Pieces of an ancient jigsaw puzzle

Thousands of bits of clay littering Wadi Haqeel are a reminder of its past as a pottery production hub since the 17th century.

RAK, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – May 11, 2011: One of the piece of pottery in Al Haqeel wadi pottery valley in Ras Al Khaimah. (Pawan Singh / The National) For News. Story by Rym
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WADI HAQEEL // At first glance, the 50 or so small stone houses of Wadi Haqeel look like any other abandoned mountain village.

What sets it apart are thousands of bits and pieces of pottery scattered on the ground.

"It is mankind's oldest known craft, and it used to be our special craft," said Mohammed bin Saeed bin al Shimaili, a member of the al Shimaili mountain tribe, once famed for its pottery making skills.

For most of the late Islamic period, from the 17th century up to 20th, Ras al Khaimah's Wadi Haqeel and Shamal areas were hubs for local pottery production. But with the discovery of oil, the industry slowly petered away to obscurity.

At 28, Mr al Shimaili has missed the chance of seeing his grandfather make and bake the pottery before his grandmother adds the final geometric or floral designs.

"We are proud of our history as the country's pottery making tribe," he said. "Everyone had one of our pots and jars somewhere in their house."

RAK's pottery, better known as Julfar after the emirate's former name, came in various sizes and shapes but was all made in a trademark orange-red clay. Products included a light jar known as al yahla for carrying water, the heavy long khars jar for storing dates or salted meat, and a small incense holder called al mabkhara.

Pointing to a mound of reddish soil near one of the stone houses, Mr al Shimaili said: "Here you have some of the red mud, known as al mashq."

The tribe was divided into those who baked the pottery and those who collected the wood from the al Asbaq tree needed to light the oven.

An average of 10 items were made daily, and hundreds of dried-up branches were needed for five to six hours of baking. One of the last working pottery kilns was visible in the wadi until a few years ago when it caved in.

"Pottery is one of the crafts where hot weather was good for it, and rain was bad," said Mohammed bin Ali bin al Shimaili, 58 and a tribesman. "This place was ideal for pioneering this craft."

Using one of his rifles as a pointing tool, the elder Mr al Shimaili described the different steps and types of pottery that his tribe used to make.

"Here you have an ibreeq, a rounded thick pot where we used to heat the water for coffee and then we would transfer the water into the metallic coffee pot, the dallah," he said.

A few decades ago, even the cups for Arabic coffee were made of clay.

"You will find our pottery in Emirati homes, even if they are not used anymore," he said.

Julfar pottery can also be found buried in the sand dunes of the country's deserts, left behind by Bedouin families who would revisit their regular camp site locations.

"They would move around a lot and didn't want to carry so much weight," said Dr Mark Beech, the cultural landscapes manager at the Historic Environment Department of Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach).

"Of course, there was always a risk someone would steal them," he said.

Pottery, including jars, plates and cups, is often overlooked by the average visitor to a museum despite its being the find archaeologists prize the most.

"Pottery is an archaeologist's bread and butter," said Dr Beech. "At every site we excavate, we look for those bits and pieces of pottery as they are the key to finding out the date and the story behind a recent find."

Earlier this month, Adach announced the discovery of two mud and clay houses in Al Ain belonging to the Abbasid Islamic period. The items that helped pinpoint their age were bits of pottery glazed blue, green, and grey - characteristic of that era.

One of Dr Beech's own discoveries in 2004, on Marawah Island of Abu Dhabi, ended up being one of the country's most important pottery finds.

The pale green to grey pottery bore a geometric wave-like design and was found near the skeleton of the earliest known human inhabitant of Abu Dhabi. It is believed to be more than 7,000 years old.

"This pot is the oldest, most complete pottery ever found in the UAE and in south-east Arabia," he said.

It is an example of Ubaid pottery, named after its place of origin, the site of Tell Al-Ubaid, part of the Ubaid civilisation of southern Mesopotamia, or what is now Iraq.

One little pot, which provides evidence of the earliest sea trade contacts between Mesopotamia and the lower Arabian Gulf, also happens to be one of Dr Beech's favourite objects.

"It is smooth and beautiful," he said. "It is quite ironic, the older the pottery, the better its manufacturing technique."

Bronze Age pottery often had animal depictions on it, demonstrating their social and economic importance at the time.

"Man was always fascinated by animals, which also provided a major food source for him," said Dr Beech.

"Animals were also sacrificed as part of rituals and so some of the pottery and objects would have faunal motifs or decorations depicted on them."

One such pot can be seen at Al Ain National Museum. Dating to 2600-2300 BC, from the Umm an-Nar civilisation, the reddish pot depicts an antelope among the geometric decoration.

"Pottery styles went in and out of fashion," Dr Beech said.

"Pottery was imported, and then copied and produced locally. Based on the economic and social conditions at that time, it then went back to being imported or exported again," he said.

For a man who has seen and put together thousands of pieces in his 20 years of explorations, Dr Beech still rejoices at each discovery.

"Pottery may seem boring to some, but to us, it is fascinating," he said. "It is like trying to put the pieces together of a jigsaw puzzle."