An Iron Age camel ride to the UAE's past

In a quiet area of Sharjah, archaeologists have made remarkable discoveries that reveal much about ancient times in the local area.

For centuries, the world view of the region's history has centred on places such as Egypt and Jordan. This is not surprising: Egypt's pyramids and Jordan's rose city of Petra are considered among the world's wonders.

But tucked away in a quiet part of Sharjah lies evidence of the Gulf region's own ancient history. Two major discoveries have been made at the site of the Iron Age settlement of Muwailah, where the archaeologist Peter Magee has been excavating since 1993. First, the site revealed the earliest evidence of local domestication of the dromedary, or single-humped, Arabian camel. Also, Dr Magee and his team found the earliest evidence of script in the area.

The region's Iron Age is now believed to have occurred in three phases or periods of occupation, between 1300 BC and 300 BC. Muwailah falls during the most prolific of the periods, between 1000BC and 600 BC, when the area had its largest population and the most populated sites. "This phase is still poorly understood in terms of the economy," said Dr Magee, an Australian who is based at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. He spends six weeks at the site each winter with his team.

"But once you domesticate the camel you can integrate the economy, as you can bring goods between areas and from countries such as Yemen. It also became a vital source of milk and meat whereas previously, they had been hunted much the same as animals such as the gazelle." Camels had previously been used only for their skin and as food. But camel skeletons found at the site are evidence of their domestication; they are distinctly smaller than skeletons from previous eras such as the Bronze Age. Dr Magee said this is "consistent with domestication".

The site of Muwailah stretched to more than 20 hectares. The central area was four metres high, surrounded by ditches three and a half metres deep, much like a waterless moat system. "There may have been over 1,000 people at any one time living over the extended area," Dr Magee said. "The central part was built from mud-brick and stone. But further afield, many families would have lived in areesh buildings, made with palm fronds.

"We have no evidence for this defensive technique previously in the region. We do, however, know that it requires a lot of work and speaks to the importance of what's going on inside the settlement itself." In spite of its advanced building work, the site ultimately failed; it was burnt down when it came under attack sometime between 800 BC and 700 BC. The fire did, however, leave archaeologists with what Dr Magee called "very good organic preservation" which has allowed them to more easily date what remained.

Whole dates and charcoal have allowed the team to make detailed assessments of the period. One of the most surprising finds, Dr Magee said, was the first evidence of writing in the area, as well as the use of bronze weapons and tools, such as sewing needles, spears, arrow heads and axes. Bronze was widely available. The writing, three letters of which were found on a ceramic pot, is in the sabaean script, commonly used in Yemen from around 800 BC. Yemen was a source of incense and frankincense to the area's communities.

"Writing would usually be found in larger quantities," Dr Magee said, "but it could have been written on materials which have already naturally degraded such as on the ribs of palm fronds as they did in Yemen. "It just doesn't make sense that there would only be one inscription, as nobody would have understood it." Dr Magee said it clearly showed overland trade was key to the site, 500 years before the time when historians believed these trading networks began.

"The site also exploited maritime trade which we can see from the pottery from Iran and Iraq found at the site," he said. Many goods from the likes of Iran and Mesopotamia came through the area, especially around Sharjah, with its proximity to the coast. The site has yielded one of the most substantial finds in the region's history, with more than 3,500 objects and 100,000 animal bones recovered. "We haven't found any human bones other than one young man who was buried under a collapsing wall," he said.

Whole pots, used for storage and consumption, spouted painted vessels and pouring pots used for banquets or events are among the finds. "All of these were found in their original positions and well preserved," Dr Magee said. The Iron Age was one of the area's most significant periods. It would lead to major societal, economic and environmental developments in the coming centuries. During the 1980s, archaeologists in Al Ain overturned a centuries old assumption that Iran was the leader in the traditional falaj system of water irrigation in the region. The oldest known tunnels in Al Ain date to 1000 BC.

Dr Magee said the use of the tunnels improved agriculture inland and as such, helped the economy's expansion. He said he had yet to answer two questions: whether camel domestication came before the falaj development, and whether those major developments were a cause of, or response to, increased settlement. "We can only answer this by very tightly dating the sites, which is what we are still working on now," he said. "With the afflaj, there are no artefacts to help us."

Dr Magee and his team have obtained more than 40 highly accurate radiocarbon dates which is more than any other site in the region, he said. The excavations are being funded jointly by Dr Magee's university and by the Sharjah Directorate of Archaeology. Dr Magee said he could see archaeology and heritage becoming more prominant in the emirate. "The rulers have increasingly placed more importance on the country's cultural heritage. It's a very deep history."

After the settlement's destruction, a period of economic downturn seems to have occurred, in what Dr Magee called a cycle of boom and bust. "We know very little about this period," he said. "The boom of this second period lasted for around 500 years. The third period is still a real mystery." There have been observations of the area's third phase of the Iron Age, from 600 BC to 300 BC, dotted at sites around the country. But they are never isolated; the traces are always interspersed with the Iron Age's second period.

The three phases of the Iron Age are not consistent around the world. "The differences between them speak to very local changes that are going on here," Dr Magee said. After turning up so many fascinating discoveries over the past 17 years, Dr Magee has grown attached to the site that has shed light on the area's rich history. "There is still a lot of work to do," he says. "But I'd be sad if I knew it had all come to an end. I love coming here. It's an amazing site and I love Sharjah."