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Um an Nar Tombs

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by Philip Iddison

During the recent Archaeology Conference in Abu Dhabi, a visit was arranged for the delegates to the important archaeological remains on Um an Nar island located to the east of Abu Dhabi.

The island has given its name to a culture characterised by burial of the dead in massive circular stone communal tombs. The first tombs were excavated by Danish archaeologists on Um an Nar and this group of tombs is still the largest aggregation anywhere in the region. The tombs date to the third millennium BC. The Hili tombs are of the same culture and a detail of the stone carving on one of these tombs is used for the ENHG logo.

The first impression on approaching the site is the large number of tombs located on the low rock plateau capping the island and overlooking the sea to the north. A count rapidly ascended into double figures. Some were merely piles of unworked core stones, others had been more or less restored and some have not been excavated.

The restored tombs generally had the ashlar facing stones up to a height of about two metres. These stones clearly show the technique of chipping with stone tools which created the smooth facing surface and also the faces in contact with the rest of the facing stonework. Entrances into the tombs comprised a small arched opening at waist height and led into the labyrinth of internal spaces inside the tomb. There had been a paper at the conference about these tombs with speculation on how the burials were made. It is thought that full cadavers were taken into the tomb and left on an upper layer of shelves formed from flat slabs of rock. At a later stage the skeleton was disarticulated and the bones were packed into the lower level below the shelves. One of the more fragmentary tombs had some self fragments in place and even a leg bone!

One tomb caught my eye as it was built with much smaller stones than the other tombs and the rock was of poorer quality. Perhaps it was built when supplies of better quality stone were not available or perhaps it was a prototype. It was also one of the smaller tombs, they range in size from about 7 to 15 metres diameter, measurements made by simply pacing a few of the tombs.

Associated with the tombs there is a settlement down on the foreshore. Quite possibly there were mangroves at that time, it was certainly a wetter period. There were the remains of simple rooms built right up to the beach edge, but perhaps water levels were different five thousand years ago. Around the whole area there were scatters of shells and some simple stone tools such as hammer stones.

There was evidence that work is continuing on the site, either restoration or further excavation.

For security reasons we were not allowed to take photographs so I have to rely on visual memories. The attached photograph is an Um an Nar tomb at Shimal north of Ras al Khaimah excavated by the RAK Museum four years ago. The photo shows the foundation of the external ashlar wall and some of the internal dividing walls. The tomb had been quarried for stone, particularly the ashlar stones. However one was found with the impression of a footprint carved on it. The excavation produced interesting finds including the skeleton of a woman apparently buried with a dog. Additionally, at about thirteen metres diameter, this is one of the largest Um an Nar tombs excavated in recent times.

um_an_nar.jpg
One of the Um an Nar style tombs (this one located at Shimal, Ras al Khaimah).


Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan