Al Shindagah Magazine

Digging up Julfar

Digging up Julfar A team of British archaeologists excavating a major site in Ras Al Khaimah are more excited by ancient rubbish tips than finding gold coins.

Behind a tall security fence in a farming area of Ras Al Khaimah, not far from the tall mountains of the Al Hajjar range and the blue waters of the Arabian Gulf, a group of scientists and labourers are busy at one of the most important building sites in the United Arab Emirates. Instead of pouring more concrete for another skyscraper, the team is on its knees whittling down a massive dirt mound in order to reconstruct vital missing elements in the history of this region and its peoples.

The �Shimal Tell� excavation launched its third season in November at the area which is known as Kush by the local inhabitants. A �tell� is a large mound which has been built up by the accumulation of many centuries of human habitation on one site. According to Derek Kennet, project leader and archaeologist who divides his time between Oxford University and Ras Al Khaimah, the word is actually of Arabic origin and has entered the archaeologist�s lexicon because so much early architecture in this region was of mud brick. This building material naturally erodes more rapidly than stone and has to be replaced periodically, a process which creates sedimentation layers at the site of habitation.

�The Shimal Tell is certainly one of the largest in this region,� said Derek during a break from excavating. �Under the auspices of the archaeology programme of the National Museum of Ras Al Khaimah, we located this tell and selected it for a very ambitious excavation project because of its potential to shed light on some phases of history which are provoking much debate internationally among historians and archaeologists.�

Digging up Julfar While the professional diggers gingerly probed and brushed at the exposed dirt surfaces of the 20 square metre excavation, Derek explained the historical significance of the project. Because of the tell height, the age of the site was estimated as between 1,000 and 2,000 years. One of the fascinating historical issues which is encompassed by a site such as this, therefore, is the change brought about by the rapid expansion of Islam, which was a noteworthy historical accomplishment. �Their military technology was not that sophisticated, and the tribes didn�t have a great population to reinforce them. And yet they rapidly conquered half of the two greatest empires of the time, the Roman and the Iranian. Quite an amazing accomplishment.

�There are questions as to what was the environment of that achievement. What were the economic and social changes before and after the expansion? How did Islam change people�s lives in a practical way? How were trading patterns altered? Actually, at the period we are talking about, the 7th century, the Middle East was one of the most important parts of the world in terms of historical developments.�

Many large Western universities such as Oxford have departments of Islamic studies, with their historians engaged in the debate about the process which occurred before, during and after the advent of Islam. There is actually very little evidence to go on from the period. Not much was written historically until about two centuries later, in the Abassid dynasty, when concepts of the early Islamic period had already been established. There is very little preserved from the period itself which was written by Muslims. There are contemporary sources written by Christians, but they tend to be biased.

�We haven�t got any fixed ideas,� Derek explained. � We come here with an open mind. We want to look at Kush as an example of an urban site in the Arabian Peninsula which is founded before Islam and which survived through to the next historical epoch.

�We want to look at the material from the site and try to understand what it tells us about developments during that period. We�re trying to reconstruct the economic and social changes on the site. We will use the information gleaned from this site to contribute as archaeologists to the debate.�

The evidence already unearthed at the Shimal Tell indicates a major trading centre, originally sited on a khor. That body of water was deep enough to accept sea-going vessels, so the scientists think it likely that they have located the original site of the port of Julfar, which has several references by early geographers.

The earliest Islamic source is Al Maktasi who was a Palestinian historian and geographer writing in the 10th century. He attempted to document the various parts of the Islamic world, and mentions Julfar as being one of the towns of Oman, during the time when one of the earlier dynasties of Oman controlled this region. Later Al Idrisi, an Arab geographer working at the Norman court of King Roger in 12th century Sicily, described Julfar as being a prosperous town next to the sea in this portion of the Gulf.

Digging up Julfar When the khor had silted up and the coastline shifted in approximately the 14th century AD, the inhabitants moved to another site on the present coast. The first European fleets arrived in 1501 with the invasion of the Portuguese. The port had already shifted to its second location by that time, so the Christian references to Julfar actually refer to the second port, and the inland site being excavated would have already been abandoned.

The excavation team includes four professional archeological diggers, a paleobotanist, a flotation expert and a finds cataloguer, in addition to the eight workmen. There are 12 specialists employed for the annual dig of about six weeks duration, and with the specialised equipment such as a powerful laboratory microscope, the project is an expensive proposition.

The costs are being covered by a number of sponsors. The two largest supporters have been the government of Ras Al Khaimah and Shell. The Deputy Ruler of the emirate is Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi, who also happens to be Director of the RAK National Heritage Museum. Sheikh Sultan is enthusiastic about archaeology, which is fortunate for archaeology in the Gulf region, as Ras Al Khaimah holds more sites of potential interest than most other areas.

Shell has generously provided much of the subsidy necessary to hire professionals, develop the team, buy equipment and pay for processing such as radiocarbon dating. The project has also been supported by the National Bank of Ras Al Khaimah and the British Museum.

Five seasons of digging had originally been planned, with the current effort being the third. Because of the complexity and strength of the findings, the project leaders are considering extending the dig for an additional season beyond what was originally scheduled. �We might have underestimated the amount of time necessary,� says Derek with a shrug as he examines the beehive of activity inside of the excavation. �We�re well down into the site now, but there is much more than we anticipated. In addition, after the digging has been finished, we�ll probably need a season devoted to study, where we bring people out to shift through the documented evidence that has been turned up and to integrate their respective specialised findings into a comprehensive project report for publication.�

The research design at Shimal is to elucidate an economic and environmental sequence in the tell remains. The teams wants to determine what people ate, grew, and traded, and how that changed through time. Shahina Farid is the Field Director on the site, and she is an example of the level of professional recruited for the project. She�s at work about six months of the year at different sites throughout the Middle East, and when she is back at her home base in London, she works with what is called rescue archaeology. When modern construction exposes accidentally a historical site, archaeologists are called in to as rapidly as possible to excavate what remains, thus the element of rescue.

Shahina explained the advanced technique being employed at Shimal. �Some excavations in the Middle East are still employing a horizontal pit technique which simply slices through a site relatively rapidly but which fails to develop its complexity. For the Julfar dig we are utilising the most scientifically advanced technique, called stratigraphic archaeology. The concept was developed in the 50s to take into account the complicated nature of such a concentrated site. A wide trench is excavated slowly, enabling the mixtures of different age strata to be exposed carefully and to put the finds such as pottery shards into proper context. If you don�t dig properly, you simply don�t get the full picture.�

The painstaking labour has already produced some surprises. A fortress wall has been found, two and a half meters thick. The surrounding strata contents indicate that it may have been a pre-Islamic fort of the Sassanians, an Iranian dynasty which ruled Iran from about 230 AD to the time of the Islamic conquest. They were the powerful equivalent in the East of the late Roman Empire. Historically it is known that they had colonies on the coast of Arabia, trading colonies which were probably sited to dominate adjacent agricultural areas as well as the trade routes of the time.

Digging up Julfar Derek allowed himself a moment of historical hypothesis. �From what we know of the period, it was the Arab tribes who lived in the hinterland that became Moslems first, and they came to the coast and threw the Sassanians out, who were practising Zoroastrians, fire worshippers. This scenario is one possible interpretation of what we are looking at here at this site.�

A major find was located during the excavation of last year in one of the several rubbish tips located on the site. A carbonised coffee bean was found amongst the other organic materials sorted out in the flotation tank. It was radiocarbon dated as being 12th century, which made it the oldest coffee bean ever located. �Historians had come to the conclusion that coffee didn�t start to circulate in the Arab world until the 14th century,� said Adrian Parker, the team paleobotanist, as he hunched over a microscope examining a tiny seed more than 600 years old which was used as a powerful laxative. �The Ras Al Khaimah coffee find pushed back the date of coffee consumption by 250 years, and confirmed trade contacts with Yemen.�

An Omani gold coin from the 10th century was located during this season�s dig, but the team members talked with much more excitement about their favourite rubbish tips located during the excavation. Public attention always focuses on the spectacular finds of artifacts or tombs full of gold, but the archaeologist values just as much, if not more, the small items such as the coffee bean which reveal the historical processes which shaped the people�s lives on the site. Archaeologists claim to be happier to dig a rubbish pit than to dig a treasure store. �Rubbish tips tell us an extraordinary amount about the people who generate them,� explained Derek. �Garbage tells the truth about your life! Here on this site the stratified rubbish is the best evidence of a culture, containing remnants of food, work, hunting, broken glass containers, pottery, and implements, really an extraordinary variety of bits and pieces from daily life. We count the items, document and classify them, and then attempt to reconstruct the diet and even the economy of the site and area. For an archaeologist, a rubbish tip is like a gold mine.�

At this interim stage in the Shimal Tell excavation, the dedicated team is still digging, collecting, sorting, classifying, so they restrain themselves from arriving at any conclusive analysis. The excitement of touching the lives of ages past is detectable though, even as they methodically pick and brush the sediments and painstakingly document their work. There remains much work and analysis, but the team has already made dramatic progress on its way to putting together the pieces of the puzzle at Shimal Tell.