Emirati students dig to understand the past at Hili Oasis archaeological site

Students from Zayed University were given a unique opportunity to gain hands-on archaeology skills in Al Ain. We spoke to some of the Emirati team excavating remains at Hili Oasis.

Sara Al Hameli, left, and Mai Al Mansouri Zayed University students interning with the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, TCA, excavate a portion of the Bayt Bin Hadi archeological site in the Hili Oasis area of Al Ain. Christopher Pike / The National
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As an early orange sun rises over Al Ain, mist hangs in the grey palms of the Hili Oasis where a group of young women are just starting work, wrapped up against the early chill.

Some, dressed in white lab coats, use measuring tapes and a theodolite to survey the mud-brick remains of a large but long-abandoned house and compound, the Bait bin Hadi Al Darmaki, while others stand shoulder-deep in freshly dug trenches, shovelling damp sand into wheelbarrows as they delve into the past.

“People always ask us ‘Are you guys digging graves?’ or ‘Did you find any dinosaurs?’” says 22-year-old Afra Hamad with more than a hint of exasperation.

“They don’t have any idea about what we’re doing so we have to explain what we are doing and why we are doing it,” adds her 21-year-old colleague, Mai Al Mansouri. “Excavation isn’t a very widely understood idea amongst Emiratis.”

Hamad and Al Mansouri are part of small group of students from Zayed University who have been conducting a month-long excavation of the remains of the Bait bin Hadi as part of an eight-week-long internship with Abu Dhabi’s Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA).

The excavation is designed to teach the students the basics of archaeological method – surveying, excavation and the systematic recording of their work and any finds – according to an internationally-recognised method originally devised by the Museum of London’s archaeological unit.

The Bait bin Hadi is believed to date from the late 17th or early 18th century, at which time it would have stood as a fortified plantation house with high walls and a watchtower surrounded, as it is today, by Hili’s date palms, falaj irrigation system and gardens.

“The main point of this excavation is to try to find out when the Bait bin Hadi was constructed,” explains 20-year-old Sara Al Hameli as we tour the crumbling site, parts of which are believed to be 300 years old.

“At the moment we’ve reached 18th-century layers and we know that because yesterday we found a piece of glass that confirmed the date for us,” she says, revealing a dark, iridescent fragment from a bottle that is likely to have originated in India or to have found its way into the trading networks of the Indian Ocean as a result of the British East India Company.

“We suspect that the glass is pre-19th century because of the way it’s made and the way it’s degraded, which makes it an unusual piece because we very rarely find glass from the 18th century,” says Timothy Power, the student’s tutor and an assistant professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.

“We have a hypothesis, based on previous work by the TCA, that the house was established in the late 17th or early 18th century and we need to test that by getting down to those layers and confirm their date using finds,” the archaeologist explains.

“Why is that relevant? Because the Bait bin Hadi was almost certainly constructed at the same time as the oasis and so the construction date of one should give us the foundation date for the other.”

If the house and oasis are the of the same age then they date from a time when Buraimi’s population and prosperity peaked and when plantations such as Hili formed part of a wider Arab empire.

Ruled by the Omani Yarubid dynasty, this brief-lived empire had its headquarters in Rustaq but was centred on the Batina and Dhahira regions of the modern Sultanate of Oman. Spreading throughout the Gulf and across the Indian Ocean to include parts of East Africa and what is now Pakistan and Iran, it consisted of a network of colonies and trading posts that not only provided the Yarubids with markets for their cash crops, such as the dates that were grown in Hili, but also gave them access to the slave labour that was required for labour-intensive industries such as pearl fishing and the date cultivation that took place in oases such as Hili.

“It was a time when there was a lot of wealth pouring into the Gulf from the Indian Ocean and that wealth was being invested in land,” the archaeologist explains.

“This is the Bait bin Hadi Al Darmaki, and at that time the wali [governor] of Mombasa under the Yarubids was also a Darmaki. Now whether there is a link and whether that is significant, who knows,” says Power, clearly fascinated by the prospect of a pan-Indian Ocean network peopled with characters whose descendants might still be living in the emirates.

As we tour the excavations, the students reflect on a programme that has not only thrust them into the hard-end of archaeological method, namely digging, but has also required them to live in Al Ain during the week, returning home only at weekends.

“We arrive on Sunday morning and we stay until Thursday morning, when we check out of the hotel, and we have to work eight hours a day. We excavate and survey in the mornings and then in the afternoons we work with pottery finds and record and register them,” Sara Al Hameli says.

“It uses all of our different skills, we’ve been doing maths and we’ve been doing physics and we’ve been artistic, we’ve drawn and we’ve dug and that’s been really empowering.”

“Being in a trench and looking at the layers is like being in a time-machine because you find pottery and bones and the post holes of buildings and you can see how people lived in the past,” Afra Hamad enthuses.

“You can see where they built their arish and pitched their tents and when they left and now we can see all of this within the context of the changing city.”

Dating from a period when extensive houses, rather than forts, would have been the dominant architectural features in the oasis landscapes surrounding what is now Buraimi and Al Ain, the Bait bin Hadi would have originally been surrounded by date plantations that were much more extensive than the oasis as it appears today.

“People look at the present limits of the oases and see them as unchanging but in fact they were both bigger and smaller at various points and we are trying to track that process,” explains the archaeologist Peter Sheehan, the section head of TCA’s historic buildings and landscapes division who has collaborated with Tim Power to develop the internship programme.

“In all these things we are trying to look at what happened in the wider landscape and in that first phase, wherever we look, there is evidence for very widespread activity in the 17th and 18th centuries in the area between here and Buraimi.”

Although it is now largely a ruin, the Bait bin Hadi still rises above the Hili oasis, which would have been watered using the traditional falaj irrigation system.

A system of underground tunnels or surface channels built to transport water over many kilometres from aquifers in hills and mountains to lower-lying cultivated areas, aflaj, as falaj are referred to in the plural, are also known as foggara, madjirat, qanat and maree in the many areas where they have been employed, which include Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan and throughout the Mediterranean, North Africa and in parts of Central Asia.

The system is believed to have originated in the Arabian Peninsula about 3,000 years ago at a time when the system helped to transform the lives of communities living in areas with limited rainfall by making water easier to obtain.

Underground aflaj consist of a tunnel, ventilated at regular intervals by chimneys called thugba, that was dug at a gently sloping angle to allow gravity to deliver the water to the required spot.

“You look down into the oasis because there was originally a flat plain that the oasis builders dug down into,” Power explains.

“That allowed them to create the correct angle that allows the water to flow from a spur of the Hajar Mountains, just north of here, down into the oasis.”

Sheehan, a British archaeologist with extensive experience in the Middle East, first excavated the Bait bin Hadi a decade ago and has been working with Power in Al Ain since 2009 and with Zayed University students in the oases in 2015, surveying the boundary walls of the Qattara oasis before moving into the Jimi oasis last year.

“Up to this date, Emiratis who have studied archaeology have studied abroad in Jordan or Britain – and although their degrees involved some degree of practical training they would have been learning about the archaeology of those places,” Power explains.

“But we set up the internship this year so that the students could have an experience of doing real archaeology by working on a real project and this is the only field school in the emirates.”

As well as spending four weeks excavating at Hili, the students will also spend time at Qasr Al Hosn and accompany Sheehan and Power on a field walking survey of Hosn Al Sira in the Al Dhafra region, one of the oldest monuments associated with the Bani Yas tribal confederation.

Consisting of a fort surrounded by camping grounds, the site at Hosn Al Sira is associated with a “fort of the Dhafra” that is mentioned in an Omani history that recounts a battle between the Bani Yas and the Al Yariba in 1630s.

“Yes this project is being used to train the students, but it’s also a real research project and the plan is to present our findings at the Seminar of Arabian Studies at the British Museum in London,” Power explains.

“We want to introduce the students to the methods and techniques of the profession, but we also want them to experience research, analysis and the presentation of that research in a scholarly setting.”

For Sheehan, however, the value of the internship lies not just in its role in capacity building among students who may, or may not, pursue a career in archaeology, but in providing evidence that will allow the writing of a history of the oases that is still being uncovered and that is crucial to Al Ain’s inscription as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The construction and occupation of Al Ain’s six oases, the oldest of which date back to the Iron Age, was made possible, in part, by the construction of aflaj, and have played a key role in a history of settlement in the area that has waxed and waned at various points all the way back to the Neolithic period.

“This is not an exercise, it’s not a matter of just teaching the students something we already know, it’s actually going through a process of finding things out using a methodology,” Sheehan says.

“We’re not digging holes just to teach the students how to excavate, digging holes is actually good for all of us. The holes are about finding something out and they’re part of that process and so are we.”