Ancient clay hidden in plain sight

It is the stuff of Julfar ware, a clay that played a major part in building the medieval port of the same name. But the mystery of Julfar earthenware was that no one knew where the clay came from, until a pair of experts discovered it was all around them in the RAK hills.

Ruth Impey, a UAE potter, and Mustafa Otaki, a retired professor of geochemistry, collect the clay from Wadi Haqeel which was used to produce Julfar ware. Antonie Robertson / The National
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At a time of the day when the heat is so intense that even the goats sleep, a Scottish potter and a Syrian geologist scamper up the scree of Wadi Haqeel to chip away at its side.

“This here, this is the real clay,” says the geologist, Mustafa Otaki. He fills a bag with clumps of dark earth. “This is lovely clay. It’s a little bit fine-grain. It’s lovely this one.”

The pair are on the hunt for the clay used to build the medieval trade port of Julfar, in what is modern Ras Al Khaimah.

A key part of Julfar’s rise in the 15th and 16th century was found inland, seven kilometres north-west in Wadi Haqeel. There, the coarse pottery known as Julfar ware was produced commercially. The remains of 20 kilns still stand today.

Ruth Impey, a potter in Abu Dhabi, first visited the wadi in April last year to meet Ahmed Rashed, a potter's son from the Bani Shemaili tribe. His father was a full-time worker in the 900-year-old industry.

Ms Impey left with a deep understanding of how the potters worked and bags of red, yellow and grey clay.

That clay was harvested from somewhere in the interior by Bani Shemaili elders, after a hike that took hours.

“The question for me was always, how did they manage to produce such a wealth of pottery when the clay didn’t seem to be available and it was always such hard work for them to gather the clay?” she said.

The answer came in September when she returned to the mountains with Mr Otaki, a retired geochemistry professor from the University of Damascus, who was referred to her by RAK Ceramics.

Mr Otaki answered the questions raised by ethnographic and archaeological papers.

He saw clay everywhere. “Ruth,” he said, “this is the clay. It is here.”

They were standing on top of it. The clay was all around them but unrecognisable to the untrained eye.

But for Mr Otaki, clay is a geological marvel of wondrous practical applications.

An elegant man with flowing white hair, his eyes twinkle when he speaks of family – “my son, Mahmoud, he’s the eldest, he’s a ceramics dentist” or geology – “you have so much conglomerate in Ras Al Khaimah”.

He bursts into a grin at the mention of clay, jumping between stories about its application in oil drilling, its role in fattening chickens, and how his Damascene mother uses it to soften her hair.

After completing his doctorate at Cambridge in 1964, Mr Otaki was part of the first team to analyse meteorites. These days, he walks through the wadis of RAK, touching clay to his tongue to test its properties, speaking about “lovely, gracious metamorphic rocks”.

Mr Otaki pronounces lovely in three full-vowelled syllables.

With his help, Ms Impey has tracked down several clay sources in RAK, with which she hopes to revive the ancient practice of pottery.

In January, the team received another push when Ms Impey received a fellowship from the Find programme at New York University Abu Dhabi to create a body of work from local clay.

In March, she received a call from a quarry worker in southern RAK.

The quarry held clay – too much of it. The manager had heard of her quest for RAK clay. Would she take theirs away?

“He hates clay because it absolutely interferes with what he’s mining and discolours it,” says Ms Impey. “He said, ‘you can have it all’.”

Last week, they travelled to Al Ghail and loaded two tonnes into a lorry. It now sits in her Abu Dhabi garden, where it will be soaked, sieved, dried and pounded. With workable clay, she will be able to see how it withstands different temperatures in different kilns.

Ms Impey and Mr Otaki then went to Wadi Haqeel for samples of clay from the old kilns she visited last year. Each site has its own geology and Ms Impey will probably need a combination of the Al Ghail and Wadi Haqeel clay.

The clay of Wadi Haqeel is older, formed from sedimentary marine deposits under the limestone about 20 million years ago and forced to the surface through tectonic shifts.

Due to the distinctive vertical layers of the wadi walls, Mr Otaki believes there was more water circulation in Wadi Haqeel than adjacent wadis, such as Wadi Al Beih, and that this would have made its clay better suited for pottery.

“So much tectonised,” he says. “This is a good valley for water, you know. Many different inclinations.”

This could explain why, of all the coastal wadis, Wadi Haqeel was the centre of large-scale commercial production.

The clay of Al Ghail, by contrast, was formed gradually as eroded limestone cracks were filled. “Only small cavity filings,” says Mr Otaki, dismissively.

Al Ghail’s clay is malleable but shrinks by about 25 per cent. The clay of Wadi Haqeel has a shrink- rate of about 15 per cent, which is about average.

The clay that has got Mr Otaki most excited is the black clay of Wadi Al Koob, south of RAK city on the Fujairah border.

Medieval potters reduced shrinkage by adding stones and shells, building slowly by hand. This is not possible with modern pottery thrown on a wheel.

“I lacerate my hands,” says Ms Impey.

The clay given to her by Mr Rashed was successfully fired in a modern kiln at 960°C, the temperature for normal biscuit firing, and 1,040°C, midrange for a normal earthenware clay. It produced a warm, rich red.

“Basically it means that I can work with the clay in modern day kilns and bring that clay back into the modern day world,” says Ms Impey.

The next step is a meeting with Wadi Haqeel’s tribe, the Bani Shemaili, to discuss its historical knowledge of the process and plans for the reconstruction of local kilns.

“I want to find out why they did the patterns on the outside of the pots,” says Ms Impey. “Did they have any significant meaning? And how much women were involved? So far I’ve only been able to talk to men.”

Wadi Haqeel clay from the bottom of the kiln will be tested to answer the big questions of what fuel was used and the range of temperatures used in the firing process.

Ms Impey is seeking permission from the RAK Department of Antiquities to build a replica of a Julfar-era kiln.

She plans a kiln-building course in summer with Joe Finch, a specialist in the reconstruction of ancient kilns and hopes to convince him to help rebuild a RAK kiln and also construct a replica in Abu Dhabi as a legacy for other artists.

Ms Impey will build and fire a body of work for the fellowship in October. The size and height of the work will depend on the dimension of the kilns, which will, ideally, be at Wadi Haqeel.

As part of her fellowship, she will write a research paper and has been asked to write a book on the subject.

Most importantly, some clay has already made its way into the hands of Abu Dhabi potters.

Ms Impey teaches pottery courses at the National Theatre in Abu Dhabi and at the History of the World in 100 Objects exhibition at Manarat Al Saadiyat, where participants have the option of using imported or RAK clay.

Imported material feels “that it’s not true – it does not sit well”.

Local sourcing is essential for local art.

“It brings local character to what I’m making,” says Ms Impey. “It’s from the region. It’s the fabric of the UAE that I’m working with and I think for me, as a potter historian, it makes my pieces work if I know that they’re from local clay.

“I think part of me would like to reflect and echo the potters who have gone before. It’s a 900-year-old tradition here and people have forgotten about the stories told.”