How an archaeological find gave Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid a perfect symbol for Expo 2020

When Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid saw the untapped potential and meaning of Saruq Al-Hadid in 2002, the Ruler of Dubai forged a link between the Iron Age and his emirate that has become the emblem of Expo 2020.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, inspects the excavations at Saruq Al-Hadid. Wam
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Dubai’s man-made landmarks have, in the city’s short span, rightly won world renown – and none more successfully than the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

It was fitting, therefore, that this was the screen on to which the newly-minted logo of Expo 2020 was projected at its launch on Sunday evening.

The fact that Dubai was chosen to host the first World Expo in the Middle East speaks volumes about how far the city has come. But few of the many thousands who gathered for this week’s ceremony unveiling the logo would have appreciated the full significance of its design.

They may have heard Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, speak of the mysterious ancient ring that had been unearthed in the deserts sands of his emirate, the design of which has inspired the emblem of Dubai 2020. They may have seen the Ruler hold the artefact aloft moments before the presentation got under way.

But the true secret of the ring, emblazoned across the night sky on Sunday, is that the modern city we see today is merely the latest manifestation of a tradition that stretches back at least 4,000 years, to a time before the ingenuity and technical brio that has put Dubai firmly on the map of the modern world.

The elaborately fashioned gold ring, as Sheikh Mohammed remarked, served as evidence that “this land connected ancient civilisations” long ago and symbolised that “we will continue to be a hub that connects the world”.

The Expo 2020 logo, he said, “represents our message to the world that our civilisation has deep roots. We were and will always be a pot that gathers civilisations and a centre for innovation”.

More than 4,000 years ago, he said, “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.”

Remarkably, the discovery of the ring, and the story that has emerged from the sands where it was buried, can be attributed to Sheikh Mohammed himself.

In 2002, he was flying in a helicopter over a patch of desert, 30 kilometres south of where work has begun on the site of Expo 2020, when among the dunes he noticed something unusual.

He reported his discovery to Dr Hussein Qandil, then director of Dubai’s Department of Archaeology, who shortly afterwards began an initial exploration of the site, known now as Saruq Al-Hadid.

Right away, it was clear that Sheikh Mohammed had stumbled on an archaeological site of huge significance.

What had caught his eye proved to be field of waste from the ancient smelting of copper and iron which, in the words of one of the many papers published about the site, “seems to have shielded much of the underlying dunes from erosion by wind”.

In so doing, this “slag” heap, measuring 1.5 hectares, had preserved history dating back 4,000 years.

Dr Qandil quickly carried out a first small-scale exploration of Saruq Al-Hadid. Three and a half metres down, his archaeologists found a 50-centimetre seam of sand packed with “an impressive inventory of objects”, his report stated.

That hoard included ceramics, dozens of beads and copper or bronze artefacts, including arrowheads, axe heads, a fish-hook, bracelets, knives and, intriguingly, models of snakes.

The site, it is now believed, was connected to an ancient snake cult once widespread in south-east Arabia.

Five seasons of excavations led by Jordan’s department of antiquities followed, revealing “an extraordinary collection of Iron Age artefacts”. But it was a series of digs carried out in 2008-2009 by the Dubai Desert Survey, a joint project between a group of American researchers and the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, that “transformed our interpretation of the site”, as 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.”

In all, thousands of artefacts, made from iron, bronze and gold, have been unearthed, including swords and large numbers of gold rings, along with evidence of copper smelting. 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. This, as Dr Qandil and his co-authors wrote in 2012, 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 a three-year exploration of the site in conjunction with the government of Dubai, the “inexplicable abundance” of material that has been found at Saruq Al-Hadid is the key 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,” he said when the archaeological partnership with Dubai was announced in November 2014.

Nevertheless, the site had 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 in the remaining two years 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.”

As the digging into the past at Saruq Al-Hadid continues, so the digging for the future at the site of Expo 2020 has commenced. More than five million metric tonnes of sand has already been moved from the 4km by 1.8km site in Dubai’s south district, mid way between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and ground will be broken for construction this summer.

In a little less than five years, when Dubai opens its doors to the first of the 25 million visitors expected to flow into the city for Expo 2020, some of the outstanding mysteries of Saruq Al-Hadid may well have been answered.

But whether they have or not, the symbol of the expo, and the story of the ancient ring that inspired it, will serve for all as a reminder that there is nothing new or overnight about Dubai’s role as a centre of trade, civilisation and technological innovation.