I have recently had the pleasure of attending a conference during which discoveries were unveiled that significantly change our understanding of the UAE’s history. Entitled “Archaeology 2022: Advances in the UAE’s archaeology", it was organised by the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT) and its offshoot, the Zayed National Museum.
Papers were presented by archaeologists from across the country, as well as from a range of international institutions. As one might expect, there was a heavy emphasis on topics related to Abu Dhabi. DCT’s own archaeology teams have been extremely active over the past few years.
There were, though, papers from all of the emirates, except Ajman. Nearly one third of the presentations were made by Emiratis. That’s evidence of the increasing engagement of Emiratis in the study of their own history and heritage. Perhaps it’s time for the UAE’s universities to pay more attention to this hugely important subject.
There is also, I suspect, potential for public interest in the discoveries being made. What a pity, therefore, that the local media were not invited to cover the event and to share the news at home and abroad.
I’ve been involved in organising many conferences on the UAE’s archaeology. Being so busy behind the scenes, I’ve often had little time to listen. This time, however, I could sit and try to absorb some of the new information being unveiled.
The things that lodge most in my mind are either those which are linked to previous work of my own many years ago, or which have what I call the “wow factor”. Something that makes me, or a larger audience, sit up in pleasant surprise and say, quite simply, “wow!”
There were plenty of these moments on offer, so much so that it seems a little unfair to try to highlight only a few.
On Abu Dhabi’s western islands of Marawah and Ghaghah, work by DCT archaeologists such as Nora Al Hameli has changed our understanding of the Neolithic (late Stone Age) period in the Gulf. Dating to around 6,500 BCE, the buildings on Ghaghah are the oldest evidence of Neolithic stone-built architecture anywhere in the Gulf.
From Umm Al Quwain, evidence of a 7th/8th-century Christian monastery on the island of Siniya was unveiled back in November. At the conference, the discovery of a 9th/10th-century mosque on the mainland nearby, at Rafaa, was announced by UAE-based professor Tim Power. The two sites, he suggested, may offer evidence of the transition of the people of the region to Islam. That’s pretty important, too. Only three other mosques of that date have been found anywhere in the Gulf.
For me the stand-out topic at the conference was the announcement by German archaeologist Marc Haendel, working for DCT, of the discovery of evidence of the earliest human presence yet identified in the Emirates.
Tools from the later part of the Middle Palaeolithic, around 125,000-50,000 years ago, are now fairly well known from the edge of the Hajar Mountains in Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah, and it was not particularly surprising that Mr Haendel announced that he had found tools of that period south and south-east of Al Ain, around Jebel Hafeet. Indeed, I have since been able to draw his attention to a published note about a Middle Palaeolithic-era tool found just north of Al Ain back in 1981.
Some other items collected by Mr Haendel, though, were of a type that clearly belonged to the Lower Palaeolithic, which is much earlier. They could be dated, he suggested, from anywhere between 1.5 million years to 400,000 years ago.
The tools were found on the surface, and since they were of a type known to have been in use over a very long period it is currently not possible to be more precise about the dating. The challenge now for Mr Haendel and DCT is to find sites that can be excavated and securely dated. Even if the tools come from the lower end, so 400,000 years ago, they would still be by far the earliest evidence of a human presence in the Emirates.
That is most definitely a wow moment.
And they have yet more to offer. Around 400,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans, or Homo sapiens, had not yet emerged. The tools, Mr Haendel suggests, are likely to have been made by “early hominids”, distant, long-extinct relatives of ours.
Those who made and used these tools so long ago offer evidence of the migration of early hominid populations out of Africa and into Asia, passing across the land that today constitutes the Emirates. Six million years ago, in the Late Miocene period, ancient relatives of animals that we recognise today such as horses, hippopotami and elephants passed the same way, across the Emirates into Asia. And 100,000 years ago, the ancestors of modern man took the same route. The UAE has acted as a bridge out of Africa for millions of years.
The country's archaeologists and palaeontologists (fossil experts), collaborating with colleagues from around the world, are continuing to make discoveries of huge importance for the country and far beyond. Most exciting of all? There’s still much more to learn about the history of this land.