Since its first chance sighting from the air in 2002, the archaeological site of Saruq al-Hadid, lost for thousands of years in the desert dunes about 60 kilometres south of the Burj Khalifa, has yielded a treasure trove of 12,000 finds, 3,000 of which were unearthed in the past year.
But despite this wealth of evidence, one word dominated proceedings as archaeologists gathered in London at the weekend to present their latest findings from Saruq al-Hadid at the annual seminar organised by the British Foundation for the Study of Arabia: mystery.
What is known is that from about 5,000 year ago, peaking during the Iron Age about 3,000 years ago but active all the way through to almost the early Islamic period, this remote desert site was an important centre of metalworking activity, where skilled craftsmen produced objects in bronze, iron and gold in such numbers that it can only have been for trade with the wider region.
It was the tell-tale ore, scattered around on the dunes and staining the sands, that first drew the attention of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Ruler of Dubai, as he flew over the site in a helicopter 14 years ago. Many of the objects subsequently found at Saruq Al-Hadid can be found in the dedicated museum in Dubai’s historic Shindagha district. One, an elaborate gold ring, has inspired the design of the symbol for Dubai’s Expo 2020.
“There is no doubt that it is a really important site,” said Derek Kennet, senior lecturer in Durham University’s department of archaeology.
But what we still don’t know is why it was situated where it was. About 40 kilometres inland from the present day port of Jebel Ali, it was hardly conveniently placed for the export of goods by sea, or for access to the precious copper ore in the distant mountains of Oman.
“There’s no immediately obvious reason why you would have a lot of human activity in a location like that,” said Dr Kennet, chairman of the seminar’s organising committee. “But there was clearly a lot of metalworking out there, mainly copper, but also gold.”
To smelt metal you need three ingredients: fuel, ore and water, and none is available at Saruq al-Hadid. Archaeologists believe there may have been a water supply during the site’s heyday – a lake, or seasonal surface water – while hardy ghaf trees, perhaps once abundant there, could have provided the fuel. The heavy ore, though, would have to have been carried from the distant mountains for many days on the backs of pack animals.
Long-forgotten politics could explain the remoteness of the site, which is unusual in that it was occupied for a very long period of time. “It may have been located out there to avoid controls by the powers-that-be in the more populated areas,” said Dr Kennet. Alternatively, the location – and indeed, the many finds of apparently ritualistic metal snakes – may have been linked to superstitions or religious beliefs.
The bronze snakes found at the site, also thought to have been made there, are one of the many mysteries of Saruq al-Hadid. In smaller numbers, these have been found elsewhere in the UAE and Oman, but Saruq al-Hadid was either the main centre for production or, perhaps in addition, had some significance to what archaeologists believe may have been a snake cult in the region.
Likewise, small metal human figurines have been found – toys, or charms, perhaps – alongside everyday but nonetheless spectacular finds such as swords, daggers, metal bowls and thousands of bronze arrow heads. Another mystery is a single anklet found at the site, possibly fashioned to fit a camel but possibly forged to hold a human leg.
One of the challenges of the site, which has drawn the attention of archaeologists from around the world, is that almost every find poses more questions than it answers. But, thanks to the unique properties of the site, which because of its remoteness has been protected from interference for centuries, archaeologists are amassing “an archaeological record which tells us a lot about the development of human civilisation more generally”, said Dr Kennet.
Ironically, it is the current state of human civilisation in the wider Middle East that has led to what he says is the current “golden age” for archaeology in Oman and the UAE, an age in which Saruq Al-Hadid is emerging as one of the jewels in the crown.
In all, says Dr Kennet, there are now “something in the order of 25 foreign teams working in Oman and the UAE every year now, a massive increase over what they had a few years ago”. The reason, he says, is the instability in traditional archaeological destinations such as Iraq, Syria and Iran, combined with the openness of Oman and the UAE to foreign collaboration. As a result, archaeologically “we are beginning to realise there was much more going on across this region than had been realised”.
Many of yesterday’s sessions at the two-day seminar, held in the British Museum, were dedicated to discussions and presentations about finds in the region, from Saruq al-Hadid to the discovery of a new Iron Age ritual complex in Central Oman and the latest findings from Tell Abraq, the ancient city on the border between present-day Sharjah and Umm Al-Qaiwan. There, evidence has been found of imports from Mesopotamia of bitumen, used more than 2,000 years ago to waterproof the hulls of ships trading up and down the Gulf.
There was, said Dr Kennet, much more to be learnt about the past in the region and its contribution to the development of civilisation in Mesopotamia, but he sounded a warning.
For one thing, rapid economic development, especially in the UAE, meant time was running out for the past: “We are seeing the archaeological landscape being steadily transformed by development, and in 20 or 30 years it will be much more difficult for archaeologists to work in the area.”
It was, he said, also now “vital that Oman and the UAE now do more to develop their own archaeological expertise. Most of the archaeology in the region to date has been done by westerners, especially in the UAE.
“But as global financial circumstances in the world change, western missions may not find it so easy to come and work in the region and increasingly the locals are going to have to deal with their own archaeological heritage themselves.”