Bulletin 9 - November 1979: Archaeological Excavations of the Islamic Period in Ras al Khaimah

Archaeological Excavations of the Islamic Period in Ras al Khaimah

by John Hansman

The present writer carried out excavations of the Islamic period in Ras al Khaimah over a period of four months during 1977. These investigations were made possible through the kind permission of the Ruler, His Highness Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed al Qasimi. His Highness Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr al Qasimi provided every assistance during the course of the work. The project was conceived and organized by Major Tim Ash MBE, the founder and director of the Ras al Khaimah museum project.

The work in 1977 comprised two separate projects. The first lasting two months in January and February concerned the archaeological exploration of the two adjoining sites called al Nudud and al Mataf. These locations together marked the traditional site of the Early Islamic port known as Julfar. The second project carried out in the latter part of 1977 consisted of the excavation of trenches at various points within the present old town of Ras al Khaimah.

Al Nudud, where our work began, comprises an inshore sand spit extending for a distance of approximately 2 km in a generally north-south direction along the seaward side of the adjoining coastal plain. On the east, the site is separated from the mainland by low ground that is subject to flooding during heavy rains and high tides. On the west, al Nudud is bound by a broad inshore bay that is isolated from the Gulf by a second sand spit. At its northern limit the site terminates beside a silted creek channel through which the tidal water of the bay ebbs and flows. Beyond the creek at this point is a further sandy spit, al Mataf.

The spit of al Mataf extends for some 2 km tot he northeast along the inshore bay already noted. Like al Nudud, it is also separated in part from the mainland by low ground subject to flooding.

Prior to the excavations we collected a large selection of ceramic fragments from the surface of the ground on both of our sites. These included many shards of porcelain and stoneware vessels imported from the Far East. Most of the fragments could be dated to the 16th and early 17th centuries and attest the extensive sea trade carried on between Julfar on the one hand, and China, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries of those parts, on the other. Only in the extreme northern limit of the site of al Mataf were archaeological remains recovered of a later period than those noted above. These consisted of late Chinese blue and white porcelain wares and Persian imitation of the blue and white wares daring from about the second quarter of the 18th century. Subsequent research and study of other material excavated in this part of al Mataf supports the theory that the location had been the site of a Persian military camp when Persian troops under Nadar Shah were in occupation of Julfar between 1736 and 1749. Archaeological remains from a second of these Persian camps are eroding out of the sand cliffs on the Gulf just below the site of the Landmark Hotel located to the south of the town of Ras al Khaimah. This second site is called locally Kashm Nadar. In Arabic Kashm usually means nose but as here used no doubt conveys the meaning of a promontory identifying the sand cliff on which the site is located. Thus we have the promontory of Nadar Shah.

Except for the northern most limit of al Mataf, as noted above, all the ceramic remains collected and excavated over the whole of the sties of al Nudud and al Mataf are earlier than the 18th century. Most of the Chinese green celadon fragments, of which there are more than 200, range from the 14th to the 15th centuries. Over 800 shards of early Chinese blue and white porcelain wares were also collected from all areas of our two sites. They are largely products of the 16th and early 17th centuries, with a few pieces dating from the 15th century. Some of these examples are painted in blue with representations of human figures, horses, dragons, birds, snakes, flowers of all kinds, trees, clouds and geometrical patterns and borders of great variety.

A number of interesting inscriptions rendered in Chinese characters were found painted in blue on the bases of various porcelain cups and bowls coming from China. These were collected at both of our sites and are to be dated mostly to the 16th century. Some of these inscriptions consist of sayings of good wishes and commendation. A favorite saying translated from Chinese reads "May infinite happiness embrace all your affairs"; another reads "Long life, riches and honor." Of particular interest is a small porcelain bowl on the inside of which there is painted the Arabic word "Allah". Porcelain (pieces) of this kind having Arabic inscriptions were no doubt manufactured in Chine for the Gulf trade. The present example is of probable late 16th century date.

Shards of 40 semi-porcelain, shallow celadon bowls often showing a sea green glaze and manufactured in Vietnam were also recovered from al Nudud and al Mataf. Most of these examples are to be dated to the 15th and 16th centuries. Some 80 fragments were from large, open bowls and dishes made in Thailand. One very broad and intact glazed bowl of Thai origin was found at al Mataf. This is decorated with a pattern of large leaves on the inside of the vessel.

Lastly in this survey of ceramic finds we may mention the recovery of fragments of numerous pottery bowls, pouring jugs and jars produced on the Ras al Khaimah area and which are decorated in iron red paint with different geometrical designs. From these finds we have been able to trace the development of the forms and decoration of the local "Julfar" wares from the 14th to the 17th centuries and later.

Among the many miscellaneous small finds recovered during our survey and from the subsequent excavations at our two sites are fragments of glass bangles. Many of these are decorated with multi-layered bands of glass of different colors. Most of those dating from the 16th and early 17th centuries were imported from India. Some show painted designs that are still traditionally used for glass bangles manufactured in Bombay. Over one hundred fragments of black or red glass bangles of a type produced in Persia during the 18th century were collected from the Persian campsites of that period located at al Mataf and Kashm Nadar.

A number of rings and beads are also among our finds. Each of two rings having plain signets is carved from single pieces of carnelian of good red color. A third ring is carved from a single sardonex having gray and red banding. Various beads of glass, carnelian, amber and quartz were also recovered.

Coins found mainly on the surface at al Nudud and al Mataf are to be dated largely from the 14th to the early 17th centuries. Most of the coins were of bronze and a large number of those that could still be read bore the mint signature Jarum. This is not the present town of Jarum in southern Iran which is a fairly modern foundation, but the original name of the Island of Hormuz in the Gulf. Julfar was politically tied to Hormuz during the 15th, 16th and early 17th centuries and, although the island was under Portuguese domination from 1507 until 1622, the kings of Hormuz continued in this period to issue their own coins under the mint name of Jarum. The bronze examples from the site of Julfar are the first of this metal with the Jarum signature to be recovered anywhere.

Among the bronze coins from al Nudud there is an interesting specimen of the Sultan al Muq-tuf-i Ali bin Yusif of Mogudishu of the 15th century. It is the first known coin of the Mogudishu mint to have been recovered from a site in the Gulf and possibly attests trade connections between there and the Horn of Africa at the period represented.

The evidence of the excavations and surface survey at al Nudud and al Mataf then indicate that the greater part of both sites were abandoned perhaps a hundred years or more before the Persians occupied Julfar in 1736. If we search the available sources for an occasion in the history of Julfar that might suggest a major disruption at that settlement in the early 17th century, we are bound to take note of the Omani invasion and occupation of Julfar in 1633. This is the last historical reference to Julfar as an occupied place until the coming of the Persians who established military camps there. Given the historical and archaeological evidence then, it would seem reasonable to postulate that Julfar was abandoned sometime after the Omani occupation of 1633. It is presumed that this population of the city would have moved after this to the present site of the city of Ras al Khaimah that occupied a more protected, water surround location than Julfar.

The second season of excavations took place in November and December 1977 and consisted of the archaeological investigation of the town of Ras al Khaimah. From this work we were able to determine that Ras al Khaimah was first occupied sometime during the 15th century, the earliest settlement being located at the end of the sand spit on which the town is situated. The excavations show that the town underwent a period of expansion in the late 16th and especially in the 17th and 18th centuries. Excavations at the fort of Ras al Khaimah produced no ceramic remains earlier than the middle 18th century. This suggests that the fort, in original foundation at least, dates from the period of the Persian occupation of the town.

The excavations further showed that the original settlement of Ras al Khaimah located at the end of the sand spit was founded on an oblong dune of sand which rose to a maximum height of three meters above sea level. It has been suggested that the name of this location, which means Headland of the Tent, was perhaps called after a tent once situated there. However, it is more likely that the name relates to a permanent geographical feature associated with this site. It is suggested that this feature may have been the conical-shaped sand dune which our investigation show underlay a part of the present town and which, from a distance, would have resembled a tent of this form.

(All copyrights to this article are the property of John Hansman. This article is not intended to be definitive; it is rather an introduction to and a brief summary of the subject. Editor)


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