UAE archaeologist discovers the Swiss Army knife from 130,000 years ago

The ancient stone tool was found at Jebel Barakah, the earliest archeological site along the Arabian Gulf coast. It is evidence that the archeological history of Abu Dhabi’s coastline extends far beyond its pearling culture, according to Dr Mark Beech.

Mark Beech told of ancient Abu Dhabi's coastline.  Lee Hoagland/The National
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ABU DHABI // To the uninitiated, it was a just an old piece of chipped, flaked rock. To the archaeologist who found it, Dr Mark Beech, it was the Swiss Army knife of its day – and that could have been 130,000 years ago.

Dr Beech found the ancient stone tool at Jebel Barakah, the earliest archeological site along the Arabian Gulf coast, where a treasure trove of such finds was discovered in 1993.

They are evidence that the remarkable archeological history of Abu Dhabi's coastline extends far beyond its pearling culture, as Dr Beech explained to a rapt audience on Wednesday at New York University Abu Dhabi.

As he projected a photo of himself smiling in the desert, holding the chipped rock in the palm of his hand, Dr Beech said: “It’s a rock where flakes have been taken off of it. These are a type of flake called the Levallois flake. They were using these tools for butchering animals. I mention it’s by the coast today, but it wasn’t by the coast at that time. It was actually an ancient river.

“And what they were doing was hunting along the river and using these tools – I suppose you could call them like the Swiss Army knives of that time – they were using these tools for butchery.”

Dr Beech, who heads the Coastal Heritage and Paleontology Section of the Historic Environment Department at Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, led the audience through an archeological tour of the emirate as he presented photographic and historic evidence of the early civilisations’ rich cross-cultural history in the region.

“This story of maritime life, we’re familiar with this,” Dr Beech said, referring to several historical maps that showed evidence of the area’s pearling history over the last 200 years. “But I was interested in the ancient history.” pilot programme to improve health education in the country.

He traced the chronology of significant archeological excavations in the area, beginning with the Danish excavation of Umm Al Nar, an Abu Dhabi island, in 1959. Among the highlights was the accidental finding, in 1991, of pottery shards in Sir Bani Yas Island by the late Carolyn Lehmann, of the Emirates Natural History Group.

“She picked up some pottery shards as well as pieces of decorated plaster from Al Khor sites and this was the initial discovery of the Christian church monastery,” Dr Beech said. “We didn’t know that until slightly later, when it was excavated.”

His own involvement in the archeological digs in the area began in 1994, a year after anthropologist Sally McBrearty discovered ancient stone tools at several sites.

Dr Beech took the audience “island hopping”, showing them what had been found in some of the less-visited parts of the emirate.

He pointed out that the coast we see today was created at the end of the last Ice Age, about 16,000-18,000 years ago.

“So, imagine the people in this landscape, they were living in a landscape of rivers and lakes and suddenly the water is becoming salty, it’s like a giant flood,” he said.

At Marawah Island, about 100 kilometres west of Abu Dhabi, two sites were discovered including one where “Marawah man” was found. “Unfortunately, it was not very well preserved,” Dr Beech said of the skeleton.

Later investigation, using carbon dating, found the site to be between 6,500 and 8,000 years old.

At Dalma Island, a 7,000-year-old house structure was excavated along with plaster vessels made using gypsum.

An excavation in Jebel Buhais, near Sharjah, unearthed 700 burials, many containing jewellery.

Dr Beech said he hoped his presentation would encourage others to explore some of the country's important sites, inlcuding the remnants of a Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas Island.

“People think as I did when I first arrived that it’s only just about the recent pearling. But the aim of the talk today was to give you an idea of what it looks like in some of these places because many of you haven’t been to some of these islands.

“I hope it will encourage some of you to visit some of these places. I hope you now want to visit Dalma Island and Sir Bani Yas Island.”

* An earlier publication of this article incorrectly reported that plaster figurines from the Ubaid period had been found on Dalma Island. These figurines were in fact discovered in Iraq.