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Local Pottery Production in Al Ain During the Early Bronze Age


(3rd Millennium BC)

Dr. Sophie Mery
CNRS, UMR7041-Nanterre, FRANCE

The Hili Sandy Red Ware is the most frequent pottery type recovered in the archaeological sites dated from the Umm an-Nar Period in the region of Al Ain. The Hili Sandy Red Ware was indeed in use at Hili-8 settlement for several centuries and represents a large majority of the ceramic assemblage between 2500 and 2000 BC. The pottery was used in daily life, and then re-used in the graves to stay with the bodies.

As far as the shapes are concerned, jars are the most numerous among the Hili Sandy Red Ware assemblage, followed by the goblets and suspension vessels. Other shapes are also known, among which miniature vessels, open shapes like plates and dishes are absent or very scarce. Most of the vessels were small or medium, but their volume did not exceed 7 litres. They were usually covered with a red slip and black geometrical motifs were painted on the shoulder of the vessels. Jars are usually decorated with a black painted single wavy line on the shoulder between two straight lines, but other patterns are present, like a wavy line cross-checked by vertical or oblique lines or two parallel wavy lines.

Since the discovery of the Umm an-Nar culture by the Danish archaeological expedition in the late 1950s above, monumental collective graves with circular shapes are considered a diagnostic feature of this culture. The Hili tombs form a nuclear for the Umm An Nar culture in the Eastern region of Abu Dhabi, and the grand Tomb 1059, located in the middle of Hili Garden, is the best known monument in the city of AI Ain.

Since we do not know the duration and possible interruptions in the use of the Umm an-Nar graves, which are often disturbed, it is difficult or even impossible to ascertain a precise date for the artefacts. This is potentially possible in the case of Hili-N, a pit- grave which is under excavation by the French Archaeological Mission in the U.A.E. in collaboration with the Department of Antiquities in AI Ain (see ENHG AI Ain Newsletter #207), because the grave was found un-robbed and shows a clear stratigraphy. Among other types of artefacts, Hili Sandy Red Ware is the most common type of pottery in the grave (75% of the assemblage), and is diagnostic in the reconstruction of chrono-typology, because this ware was very probably locally manufactured and used primarily for domestic purposes. The changes in pottery shape and decoration of this local ware can be more easily traced than imported vessels which are often not accurately dated, or regional wares like the Omani Fine Red Ware which are primarily found in collective tombs. Thus Hili Sandy Red Ware is more accurate for reconstructing local chronology than other types of ceramics found in Tomb N at Hili.

In the latter, the jars have a capacity of 1-3.5 litres, and are usually decorated with a common pattern of a single wavy line between 2 straight lines, but other patterns are also found. Several of these types of shapes and painted patterns are close to what was known at Hili North Tomb A, a tomb during the 1980s above excavated by the French Archaeological Mission under the direction of S. Cleuziou. However, some types were rare or not recovered in Tomb A at Hili North, and vice-versa. Hili Sandy Red Ware is a good indicator to demonstrate that some of the material in both graves was not exactly contemporaneous. The other types of Hili Sandy Red Ware are those we know from Tomb A at Hili North, such as elongated suspension vessels, displaying a loose lattice pattern, and miniature vessels. Two vessels are unique in Hili-N tomb:

  1. A bowl with a grooved rim with good parallels at Hili-8 and al-Sufouh tomb 1 (Emirate of Dubai)
  2. The first example of a spouted Umm an-Nar jar with a loose lattice decoration.

The profile and decoration of the jar, are typical of the Umm an-Nar Period but spouted jars are common in the early Wadi Suq Period (Middle Bronze Age) and so far unknown in the Umm an-Nar Period.

Hili Sandy Red Ware was not manufactured from the clays or sands that were sampled by the Geologists of our team around Hili and the Wadi Jizzi, but we assume that it was produced locally. It is rarely found in other regions of the Oman peninsula except at, Umm an-Nar and Ghanadha islands in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, where it only represents a small minority of the pottery assemblage.

The presence of an Umm an-Nar pottery kiln near the tower of Hili-1 near the Grand Tomb of Hili Garden, and the discovery of a 'waster' (misfired) of Hili Sandy Red Ware found during the excavation of Hili-1 by the Danish archaeologists in the 1960s, are a further indication of local production. The fabric of the Hili Sandy Red Ware is very distinctive since its texture is sandy and porous and its composition reflects a mixture of detritic elements originating from a context comprising granitic-gneissic rock-types and magmatic ultrabasic rocks rich in olivines. Chemically, they are rich in chromium and poor in alkali elements, scandium and rare earths.

We will continue our sampling and laboratory analyses next winter in order to find the clay used by the ancient potters of AI Ain for the manufacture of the Hili Sandy Red Ware.


W.Y. al-Tikriti et S.Mery. 2000. Tomb N at Hili and the question of the subterranean graves during the Umm an-Nar Period. Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 30: 205-219.

S. Mery. 1997. A funerary assemblage from the Umm an-Nar period: the ceramics from Hili North tomb A, UAE. Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 27: 171-191.

S. Mery, K. McSweeney, J. Rouquet & W. Y AI Tikriti. Under press. New evidence of funerary practices at the end of the Early Bronze Age at Hili, United Arab Emirates. In E. Olijdam, R.H. Spoor & W. Deitch-Van der Meulen (eds). Intercultural relations between South and Southwest Asia. Commemoration volume E.CL. During Caspers. BAR International Series, Londres

S. Mery, J. Rouquet, K. McSweeney, G. Basset, J.-F. Saliege et W.Y. al-Tikriti. 2001. Re-excavation of the Early Bronze Age collective pit-grave (Emirate of Abu Dhabi, UAE) : results of the first two campaigns of the Emirati-French Project. Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 31: 161-178.

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