Bulletin 23 July 1984: Hili in the Third Millennium B.C.

Hili in the Third Millennium B.C.*

by S. Cleuziou

After seven consecutive seasons of excavations at Hili and environs, it is possible to draw some conclusions on the economy and culture of the site some five thousand years ago. Whereas the region was initially seen in isolation, it is now clear that its position approximately midway between Babylon to the north-west and the Indus Valley to the north-east was no mere accident. In recent years archaeology has shifted east of the classical areas around the Tigris and Euphrates, and Hili should now be viewed in its broader context.

The Al Ain region is a classical oasis situation, bounded to the east by formations of Tertiary limestone which enable water drainage to be concentrated into narrow areas. The major third millennium sites of the western Hajar all lie in similar locations, but only Hili among them offers a clear chronological record spanning a thousand years and more of occupation. Unlike the huge 'tells' common across the Gulf, the site which came to be known as Hili 8 was originally visible to archaeologist$ only as a low mound rising some 1.20 metres above the plain. Also unlike the 'tell' sites, Hili's chronology is largely horizontal, not vertical; the successive building phases tend to spread out from the centre, rather than above each other.

The earliest structure was a square mudbrick tower with rounded corners, containing compartments which were then filled to form a solid base for the living quarters which began well above ground level. There were two rows of rooms with a central space for a well, a design typical of contemporary sites in Oman, such as at Bat (which, however, was stone-built). A fortunate find at Hili was a rubbish pit which turned up potsherds of Mesopotamian type, closely related to the Jemdat Nasr period at the beginning of the third millenium. Whether the wares originated from Mesopotamia, however, or were copies is still under debate. Samples of charred wood from the pit indicate a C14 date of around 3000 B.C. There were in addition fifteen sherd bases of painted black on red ware. Also from this 'treasure' pit came tools, including flint shapes, copper pins and a copper blade, and some slag, indicating copper smelting.

Clear impressions of matting and interwoven reed baskets were also recorded, some with food traces. Of the 2000 or so bones found 95% were of domestic animals, in itself a surprise; mainly of sheep and goat, plus a bovid, possibly a zebu. There were very few gazelle bones, but part of an equid, perhaps a donkey. Dog and ostrich were also represented, along with ostrich shell and three unexpected bits of human bone, but camel bones were virtually non-existent, and the question of the date of camel domestication remains an enigma. Charred grains of wheat and barley were found, along with mud impressions of the same, date stones, and sorghum. Sorghum is especially interesting since the recoveries at Hili represent the earliest date of domestication of this cereal, though its origins were presumably in East Africa. Other fruits included Ziziphus stones, melon seeds and, possibly, grape.

Once can therefore imagine an agricultural economy revolving round palm gardens, with wheat, barley and sorghum fields close at hand. These crops ripen at different times and, along with dates, would help to provide a year-round source of food. This oasis culture, of course, has continued for the next five thousand years to the present day.

There were several such towers in close proximity at Hili and at one time an extensive area must have been under cultivation. As far as can be seen, the climate was not too different from now, and irrigation was by both well and channel (falaj) systems. Some of the zebu bones were deformed, consistent with the theory that they were used partly for monotonous jobs like circling a well to draw water. The earliest of the two wells at Hili 8 was excavated in 1981-82, and revealed the water-table in the early third millennium to be just 4.5 metres below ground level. This well was expertly built; indeed the Omani workers who participated in its excavation commented that its construction was better than any modern well they had seen.

Ditches built around 2700 BC on the site seem to indicate an effort to dry the topsoil. The original area must have been waterlogged after rains, similar to the present subkha and gravel terrain around Ain AI-Faidah, to the west of Al Ain. The evidence for agriculture in the early third millennium is thus conclusive, with water available via both well and falaj. Whereas the grave mounds along the northerly ridges of Jebel Hafit were originally thought to predate Hili, there is now some evidence to suggest that they were, in fact, contemporary.

Danish research into the teeth and jaws recovered from some of the cairns indicates a diet rich in dates and cereals, and the same may be postulated for the mounds on Jebel Aqlah behind Hili, though these are in Oman and have not yet been fully surveyed or excavated. The exact origins of Hili are, however, obscure. Worked flints have been found at a number of sites in the country, and shell fragments similar to coastal sites near Muscat are also present at Hili. Such sites as Ras AI-Hamrah are tentatively dated to between 6000 and 3000 BC, but it would be rash to jump to conclusions given the distance between Muscat and Hili. No dried fish has turned up at Hili, compared with Ras AI-Hamrah.

Around 2800 BC the original tower at Hili 8 was rebuilt and rounded. A ditch, possibly a moat, was constructed around it, but then several building phases followed to confuse the issue. There is C14 evidence of a copper-working area around 2200 BC, also evidence for the use of bronze.

In the Hili region are a number of graves unconnected with the hill cairns, and these show a gradual development in design from the third down to the first millennia. In 1983 a new grave, some 3 kms. north of Hili, was discovered but unlike previous ones this was built with a subterranean section some 1.5 m below the surface. Two of its four chambers had been plundered, but the other two between them contained skeletal parts of a hundred individuals and some 400 pots, mostly intact. This grave was surrounded by a well-constructed plinth and it has produced a C14 date of 2200-2000 BC. In general appearance it is similar to the large grave in Hili garden, but without the engravings. In one chamber thirty complete skeletons were recovered, and preliminary bone analysis indicates a life expectancy of 25 years despite general good health. There is no indication of malaria, and the diet seems to have been good. 85% of the skulls had loose molars, indicating a sweet diet (dates?) and tooth extractions seem to have been a universal hazard of life. The average height of an individual was a tall 1.80 m.

Of the pottery, seventy vessels were made of stoneware, many with dot and circle motifs. There was a quantity of domestic black and red ware, some grey incised ware, and some corded pots each with four lugs. A few black on grey ceramics with animal designs including a zebu were found. Some of these vessels were possibly imported from Baluchistan; the steatite may have carne from Oman, but Baluchistan or Afghanistan are also possible sources. Among luxury items were silver and carnelian beads bearing designs found commonly in the Indus Valley of the same period. Some pieces of metal were present, particularly of razor-type design, which are also found in the Indus Valley but not in Mesopotamia at this date. Clearly the late third millennium witnesses a strong Indus Valley influence.

The final period at Hili 8 is represented only by a crude stone wall and a few different ceramics, but archaeological information on this last phase, from around 2000 -1700 BC, is sparse. The area was still well settled, and the second well, originally built in 2700 BC, was still in use a thousand years later. However, by this later date, the water table had fallen to 9 m., indicating a drop of 4.5 metres over the millennium, and a gradually drying environment. The drop in water-table has not been so sharp since then until the very recent expansion of the region in the wake of the oil boom, and the increase in aridity may well be a factor in the decline of Hili.

Future work at Hili will concentrate on irrigation patterns and it is hoped to uncover more evidence of a field system. More work needs to be carried out on the dissemination of sorghum east from Africa through (?) Hili to the Indian sub-continent where it is well documented in the first millennium BC. Hili itself has now been established as a site of major importance though, as in all archaeological contexts, as many questions have been raised as have been answered.

* The text of a talk given to the ENHG on 20th February 1984. M. Cleuziou has directed the excavations at Hili since 1976.

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