</dt>The Hili Excavations 1980-81



The Hili Excavations 1980-81

by Serge Cleuziou *

The two earliest civilizations in the region were Mesopotamia to the west and Harappa (Indus Valley) to the east. It was in Mesopotamia that writing was developed about 5,300 years ago, soon after the emergence of the world's .first urban centres. The Indus Valley civilization flourished between 4,500 and 3,700 years ago, though it had older roots. The Iranian plateau was linked to both civilizations by trade and it has been conclusively demonstrated that the UAE, on this side of the Gulf, shared in this two-way communication.

The first archaeological site to be 'discovered' in the Oman peninsula was Umm an Nar in the mid 1950's. Since then over a hundred major sites have been examined, and many excavated.

The earliest evidence for the presence of man in the UAE is to be seen in the flint sites of the Eastern Region and north of the Liwa. Work conducted at Mazyad and Hili during the past season has revealed two separate periods, one between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago and the other centred around 6,500 years ago. All that is left today are waste flakes on a few 'factory-sites' and some crude shapes.

On the eastern ridges of Jebel Hafit are a large number of cairns which constitute the first recognizable archaeological remains in the country. Excavation of these burial chambers has been carried out intermittently since 1962 but virtually all of them had been robbed (and often re-used) in antiquity. A very small quantity of artefacts has been recovered, however, and this is sufficient to link the cairn culture with Mesopotamia at a date around 5,400 years ago. Pottery sherds from Hafit are analogous to those of the Jemdat Nasr period, post-dating the invention of writing in Mesopotamia. No settlement site has been found in association with the tombs, and it is now conceded that whatever might have existed has in all probability disappeared under the bull- dozer in recent years.

The French mission has concentrated on a site just outside Hili Garden. This single site has yielded some twelve architectural phases dating from about 5,100 to 3,900 years ago, spanning well over a thousand years of continuous occupation. During this period at least two large towers were built, and rooms and walls extended on a large scale. Artefacts associated with several phases were discovered. The earliest pottery is dated to the beginning of the sequence (5,100 years ago). Other recent finds include mud shapes with imprints of rope, basketwork and seals, shell ornaments and copper pins, awls and slag. A copper kiln dated by C14 to 4,500 years ago was found, as were pieces of a small crucible-type object. Perhaps the most significant discoveries have been of grain and grain-imprints embedded in the mud-bricks which form the major material of all building phases. These finds. confirm the existence of date and cereal cultivation in the Al Ain region in antiquity, and include the earliest archaeological record for the raising of sorghum anywhere in the world. It is generally accepted that sorghum cultivation originated in East Africa but its first widespread use as a food crop was in the semi-arid conditions of the Indus Valley civilization. Now Hili is seen as a possible staging post in the dissemination of that cereal to the east, though such a conclusion is very tentative at this stage.

It is interesting to compare ancient Hili with modern Omani oases such as Bat, with its huge mud-brick round tower, date plantations, and outlying cereal and vegetable fields. However, caution is needed, and at this stage it is perhaps more relevant to stress the differences rather than the similarities.

The Hili site was surrounded by beehive-shaped tombs constructed of stone, though these are in a poor condition archaeologically due to the old practice of stone-robbing for construction purposes elsewhere. Funerary wares include a large quantity of highly-skilled bead work from a variety of materials including stone, bone, shell and copper. The largest tomb-like structure at Hili is the railed-off centre piece inside the Garden. When excavated it was found to contain some 600 pottery vessels but no bones. It now seems likely that the structure was not a 'royal' tomb but perhaps a building of highly religious-cum-administrative importance.

Contemporary with the earlier phases of Hili is Umm an Nar, just outside Abu Dhabi town. Possibly built on the remains of an older hunting and fishing community, Umm an Nar has many parallels with Hili but also a number of local differences, particularly in ceramic techniques. The influence of the grave structure technique is self-evident but Umm an Nar might have been a semi-independent village, trading across the Gulf but not necessarily directly with the Al Ain region. A survey aimed at identifying other possible coastal sites is called for.

About 3,800 years ago there is a complete change of pottery- type in the region, a sign of outside influence or internal disruption. There is some evidence for contact with Harappa, as suggested by finds from Qattarah, near Al Ain, and from a long grave at Shimal, in Ras Al Khairnah.

The Hili culture, the flowering of the local Bronze Age, may have just outlived Harappa but then comes a long gap in the archaeological record until the advent of the local Iron Age around 2700 years ago. No conclusive reason for .this gap has yet been given, but suggestions include climatic change, invasion and political instability. What is clear is that during this 'Dark Age', the domesticated camel became part of the local scene and nomadism as a way of life replaced the earlier sedentary tradition. There is continuity on one or two sites in Iran, however, and this long, apparently static period, may reflect simply a lack of innovation.

A sudden revival in building took place at the beginning of the local Iron Age, and Hili was re-used. This period is characterized by specific designs painted on the shoulders and rims of pots, as well as wide-spread use of steatite and, of course, iron. In January and February 1981, excavations at Rumailah just two kilometres west of Hili, revealed two distinct Iron Age periods, one dated to around 2,750 years ago and another to three hundred years later.

A further gap then follows. In the pre-Islamic period very little' has been discovered or recognized, apart from Hellenistic sites at Meleiha (Sharjah) and Ad-Door (Umm al Qawain). A trading station at Jumeirah just south of Dubai, had links with Ctesiphon in modern Iraq, and was in use both before and during the seventh century.

It is not until the Islamic period, however, that there comes a cultural resurgence and the earliest documentary records attributable to the Oman peninsula. It is hoped that further excavation will eventually 'fill-in' the gaps and complete the jigsaw of settlement patterns of this part of Arabia over the past 5,000 years.


* of the Centre Nationale des Researches Scientifiques, Paris from a lecture presented to the ENHG on 2/3/81.

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