Bulletin 20 - July 1983: Archaeology in the UAE -- The Fourth and Third Millenium BC

Archaeology in the UAE -- The Fourth and Third Millenium BC

by Dr. Waleed Yassin Al Tikriti

(At the time the article appeared, Dr. Al Tikriti was the Archaeology Advisor to the Department of Antiquities in Al Ain. Dr. Al Tikriti specialized in the third millennium in the Gulf for several years and his researches, largely in the UAE, formed the subject of his Doctorate. He gave an illustrated talk on this subject to the Group on 2nd May 1983.)


The earliest formal excavations in the UAE were undertaken by a Danish team between 1958 and 1964 at Umm an Nar, close to Abu Dhabi island. This site extended the sequence of third millennium sites which stretched the whole length of the Gulf and across to the Indus Valley in present-day Pakistan. In the early 1960s, the Danes also reconnoitered the Al Ain region and surveyed a number of late fourth millennium cairns on the northern and eastern ridges of Jebel Hafit and along the hill tops behind Hili. In 1969, the Department of Antiquities was established in Al Ain; this became based in the new Museum on its founding in 1971. Several local expeditions have worked in the Emirates since then. Between 1973 and 1975, an Iraqi team surveyed the northern Emirates and, among other projects, excavated two Hellenistic sites dating to the third century BC; Meleiha (Sharjah) and Ad Door (Umm al Qawain). In addition, some groundwork was carried out at the medieval Islamic port of Julfar, just north of present-day Ras al Khaimah. Since 1976, French teams have worked every season in the Eastern Region of Abu Dhabi emirate, first on the Hafit cairns and later on the major Hili complex.


The oldest artifacts associated with man so far discovered in the Emirates are worked flints which date back to the mid-sixth millenium BC. It is known, however, from various Bronze and Iron Age sites, that flint was used throughout the proto-historic period, and it also turns up regularly on much more recent Islamic camp sites.

The late fourth millennium in the UAE is thus far represented only by cairns. No settlement site has been found and the expansion of Al Ain town almost certainly precludes the chance of any such discovery.

The third millennium, the so-called local Bronze Age, is becoming well documented for its wealth of tombs and settlement sites, not only in the Al Ain area but along the Gulf coast too. The second millennium, on the other hand, is relatively unknown apart from a few small and uncertain ceramic scatters. There are no true sites and no settlement has yet been clearly assigned to this period.

The local Iron Age, comprising several small settlements and associated tombs, spans the first half of the first millennium BC, and is followed by the so-called Hellenistic period, which may well include more than the two sites mentioned above. Of pre-Islamic sites, only Jumairah with its late Sassanian connections has been positively identified and partially excavated. Just south of Dubai, this site was also occupied during the early Islamic period Dibba, on the east coast, is another early Islamic site as was the oasis town of Al Ain, referred to in 10th century documents as Tawwam.

The Fourth Millenium BC

The cairns related to this period are all in the Al Ain region. The total of 163 remain on the north Hafit ridges, some 900 on the hills east of Hili, and others on the slopes above Mazyad, near Hafit village. Below the eastern rim of Qarn bint Saud, a rocky outcrop several kilometers to the northwest of Hili, are a few cairns of the same period. These should not be confused with the Iron Age tombs atop the same ridge.

Though nearly all these cairns have been robbed, and many almost completely destroyed, a few artifacts were recovered. These included fritte and carnelian beads and some potsherds which bear a distinct resemblance in style and decoration to vessels of the Jemdat Nasr period (late 4th millennium) known from excavations in Iraq. This poses the interesting question of whether there was any direct contact between the Euphrates and the lower Gulf during this period, or whether the influence was more tenuous.

The Third Millenium BC

The major excavations of this period have been conducted at Hili, in and around the public garden. The largest tomb was restored by an Iraqi team in 1975 and is now a showpiece in the park, complete with original stone carvings of men and animals. Hili 8, which lies just outside the southwest side of the perimeter wall, is the best documented structure as it has been excavated continuously for the past eight seasons.

This site displays three distinct building phases according to radiocarbon dating. The first period is very early third millennium (c. 3000-2500 BC); the second following on (c.2500-2000 BC); and the third very early second millennium (c 1900 BC), and represented only by a rough outline wall and a few sherds. The first two phases clearly mark more prosperous times for there is evidence of a moat, drainage channels and copper smelting. The central well was only six meters deep which implies a much higher water table then than now. A few tombs associated with this Bronze Age settlement are scattered around the surrounding plain; some have been later robbed for their stone. Much of the pottery was locally made especially the fluorite but decorations on some other vessels indicate connections across the Gulf, particularly with sties of Tepe Yahya and Bampur. In 1982, another important tomb was discovered about a kilometer north of Hili 8. This contained a large number of skeletons as well as pottery.

The other major third millennium site is at Umm an Nar, with its low plateau supporting some 50 tombs, a few of them reconstructed. As at Hili, these tombs consist of circular dressed-stone walls resting on a plinth, north and south entrances, and a number of burial chambers under a skillfully constructed corbelled roof. Ceramics from the tombs include a high proportion of fine black-on-red ware. One pot depicts a large-horned cow reminiscent of vessels from Kulli in the Indus Valley. Surveys by the Department of Antiquity in 1983 revealed the existence of clay pockets on the site and it may be inferred that at least some of the pottery was locally made. There is some evidence for copper casting, the ore originating from Oman, perhaps the Wadi Jizzi near Al Ain. Hili was the more important copper smelting location, however, and the precise nature of contact between the inland and coastal sites is not known.

It would appear from all the data that modern day UAE and Northern Oman jointly formed the legendary land of Magan, mentioned in Babylonian texts of the second millennium.

In April 1982, Sheikh Khalifa requested that the Department should survey Ghanada Island on the Abu Dhabi-Dubai border. Here a very shallow site, a bare 30cms thick, revealed both third and first millennium artifacts, many on the surface, but as yet no settlement. Parallels with Umm an Nar are obvious with the recovery of lead sinkers, red potsherds, and copper fish hooks. Many bones were found, as at Umm an Nar, including dugong, camel, sheep, gazelle and seabirds.

One very poorly preserved surface site of the third millennium was discovered in March 1983 near Jebel Dhanna, west of Abu Dhabi. In the same region were found fragments of fossilized bones of elephant and hippopotamus dating back at least to the mid/late Pleistocene. Perhaps traces of man will be found dating back earlier than 7000 years ago after all.


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