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Just 100 kilometres off the Abu Dhabi coast, north of the Khor al Bazm, lies the island of Marawah. Although relatively small in size – only 13 kilometres from east to west and a less then six kilometres north to south – this island contains precious information about the UAE’s first inhabitants and about life in times long gone by.

By: Vessy Nick

  Home to the oldest and best preserved human-made structures in the Gulf area as well as the UAE’s oldest human remains, which were discovered there in 2004, the island has already revealed to scientists a lot about the way the UAE’s first inhabitants lived.

How it all began

  Marawah island has attracted the attention of archaeologists since the early 1990s when a series of studies by the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey (ADIAS) identified a total of 13 major sites ranging in date from the Late Stone Age, to the Bronze Age (3,150-1,200 BC), the Iron Age (1,200-586), the Islamic period (7th-18th century) and Late Islamic period as well as the pre-oil period. Subsequent studies revealed an even greater number of sites of historical significance and have paved the way for declaring the island a part of the Marawah Marine Protected Area.

  MR-11, as the site of the UAE’s oldest houses is known to archaeologists, was first discovered in 1992. Located in the south-western corner of the island, the site was originally thought to contain a series of pre-Islamic burial mounds.

  In 2000, further excavations were carried out at MR-11 and another hypothesis was formed. As the building’s size and dimensions were similar to those of a structure previously found on the island of Sir Bani Yas, the team in charge decided they had come across some sort of a ‘church’ or a monastic complex.

  This hypothesis was to be shattered only a few years later. Excavations in 2003 and 2004 lead by ADIAS Senior Resident Archaeologist, Dr Mark Beech, who has extensive experience from major research projects in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Pakistan, Jordan and Kuwait, uncovered a truth that surpassed even the wildest of dreams. In spring 2003, the team examined a group of stone mounds which turned out to be three buildings. When one of the structures was fully excavated, the scientists became aware they had discovered a house. The house was in a very good condition with its stone walls standing to a height of almost a metre. At the site the team also found a fine flint spearhead about three inches long, and flint arrowhead along with the remnants of a stone pestle, which the building’s inhabitants most likely used to grind food.

  What was thought to be a ‘church’ complex turned out to be a group of houses, built from local stone with walls approximately half a metre thick. Radiocarbon tests brought an even bigger scoop – the buildings were not only extremely well preserved, but also very old, in fact, the oldest such houses in the Arabian Gulf. According to tests carried out at Britain's University of Glasgow, the houses were 7,000 years old – about two millennia older than the earliest Pharaoh in Egypt!

  The houses are dated to what is called the Arabian Neolithic Era, corresponding to the Late Stone Age. In a statement issued to media after the finds, Dr. Beech said: “These structures are amazing in terms of historic importance. They are the best and most complete structures found in the whole (Gulf) region."  Similar but less preserved houses have been found in Shagra, Qatar and at Sabiyah, Kuwait.

  In 2004, Dr. Beech and archaeologists from the Birmingham Archaeology Unit and UAE archaeologist Mohammed Hassan, set out to continue the work started the previous year. More information about the housing complex was revealed as one of its buildings was excavated more extensively. The building contained at least four rooms, constructed using the double-skin method, which was not previously identified on sites of the same period in the region. The double-skin method involves placing large stones as inner and outer layers of a building and then filling the cavities within the structure with smaller stones.

  On the site, the archaeologists also stumbled upon fragments of a decorated pot and fragments of plaster vessels, some of which were painted. Other finds included a small collection of flint tools, more than 100 beads, fish, dugong and turtle bones, and bones from either sheep or goats. Of particular interest were two beautiful buttons made from pearl oyster shells.

But what generated the biggest amount of interest were the remains of a human, which were the oldest trace of human life in the country.

The UAE’s oldest inhabitant

  The skeleton of the UAE’s earliest known inhabitant was found placed on a stone platform in a room within the excavated building. The skeleton was buried resting on its left side with its head facing to the north-east. It was found with its legs bent upwards as if the body was curled up.

  The person had been buried just inside the threshold of the room, which indicates the building was not in regular use by the time of the burial. The bones were damaged and scattered with the feet lying several yards away from the rest of the body. As the remains had been disturbed, possibly due to the collapse of the building’s roof or because someone had tripped over them, it was not easy for scientists to determine the sex of the diseased at first. However, forensic experts at the Abu Dhabi Police Headquarters studied the DNA in several well-preserved teeth discovered next to the skeleton and found that it was a male, aged between 20 and 40 years. The scientists are still working on determining the cause of death.

Who were the UAE’s first inhabitants?

  The recent discoveries in Marawah make the tiny island the point where UAE history begins. From the finds at MR-11, archaeologists had determined a few very important facts about the way the country’s first people lived.

  It seems the ancient people inhabiting the modern-day Emirates were not all Bedouins. The inhabitants of Marawah Island, for example, were a settled society which used the sea as a source of food. Bone remains found at MR-11 suggest that ancient community fished extensively and used to catch species such as dolphins, dugongs, turtles, shellfish, including the pearl oyster. Scientists are now hypothesizing that the pearl trade of the Southern Gulf area most probably began at that time.

  Not only were the Marawah people excellent fishermen, but they used to raise domestic animals as well. They had sheep and goat and also supplemented their menu by hunting animals such as gazelles. 

  It seems the Marawah people were also skilled tradesmen. An ancient pottery vessel found at MR-11 suggests they might have traded with southern Mesopotamia. The 7,000 year-old vessel, painted with black geometric lines and chevrons, is typical of the region of Tell Al-Ubaid in today’s southern Iraq, and suggests trading links between the Gulf and Mesopotamia might be older than originally thought.

What is radiocarbon dating?

  Radiocarbon dating, the method used to determine the age of the finds on Marawah island, revolutionarised archaeology when it was launched in 1949 and has ever since been hailed as one of the most significant scientific discoveries in the 20th century.

  Radiocarbon dating is possible because all living things absorb carbon dioxide, which contains a form of radioactive carbon called Carbon 14. When an organism dies, it no longer takes carbon atoms from the atmosphere and the amount of Carbon14 within it decreases. This process is called radiocarbon decay. The rate of change of this process can be measured. Carbon 14 has a half-life of about 5700 years, which means that, after this amount of time, each organism retains one-half the amount of Carbon 14 it had immediately after death. The radiocarbon dating method has been used throughout the world to help scientists determine when an organism died and thereby the age of the organism. Radiocarbon dating can also be performed on organic matter produced from living organisms such as charcoal, paint, glue, leather, textiles and clothes, pottery, paper, etc.

  The father of radiocarbon dating is University of Chicago scientist William Libby, who published the first radiocarbon dates in 1949. To test his method, Libby had measured the dates of archaeological finds, whose age had already been established using other methods. Libby’s discovery revolutionarised archaeology as it allowed scientists to establish chronologies in cultures that lacked timescales, such as calendars. Shortly after Libby’s publication, the new method was eagerly embraced by scientists and by the early 1950s there were already eight radiocarbon dating laboratories in the world. In 1960, Libby was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. At present, there are over 130 radiocarbon dating laboratories around the world and their findings are used in many different fields besides archaeology, including hydrology, atmospheric science, oceanography, paleoclimatology and biomedicine.

  Futher information on the Marawah finds, and of other work by the Abu Dhabi islands Archaeological Survey, ADIAS, can be found on its website: www.adias-uae.com.


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