiful pieces.”
Pouille points to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which will open on November 11, as the next step in UAE-French cultural collaboration, calling it the first universal museum of this century in the Arab world. "In parallel, we are doing this in Sharjah – looking at 7,000 years of history of this country and helping Emirati archaeologists to discover and reveal the history of their country. We are proud of it."
Teams led by French archaeologists, who came to the country every year for a couple of months at a time, began excavations in 1977 at Jebel Hafeet, Hili and Rumeilah in Abu Dhabi emirate. In 1985, work began in Sharjah, Umm Al Quwain and Ras Al Khaimah; Fujairah followed in 1999.
The Sharjah exhibition begins about 7,500 years ago in Umm Al Quwain. A camp that was established close to a lagoon is believed to have been inhabited by Neolithic fishermen. Evidence shows that they hunted for gazelle, raised sheep, dogs and goats, and organised expeditions to find flint. A thousand years later, this lagoon was still being exploited by fishermen, who fished for tuna using lines. Digs uncovered the remains of building, fireplaces, shell jewellery, tools and bead workshops.
It is in this part of the exhibition that you can see the oldest pearl in the world. Found in Umm Al Quwain in 2012, it is 6 millimetres wide. "The pearl is extraordinary," says Sophie Méry, guest curator of the exhibition and head of the French Archaeological Mission to the UAE. "Not because it is the most ancient pearl, but because it proves that pearling was in the country at that time." Pearls were integrated into funeral rituals, made into bracelets or deposited under the noses of the dead. "They had no jewellery except the pearls," Méry points out.
The exhibition moves into the Bronze Age as the focus turns to excavations at Hili in Al Ain – the oldest agricultural oasis in the UAE. Palms, fruits and grains were grown, while villagers made pottery and worked stone. “The Bronze Age is a totally different world,” says Méry, who arrived in the UAE as a student in November 1980. “It’s the emergence of the oasis, a human creation.”
The exhibition then progresses into the Iron Age to the creation of the falaj, an ancient irrigation system that allowed people to settle farther away from water sources. Iron Age objects on display include copper arrowheads and a bronze dagger found by Lombard. Advancements in pottery can be seen in intricate incense burners found in Fujairah, while highlights from the late pre-Islamic Period include silver coins and a bronze bull head. More-recent Islamic Age discoveries include pottery and ceramic objects from Iran, China and Thailand.
The decisive part of all this research is that it shows the vibrancy, complexity and development of life in the country over the course of thousands of years. "It shows that there are elements that are very local. Like the creation of the pearling [industry] and the creation of the falaj," Méry says. "Along the communities of the seashore of the Arabian Gulf, you also had exchange. The trade is extremely ancient. There are connections."
For Alya Al Khayyal, curator of Sharjah Archaeology Museum, what really sets this exhibition apart is having artefacts from five different emirates on display. “The UAE and France have co-operated to tell the history of the UAE,” she says.
40 Years of Emirati-French Archaeological Cooperation runs in partnership with Institut Français in the UAE and the cultural department of the French Embassy, with the support of Unesco, until January 31 at Sharjah Archaeological Museum. For more information, visit www.sharjahmuseums.ae