Bulletin 2 - June 1977: Excavations by the French Archaeological Expedition in the Al Ain Region

Excavations by the French Archaeological Expedition in the Al Ain Region

by Tony Harris

(Note on a talk given by M. Serge Cleuziou of the National Centre for Scientific Research and Lecturer at the University of the Sorbonne, Paris. M. Cleuziou is the leader of the French Archaeological Team who began their first season of excavations at Al Ain in December 1976.)

The first archaeological excavations in Abu Dhabi Emirate were carried out by Geoffrey Bibby and the Danish team, who began work at Umm al-Nar in 1959 and continued throughout the 1960’s. This work was taken over in early 1970’s by an Iraqi team who set about restoring the tombs at Umm al Nar and excavated some of the associated settlements.

These tombs were found to be circular and to contain between two and ten chambers, with one entrance to the north and one to the south. All the rooms contained the remains of skeletons and pieces of two sorts of pottery:

  1. red ware with black decoration on the upper parts, well known in Iran, Baluchistan and Pakistan and dating from about 2500 B.C. (called ‘Kulli’ ware), and;
  2. gray ware with a black design well known from southern Iran and of the same date.

The Danes began work at Hili, north of Al Ain at about the same time. There they found circular tombs of the same design, built of large stones, with reliefs of humans and animals over the doors at the north and south sides. They also found smaller stone-covered mounds all around the Al Ain area. All had been plundered, though pottery fragments of reddish ware remained. Dating these tombs has been very difficult. A similarity to pots found in Iraq gave a tentative estimate of about 3200-3000 BC but no great reliance could be placed on this dating.

Later, north of Al Ain, at Qarn bint Saud, a third type of tomb was found. These were square and contained much bronze in the form of arrowheads and daggers, together with a type of steatite pot known from the Zagros mountains of Kurdistan and Luristan. Similar tombs were found at Al Qusais near Dubai, with pottery dating down to 500 BC.

Thus three main types of tomb have been found:

  1. the single room graves of the kind found around Jebel Hafit and the Al Ain area, dated tentatively to 3000 BC;
  2. the Hili and Umm al Nar circular structures, with several chambers, of about 2500 BC; and
  3. the square tombs of al Qusais and Qarn bint Saud of about 1000 BC or later.

The main problem is, where are the settlements associated with these tombs, particularly in the early period? Have they been destroyed or were there none in the first place? The shallow burial mounds around Jebel Hafit are dug a few feet into natural sand and gravel. No trace of settlements has been found associated with any of these, though the Danes excavated 40 of them, the Iraqis 17 and a few others have also been examined. The French team worked on five more at the north end of the mountain.

All these tombs, over 60 in number, were found to have been plundered, though it is not known when; they could have been broken into at a very early date. Consequently few materials were found. (The French team did not bother to move on to the tombs near Mezyad this year as intended because they had clearly been plundered.)

The five tombs examined were all at the top of low hills. They were full of loose stones, but revealed two walls, an inner one which was well preserved and an out one largely gone. The entrances faced south, but there was no indication how the tombs were covered, whether with a domed or flat structure. Inside each was a circular chamber with flat stones on the floor. Some bones were found, and small beads, some made of shells with holes drilled through, and others made of bone. A few seven facetted carnelian beads also came to light, of a kind hitherto found only in Sumerian sites in southern Iraq and dated c. 2700 BC.

One tomb contained a skeleton but it was badly damaged, apparently by the chemistry of the soil. A sample of the soil was sent to Paris for analysis. The team had to consolidate the bones in situ, a very long process, in order to remove them. One notable find was a bronze spearhead in very good condition. The only parallel examples came from the Sumerian civilization in southern Iraq and help to date the Hafit tombs to 3000-2700 BC.

The French team then determined to look for more settlements in the Hili area. This was somewhat more promising as one settlement had been excavated by the Danes, though no details had been published. This site lies inside the wall at the Hili archaeological garden and work continues on it under the supervision of the resident (Pakistani) archaeologist in al Ain. The French, however, looked outside the wall at Hili and investigated one of the mounds which they found there. They immediately found mud walls, and a floor with four human footprints pressed into it. Three rooms were excavated, including the lower part of a curved wall reminiscent of similar structures in southern Iran. There were also walls superimposed on one another, indicating successive rebuilding.

This find was the first time that a sequence of habitation has been discovered dating from the 3rd millennium BC and the first time that tombs and settlements have been shown to exist in parallel at this early stage. Some of the stones in the walls of the Hili site had been stolen from the tombs.

The team were well pleased with this discovery, which has opened a new chapter in the archaeology of the Oman peninsula. Furthermore, the pottery fragments found in the settlements, black designs on red ware, date from the time of the tombs or just after, but so far as is known are not found elsewhere in Oman or in any of the usual areas across the Gulf.

The French team will be returning to Abu Dhabi late in the year to begin the second season of excavations. M. Cleuziou accepted an invitation to address the Emirates Natural History Group again next year on the results of their work in the Al Ain region.


Back Home Up Next

Copyright © 1977-2011 Emirates Natural History Group
Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan

Served from Molalla, Oregon, United States of America