Unearthing the past - and the future

Sunday interview The archaeologist Mark Beech digs deep into the history of Abu Dhabi to help pave the way for growth.
Dr Mark Beech at the Qasr al Hosn Fort in Abu Dhabi.
Dr Mark Beech at the Qasr al Hosn Fort in Abu Dhabi.

"Who do you think you are, Indiana Jones? You'll never make a living from it." The withering response from one of his school teachers more than 30 years ago still rings in his ears, but Dr Mark Beech remembers it with quiet amusement. Even at the time he took no notice.

The teacher had asked him what he planned to do when he left school, and the young Beech answered ­immediately. Since the age of six he had known he was going to be an archaeologist. Sitting in his cluttered office in the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation among shoulder-high stacks of reports, files and reference books, ancient bones and pieces of pottery, he makes the point that the daily life of your average archaeologist bears little resemblance to the world of our intrepid film hero. No brown fedora, no bullwhip, and the excitement is of an entirely different nature. It's all about uncovering the secrets of the past in order to make sense of the ­future. That is the essence of his work as the head of the cultural landscapes division at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH).

"The first Indiana Jones film is more correct where he is in the classroom writing 'Neolithic' on the blackboard, but really the stories are nothing like the reality," he says with a smile. Although, as he talks, he begins to remember an ­incident that could easily have come from an Indy offering. "Come to think of it, I have been shot at in Pakistan. We were doing a survey looking for the earliest traces of humans, exploring geological deposits that were more than a million years old. Generally, archaeologists tend to go to places that normal people don't go. It wasn't entirely safe," he says in what might qualify as the understatement of the year.

"We were driving off-road, miles away from the nearest road, on dried-up wadi beds. I was in the passenger seat. Suddenly we heard this very loud popping sound. At first we thought it was a puncture and then my driver asked me to get out of the car to check the tyres. We thought we had driven over one of those huge thorns. Then we heard it again and this time it sounded more like 'peeyong', so I uttered an expletive, jumped into the car and we drove off at high speed.

"It was quite funny really. About five or six hours later, we saw a little boy coming towards us with a herd of goats. He came up to us and said he was very sorry that his father shot at us; it was a mistake. He had thought we were the police. It turned out that they were sheltering dacoits, or ­robbers, who rob banks and then pay local people to protect them." It was just another non-Indiana day in the life of the average archaeologist. But what about Beech's ­eureka moment on the ­island of Sir Bani Yas off the coast of Abu Dhabi. It happened in 1994, when he first came to the UAE to take part in the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey. During the weeks of painstaking digging, dusting, examining and cataloguing, there was a flurry of excitement one afternoon.

"You hear some noise and kerfuffle from the workers, mostly Asian labourers and volunteers. Someone starts shouting out, 'Doctor, ­Doctor', and you begin to get ­excited," he ­remembers. This time it was part of a stone cross that confirmed their beliefs that there had been an early Christian settlement on the island. "We found a church and monastery on the island built by Nestorian Christians. They were an early Christian sect that spread through the Gulf with missionary zeal. There are two known churches in Kuwait, another on the Iranian coastline and one in Saudi Arabia.

"It was a eureka moment. You don't always have these moments. Normally an excavation is the ­beginning of something that takes 20 years, a lifetime of publishing a big scientific book, writing articles. It involves 40 or so people, some do the bones, others the glass, ­radiocarbon dating, the photography and all the other areas." The work sometimes involves tough manual labour using shovels, pickaxes and wheelbarrows. Other work is more delicate and finer tools are necessary. One tool that Beech will seldom be without is his trusty WHS diamond-shaped pointing trowel. "You never see Indy carrying one of those," he says and laughs.

@style body: For him and for most modern ­archaeologists, the prospect of uncovering underground caves packed to their ceilings with gold, silver and jewels is just a fantasy. The excitement is adding to knowledge through their discoveries. "If you have two or three major sites in your lifetime and manage to get them published, then you are doing well. It's the beginning of the journey, studying it and publishing it and putting it on display. It's a nice feeling that I helped to tell the history of Abu Dhabi by finding that object. It's one of the most important finds from those times," he says.

There have been other thrilling discoveries, such as one Beech was involved in on Dalma Island in 1998. They discovered a 7,000-year-old fishing village, along with pieces of distinctive Ubaid pottery, unglazed and pale beige to olive green in colour with a black geometric decoration, that had been made in southern Iraq. Further work in 2004 by Beech on the island of Marawah uncovered an almost complete Ubaid jar that is believed to be the oldest ceramic pottery vessel ever to be found in the region. This proved that there were trade links with ­Mesopotamia at that time. "They were trading pottery all along the Gulf and people here were giving them fish and pearls and later copper," he says.

Another exciting find near ­Ruwais dates as far back as the late ­Miocene period, six to eight million years ago. "It's a period when we have lots of fossils of animals," says Beech, who speaks about the odd few million years as if it were yesterday. The archaeology of the UAE has become a ­particular passion. In 2002, he found a giant two-and-a-half-metre-long tusk from a four-tusked elephant. That and other ­remains prove that six million years ago, when the Arabian Gulf did not exist, giraffes, hyenas, antelopes, wolverines, sabre-toothed cats and elephants roamed the ­ancient river valleys and plains of Abu Dhabi.

"The earliest humans we know about in Abu Dhabi probably lived as early as 200,000 years ago, although there is no exact date. We discovered stone tools at Jebel Barakah, about 300 kilometres west of Abu Dhabi. The earliest people we know about were hunters using stone tools to kill, process and butcher animals. They were following animals along the ancient river. In that period the Gulf was dry, there was no sea. The Gulf was a giant basin in the Stone Age or Palaeolithic era.

"The rivers Tigris and Euphrates continued as a single river flowing down towards Musandam. The sea existed only on the east coast around Fujairah. Abu Dhabi was land, land, land going all the way out. Stone Age hunters followed the path of the ancient river using stone tools to chop up animals. Through the last 200,000 years, we have had changes in climate fluctuating between ice ages, dry cooler periods and warmer, wetter periods. There have been many oscillations. At the end of the last ice age 16,000 years ago, mammoths began to become extinct."

As he talks about events that happened millions of years ago he lapses into the present tense, and indeed his passion for his subject has a ­direct relevance to today's world. "We've got a polar ice cap melting and the end result is that globally we have a rise in sea level of 120 ­metres all over the world. It completely changes the shape of continents and countries," he says. "Because we get that flooding 16,000 years ago, there's a great flood into the Gulf. The Arabian Gulf is a very young sea. About 12,000 years ago the sea grows and gets bigger. Eight thousand years ago the sea level is between one and two metres above the present sea level. Then it settles. By the time you get to 3,000 years ago, it is approximately what it is today."

Beech believes that the great flood recorded in the Quran, the Bible, and also in the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known works of literary fiction, could have happened in this area. "People have speculated about the ­incident and the myth of the flood. They all talk about a giant flood happening and there have been various explanations, but I think the Gulf is a far more likely candidate," he says.

He sees that as the explanation as to why there is a huge gap in the history and evolution of the area ­between the Palaeolithic, or Stone Age, and Neolithic, or New Stone Age, ­periods. Any older sites pre-dating the Neolithic period may well be buried under the Arabian Gulf. "People living in the Gulf have ­always been affected by the environment. Most people don't have this background knowledge. This has affected the history and evolution of this area. We found archaeological sites from the Palaeolithic era, then there's a big gap until the Neolithic period when suddenly you get people appearing in the Gulf again. There are sites in Sharjah at Jebel Fiyah that are Palaeolithic (between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago). People were coming out of Africa around this time.

"By the time of the New Stone Age, people had learnt how to domesticate animals such as cows, sheep and goats and plants including wheat and barley. "The multiracial composition of the UAE is not a new phenomenon. We talk about the Fertile Crescent stretching from Turkey all the way around to Jordan, Syria and the ­Zagros Mountains. It's sometimes called the cradle of civilisation. The culture of this area is a result of all those influences."

@style body: Beech is engaged in preserving and protecting the emirate's historical heritage while helping it to move forward with its ambitious plans for development. When a property developer puts forward plans for a new project, Beech's office on the second floor of the Cultural Foundation is one of the first ports of call. Before a new development is given the green light in Abu Dhabi, it must be issued with a Preliminary Cultural Review (PCR) report to make sure it isn't going through a site of historic interest.

As soon as he receives an application, Beech goes to his computer. He gives a small snort of derision at the thought of Dr Henry Indiana Jones. "Did you ever see Indiana Jones ­sitting in front of a computer?" he asks. "Archaeologists have been ­pioneers in science and have used computers since the earliest days. We use satellite imagery for mapping and geographic information systems. First thing I do is to turn on the computer and look at existing maps. We have a huge ­database. We overlay the plans on to the maps.

"We need to do a survey as soon as possible so we mobilise a team, hop into a four-wheel drive and go off to do field survey and PCR ­report. If there is a problem we need to deal with it, perhaps change the position of a building or move something 100 yards. Sometimes it is clear that you can't go through a particular place at all. It's all done in a matter of weeks and it's a major part of my job."

Beech is clearly happy to be working for a government that makes its cultural heritage a priority, especially with so much development taking place. "It's very important to take care of this because of development. We were previously commissioned to do a survey in advance of construction sites near Ruwais to give clearance. We found lots of ­fossil sites. Adco and all the people of the Adnoc group have been very supportive. They gave us extra time to survey and ­excavate and helped finance it. The cultural heritage of the country is being taken very seriously. Real estate companies all employ environmental consultants and they have to get a certificate from us before they can proceed."

ADACH is also engaged with a four-year study of the fossil sites of the western region in conjunction with the prestigious Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University in the US. Beech is keen to explain their work to a wider audience. "We laugh and joke about Indiana Jones, but people need to better understand what we do," he says. Mounting exhibitions such as the recent Treasures of the Sudan is part of ADACH's strategy to spread the word, along with providing better educational materials for schools and developing television documentaries about the nation's cultural heritage.

Beech's work involves mapping all sites and analysing the cultural landscapes of Abu Dhabi - geographical areas that have been modified through agriculture, building, infrastructure or anything else associated with a culture or civilisation. One important area for research is at Al Ain. There are several projects in the area including the restoration and conservation of key historic buildings such as the Jahili Fort and a beautiful old mud brick house called Bait Bin Hadi in the Hili oasis area.

"There are important prehistoric tombs 5,000 years old at Jebel Hafeet, and the oases areas in Al Ain are very important, showing the beginnings of oases settlements of the Bronze Age and the Iron Age 3,000 years ago. We have the invention of the Falaj system of tapping underground water sources and making underground conduits. This enabled the opening up of new landscapes. The camel is ­becoming domesticated for the first time so we have the combination of the water and the camels. Then there was the frankincense trade coming up through Arabia. The ancient Egyptians needed frankincense for mummification so we are finding links with distant areas of Arabia," he says.

He likes to quote the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Ruler of Abu Dhabi and President of the UAE for more than 30 years, who said that he who knows not his past has no future. "Archaeologists deal with trying to find the answers to questions, not finding treasure - to make sure people know where they came from and where they are going. Nothing that happens today is new. The same things happened millions of years ago. We learn a lot from analysing the past. All humans have basic needs - water, food, shelter. Everything comes down to that in the end.

"One of the main concerns here is water and it was the same in the past. It makes me laugh hearing about all the new stuff about sustainability. In the past people didn't make such an impact on their environment. It was quite simple. When they started using up the natural ­resources, they moved." Although his work is about uncovering the secrets of the past, it is inextricably linked to the present and, more importantly, the future. For Beech, the glittering gold and silver treasures of the imaginary world of Indiana Jones pale in ­significance when compared to the beautiful Ubaid vessel discovered on Marawah Island that proved the UAE was trading with ancient Mesopotamia more than 7,000 years ago.

He says: "In reality the only thing that is true about the movies is the excitement of discovering things. The reason we do archaeology is ­uncovering the secret of the past to understand human beings and ­human culture. If we understood all that we would have a lot more peace in the world. It's a key thing to ­understanding human nature." @Email:pkennedy@thenational.ae

Published: July 12, 2008 04:00 AM


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