Ancient gold ring that gave Sheikh Mohammed the perfect symbol for Expo 2020

Emblem is based on artefact unearthed in desert by Ruler of Dubai

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With Expo 2020 Dubai starting on Friday, the UAE's leaders and officials are showing their support for the event by decorating their profile pictures on social media with its logo.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, and Sheikh Maktoum bin Mohammed, Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Ruler of Dubai, are among those whose Twitter profiles are now framed by the golden rings to mark the six-month world’s fair.

The ring has become synonymous with the event, but why was this symbol chosen?

A significant archaeological find

In 2002, Sheikh Mohammed was flying in a helicopter over a patch of desert, 30 kilometres south of what is now the Expo site, when he noticed something unusual among the dunes.

He spoke about his discovery with Dr Hussein Qandil, then director of Dubai’s Department of Archaeology, who began an initial exploration of the site, known now as Saruq Al Hadid.

It was clear this was an archaeological site of huge significance.

What had caught Sheikh Mohammed’s eye proved to be the slag by-product from the ancient smelting of copper and iron.

Dr Qandil carried out a small survey of Saruq Al Hadid, and three and a half metres further down, his archaeologists found a 50-centimetre seam of sand packed with “an impressive inventory of objects”.

That hoard included ceramics, dozens of beads, and copper and bronze artefacts, including arrowheads, axe heads, a fish hook, bracelets, knives and, intriguingly, snake figurines.

The site, it is now believed, was connected to an ancient people who lived across south-east Arabia and revered snakes.

Five seasons of excavations led by Jordan’s Department of Antiquities followed, revealing “an extraordinary collection of Iron Age artefacts”.

But it was digs carried out in 2008 and 2009 by the Dubai Desert Survey, a joint project between American researchers and the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, that “transformed our interpretation of the site”, Dr Qandil and his colleagues wrote in the journal Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy in 2012.

“What was once perceived as an Iron Age centre of bronze production [had] been revealed to be a multi-period site with distinct site functions spread over more than three millennia.”

It was here that the ancient ring that inspired the Expo logo's design was discovered.

Sheikh Mohammed unveiled the design of the logo at a prestigious ceremony in 2016, where it was projected in gold light on to the Burj Khalifa.

The elaborately fashioned gold ring was evidence that “this land connected ancient civilisations”, Sheikh Mohammed said at the launch.

He said it showed how “we will continue to be a hub that connects the world”.

More than 4,000 years ago, “the people who lived in this land had a deep creative spirit and today the people of this country are building the nation’s future for centuries to come", he said.

A ground-breaking site

In all, thousands of artefacts, made from iron, bronze and gold, have been unearthed from the original site, including swords and large quantities of gold rings, along with evidence of copper smelting.

Many of these are now in the Saruq Al Hadid museum, inaugurated by Sheikh Mohammed in July 2016.

Such is the “unprecedented scale and diversity” of the site, as one archaeologist has written, that it has “dramatically challenged existing ideas about the nature and development of Iron Age communities in south-eastern Arabia”.

But not all of Saruq Al Hadid’s secrets have been unearthed. As Dr Qandil and his co-authors wrote in 2012, this is a site that is “both enigmatic and spectacular, presenting a fascinating problem for archaeologists”.

One of several mysteries surrounding Saruq Al Hadid is that, while it has yielded “abundant evidence for metal production and a vast collection of elite goods”, it is between 50 and 100 kilometres from known sources of fresh water, ore or fuel.

Despite this, the site’s slag heap was mute testimony to “a record of intensive metal production that would have required the transport of large quantities of ore and fuel over long distances”.

For Prof Lloyd Weeks of the University of New England in Australia, who is leading an exploration of the site in collaboration with the government of Dubai, the “inexplicable abundance” of material that has been found at Saruq Al Hadid is the central mystery.

“The site was clearly used for smelting metal, which is strange given how far it is from sources of ore or fuel, but so far no settlement or structures have been discovered,” Prof Weeks said when the archaeological partnership with Dubai was announced in November 2014.

Nevertheless, the site yielded “thousands upon thousands of bronze, gold and iron artefacts, as well as vessels of pottery and stone and thousands of beads of decorative stones”.

Another major question yet to be answered centres on why so much valuable gold and copper, much of it fashioned into beautiful items, was apparently abandoned in the middle of the desert.

It is one of the many questions that Prof Weeks and his team hope to answer as part of their work at the site.

“We will conduct post-excavation analysis of the objects to determine what they’re made of, what they were used for, where the materials were sourced from and why they were left behind,” he said.

“Finally, we will keep on digging at the site in the hope that we will discover more about how the location has changed in the 3,000 years since [it] was used. We’re also hoping to find evidence of settlement that may help to answer some more questions for us.”

The passing of time

More than five years have passed since the ring was revealed as the basis of the logo for Expo 2020 Dubai.

Since then, buildings for the world’s fair have risen in the desert sands of the emirate’s south.

There are hundreds of pavilions, apartment blocks, restaurants, offices, parks and playgrounds, as well as the extension of the Dubai Metro's route to reach the site.

There is also the imposing Al Wasl Plaza dome, described as the “beating heart” of Expo 2020 Dubai.

Meaning “connection” in English, Al Wasl is the historical name for Dubai, and the steel trellis is the centrepiece of the site, where all roads meet, and reflects the event’s aim to bring people together.

The dome's shape is also modelled on the ancient ring and features intertwined logos.

Like the Eiffel Tower after the 1889 Expo, Al Wasl is a permanent installation that will remain after the world’s fair closes at the end of March 2022.

This article is an updated version of one previously published in 2016.

Watch: What exactly is an Expo?

Updated: September 29th 2021, 2:44 PM
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