Bulletin 11 - July 1980: The 1979-80 Excavations at Hili

The 1979-80 Excavations at Hili

by Rob Western

(Notes of a talk given by the Director, Serge Cleuziou, to the ENHG on 18 February 1980.)

This was the third annual talk given to the ENHG by Serge Cleuziou. Like his previous ones, he summed up the current season and expounded on the wider implications for Gulf archaeology. With each season's digging, more and more pieces are slotted into the jigsaw, but it is by no means complete.

Archaeology is all questions. The succeeding and overlapping structures now exposed at Hili 8 raise as many problems as they solve. Now that the building remains have been analyzed and fitted into a chronological sequence, there remains the crucial interpretation of society in the third to first millennia BC in the region.

First, the factual remains and the dates.

The original investigators of the site (only part of which is inside the present walled-in Hili garden-cum-picnic area) were a Danish team who in the early sixties briefly explored some of the mounds and made some trial excavations. They were hampered by a lack of time, resources and any previous work in the area, but decided that the site represented a relatively short occupation span in the third millennium BC. This analysis has been conclusively disproved by the work of the French Archaeological Mission who have excavated every winter since 1976.

The earliest building, a square mud brick structure consisting of two rows of rooms with a central hallway and a narrow well in the middle, has been Carbon-14 dated to about 3000 BC. The next clear building phase was a structure linked to the original one by wall thickening and extensions. This later structure contained the oldest shards found on the site, and is also associated with several kilns built into a terrace curving around the south and east sides. Some leveling of the original walls took place and also the erection of a round tower structure, centered on the original square building but with a larger base. Two charcoal samples from this phase have been Carbon-14 dated to 2450 BC and 2400 BC respectively. The kilns have been similarly dated to between 2225 and 2200 BC.

Hence just two building phases are clearly represented in the first 800 years of the Hili 8 settlement. The 1979-80 season revealed two more round buildings in this area of the site, plus another well, all more recent than the two earlier structures.

The final period of Hili 8, dated around 1700 to 1600 BC, is represented by a loose stone-wall enclosure and the job is nowhere as the earlier phases. Pottery types from this phase have been found in several Omani sites, and consist typically of spouted jugs with zigzag lines painted around the top. This ware is associated with the Indus Valley. Of the same period is the famous Qattarah grave where the tiny golden bull, emblem of the ENHG, was found. The Qattarah grave is now farmed over, but fortunately an identical grave was recently excavated by John Hausman in Ras al Khaimah. Gold ornaments, steatite vessels, and an Indus Valley-type weight were found on this site at Shimal.

Serge is almost convinced that Hili is part of the "lost civilization" of Makan. This is not a new idea. Bibby and others have variously suggested Oman, Yemen and Pakistan, but the weight of evidence is beginning to favor the area of Oman including Hili and various towns south along the mountain fringe. Makan is mentioned in Mesopotamian sources as an exporter of copper. A clay tablet from Ur dated 2024 BC mentions fifteen garments and two-thirds of a talent of wool, "merchandise for buying copper from Makan."

Scattered around the Hili settlement are a number of Umm an Nar type round graves also found in Oman. Inside the present Hili garden is the grandest of these, standing in its restored position some 2.8 meters high, with facing stones some 20cm thick. Many of the outlying tombs were re-used in the local Iron Age period of the first millenium BC.

Having established something of the nature of the physical remains, what about the people who built these settlements and graves? This latest season's team included a palaeo-botanist who analyzed grain imprints in mud bricks that could be dated. A dozen or so different cereal types were found, including wheat, barley and sorghum. There is strong evidence for cultivation prior to 2400 BC. The sorghum imprints are the earliest to be dated at an archaeological site anywhere in the world. Sorghum is generally recognized as having originated in East Africa. So how did it get to Hili so early? Africa is now linked with the region, as well as Mesopotamia and Pakistan through pottery.

Also found was evidence of the use of palm wood, but not of dates. This does not preclude date cultivation until more analysis is carried out. This raises the question of how similar or different the oasis area of 2500 BC was from modern-day oases such as Bat in Oman, which also has a tower-centered mud brick structure surrounded by palm groves. Like ancient Hili, the modern Bat tower also has a raised living floor and a central well.

One major difference was the absence of a falaj (qanat) system before about 700 BC. It is important not to draw too many comparisons with 20th Century oases.

The similarities between Hili and Umm an Nar have likewise been over emphasized in the past. Apart from the style of tomb structure and some of the funerary ware, there are more discrepancies than parallels. The domestic ware differs markedly and the two sites represent disparate economies, the one inland and mountain, the other coastal and flat.

The Al Ain area is archaeologically rich, covering at least 5000 years. The Jebel Hafit cairns, though mostly robbed, contained some Jemdat Nasr pottery (3300 to 2900 BC). Jemdat Nasr just postdates the invention of writing, but no clay tablets have yet been found in Abu Dhabi! Serge is not optimistic.

In the eastern foothills, there are abundant seams of flint and much evidence of flint-mining. The 1979-80 team included Hans-Georg Gebel, a flint expert who is presently analyzing the material from Hili 8 as well as surface assemblages around Jebel Hafit which almost certainly predate Hili.

The thousand years following the final building phase at Hili down to the local Iron Age are a complete blank, as they are in Eastern Iran and Pakistan, too. It is not until the 7th Century BC that man's influence can again be traced at Hili. Many implausible explanations have been given for this gap, such as climatological change, and invasion or disease theories. Certainly the climate then was probably quite similar to today's. One possibility is that the came might have been domesticated in the late third millenium BC and political instability could have acted as catalyst to force the local people into a nomadic Bedouin way of life. There is no doubt that Hili society of the first millenium BC was quite different to the oasis society of over 2000 years before.

(Serge Cleuziou is a Director at the Societe National de Reserches Scientifiques in Paris. His second book on the Hili excavations is shortly to be published by the Department of Antiquities. He will be returning in late November for his fifth season at Hili.)

(Some 50 members and friends visited the site on 1 February 1980. The ENHG would like to thank Serge once again for giving up a Friday morning to explain the site and guide us around. We are looking forward to next February's talk! -Ed.)


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