Burial sites, architectural decorations and ceramics from Europe shed light on UAE history

Archaeologists from across the globe are working on digs to unearth new finds

Dr Lesley Gregoricka excavating a tomb near Dhank in Oman. Photo: Dr Lesley Gregoricka
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From human skeletons dating back thousands of years, architectural decorations from the Jumeirah Archaeological Site and ceramics from the 19th and 20th centuries, there is a wealth of evidence that sheds light on the UAE’s storied past.

All of these fascinating sources of information about UAE history will be examined in greater detail thanks to grants recently awarded by the Zayed National Museum.

Announced this year, 10 academics have been selected to receive support from the Dh1 million ($272,250) initiative to strengthen research into the country’s history and culture.

Among them is Prof Lesley Gregoricka, who will examine human skeletons from early Bronze Age tombs at Jebel Hafeet and Hili in Al Ain.

Prof Gregoricka, from the University of South Alabama in the US, said the people buried there "lived during a time of immense social transformation" about 6,000 years ago, when oasis agriculture developed, large interregional trade networks formed and, later on, the environment became increasingly arid.

"I am particularly interested in how local inland communities adapted to such change, both in terms of their mobility and their diets," she said.

All in the teeth

Prof Gregoricka sheds light on how people moved across the landscape and what they may have eaten by analysing the particular forms of chemical elements or isotopes that become incorporated into the enamel of their teeth.

She will look at isotope data along with indicators from the skeletons to better understand how Bronze Age populations adapted to conditions around them.

"Did they become more or less mobile as a result of climate change, and how did this affect their diet, social organisation and overall health?" she said.

Prof Gregoricka, who has carried out work on sites across the Emirates as well as in Oman, said the chemistry-based approach she is using is relatively new in the UAE, but it "has the potential to reveal important aspects of life in the past".

Early Bronze Age tombs were initially constructed in high locations and contained few people, but by the latter part of the third millennium BC, there were "massive communal tombs near settlements" that included women, men and children.

Most people grew up locally, Prof Gregoricka said, but a handful came from far away, yet in death were treated like locals.

"This tells us that despite the influence of powerful neighbours like Mesopotamia or the Indus Valley, the people of Arabia maintained their autonomy, which speaks more broadly about their relationship with their trading partners," Prof Gregoricka said.

"Additionally, this later funerary tradition of incorporating hundreds of individuals within the same tomb may speak to efforts to combat emerging social hierarchies."

Piecing together the past

Another researcher supported by a grant is Dr Agnieszka Lic, an assistant professor at the Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Dr Lic will analyse architectural decorations, mostly made from decorative plaster called stucco, that have already been collected from buildings at the Jumeirah Archaeological Site, an area open to tourists that sits almost in the shadow of Dubai’s modern high-rises.

"There is material that waits to be studied, but one needs to spend weeks on doing it," she said. "These are major tasks, so we are very happy and grateful that this grant, together with the support of Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, will help us conduct those first tasks."

Thanks to the same grant, colleagues will study and document standing structures at the site, while another part of the project concerns ceramics from the area.

"The ultimate goal is to get a better understanding of this very important site," Dr Lic said. "We know very little about it. It’s an impressive site, visited by tourists, it’s open to visitors, but we don’t know very much about it."

The area open to tourists is about 8.8 hectares in size – greater than the area of 10 football pitches – but the original settlement was larger, at about 2km by 0.5km.

From its architecture and ceramics, the site is thought to date to between the 9th and the 11th centuries CE. It is thought to have been occupied a second time in the 17th or 18th centuries.

It is, Dr Lic said, one of few urban sites in the Gulf region that can be dated to the Abbasid period, the second great Islamic caliphate, which held sway for about five centuries from 750 CE onwards.

The town, which had long been forgotten before its rediscovery in 1969, could have been a port city that connected Mesopotamia, in the area of modern-day Iraq, and what is now Oman.

Analysis of the ceramics could indicate what sort of vessels were imported to Jumeirah and in doing so shed light on the town’s role in the region.

"It’s for the future studies to be able to say who lived in Jumeirah," Dr Lic said. "It was certainly a Muslim community but we don’t know what industries the community was involved in, what daily life was like."

Dr Lic, who has a doctorate from the University of Oxford, described the Gulf region as "very interesting" for researchers and said more data was needed to answer fundamental questions about life in the past.

"It’s definitely not that these questions are not answerable," she said. "I believe we can answer them, we just need more research."

Exploring rise of global trade

Dr Seth Priestman, an honorary research fellow at Durham University in the UK who has worked in the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia, has also received a grant.

He will investigate factory-made ceramics imported into the UAE from the early 1800s onwards, a trade that peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries after mass production of the objects began in Europe.

"There are lots of these objects," Dr Priestman said. "In some ways they’ve been ignored a bit by historians and archaeologists.

"Until recently they’ve been seen as so modern you wouldn’t look at them in an historical context, but we think they have huge historical value that hasn’t been tapped into yet."

The objects were often kept for special occasions and used for communal eating, and some would have been given as part of a dowry. Today, they are sometimes found in small museums or people’s homes.

Often blue and white and featuring Chinese-inspired designs, the ceramics were often made in factories in north-west Europe, including in Stoke-on-Trent in the UK, by skilled but modestly paid artisans. Later pieces came from France, Belgium or the Netherlands and were painted bright green or red.

Producers catered to the tastes of the Middle Eastern market, such as by having moon and star motifs on their wares.

The opening, in 1869, of the Suez Canal resulted in a big increase in the amount of European ceramic being transported to the Gulf. Often it first went to Mumbai in India before being traded back.

After the First World War, manufacturing shifted to Japan, while from the 1950s onwards China – which had made the earliest pieces – took over again.

"In a way it’s part of an emerging globalisation," Dr Priestman said. "You've got these relationships that exist across the world at that time that maybe people aren’t totally aware of, the participants, but we can trace them now through these objects that have moved across the globe.

" … There’s this material connection established between these people’s lives who are thousands of miles apart."

Through the way they were used in the Emirates, the plates, bowls and large dishes "took on new layers of meaning and understanding".

Researchers are interested in analysing fragments collected during archaeological digs, complete pieces from collections, and 19th and 20th-century records from the East India Company. For the new project, they may also speak to people who themselves used the items.

"It’s a kind of vanishing opportunity," Dr Priestman said. "There are not so many people living now who have memories of using these as children, but there are old people who I am sure have important information.

"That would be really interesting. It would be amazing to collect people’s memories and personal testimonies related to this."

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Updated: June 02, 2024, 12:28 PM