Bulletin 37 - March 1989: Recent Archaeological Finds at Bithna, Fujairah

Recent Archaeological Finds at Bithna, Fujairah

by Peter Hellyer

The Iron Age tomb excavated this past winter in this strategic village in the Wadi Ham by a team of Swiss archaeologists has unlocked new secrets of the Emirates' past, and will place present-day Bithna firmly on the archaeological map of the Middle East. The discovery on the edge of the village, by a team from the Swiss-Liechtenstein Foundation for Archaeological Research, was announced by the head of the Monuments and Antiquities Section of the Fujairah Emiri Court, Seif al Attr. The Foundation had signed an agreement with Fujairah Government in 1987 covering the establishment of an antiquities department and research and study of that Emirate's ancient sites.

The significance of the Bithna tomb, the first of its kind ever to be found in the Arabian Peninsula, is stressed by the Foundation's team, led by Pierre Corboud, who says that it has yielded substantial knowledge covering more than 1000 years of the country's pre-history.

The Bithna tomb is significant first of all because of its T-shape construction, with the main chamber 10.4m long, 1.6m wide and at least 2.5 and possibly 3m deep. This chamber is oriented roughly along a north-south axis and joining it centrally and at right angles, facing a little south of east, is an entrance passage at least 5m long. The chambers itself, and the main part of the entrance, were originally roofed over with the entrance leading down a steep ramp, or 'dromos', into the chamber. Part of the passage appears to have been above surface, with a portal or gate to close off the rest of the passage and chamber.

This combination of T-shape and sloping entranceway has never before been found in Arabia and, according to the archaeologists, represents a new type of prehistoric burial construction. Similar tombs at Qattarah, Shimal, Dhayah and Al Qusais have lacked the 'dromos' and have been built totally or mainly above ground, while similar graves near Dhahran in Saudi Arabia have been built wholly above ground, with a cairn then being piled on top.

The phrase 'Bithna-type', like the 'Umm an Nar' and 'Hili' types will now be used to describe any other similar tombs found, and will stamp the name of this small mountain village on the local archaeological map. Besides the tomb itself, much has also been learned from the contents found within.

The tomb, it seems, was probably built at the end of the second or beginning of the first millennium BC (roughly around 1000 BC). Some fragments of soft stone vessels and a ceramic beaker found during the excavation are of typical late second millennium type, but may have continued in use in the Bithna area until the early first millennium, Corboud says. The first main period of use for the tomb, judging from the artifacts, was during the classic local Iron Age, covering the whole of the period from around 1000 to 500 BC. Some near complete soft stone vessels were recovered together with a number of bronze arrowheads, both of types found in other UAE sites of this period. The scattered remains of a number of skeletons were also discovered which, surmise the archaeologists, had been disturbed by looters, who might have been after any bronze utensils buried with the dead.

Around 500 BC the tomb seems to have been abandoned for several centuries, since on top of this lower layer of skeletal material and shards was a thin layer of soil that had clearly been washed down into the tomb by seasonal rains. Then, sometime roughly between 300 BC and 300 AD (the so-called 'Hellenistic Period'), the inhabitants of Bithna began to use the tomb once again, and several more burials were carried out, mainly in the southern half of the main chamber. A large part of the wall of the northern half had collapsed earlier, perhaps as a result of the activities of grave robbers. From this period, which cannot yet be dated accurately, the archaeologists recovered a nearly complete amphora or wine jar, a small glazed flask, a fragment of glass and 10 to 15 arrowheads. Again, grave robbing seems to have occurred during the Hellenistic Period, perhaps when the tomb was being un-used, for only one of the skeletons of this period was found undisturbed and that, the archaeologists believe, was the last internment of all. And then, from the end of the Hellenistic Period in the region, around 300 AD, the Bithna tomb, once a regularly used and re-used burial place, became covered and was forgotten until last year. According to Peter Im-Obersteg, one of the Swiss team, there was no tradition in the village that something lay under the small mound on its edge.

The Bithna tomb was first located during a preliminary archaeological survey of the Emirate during the 1987-88 season, when a scattering of ancient potsherds and fragments of stone vessels were found on the surface. Immediately adjacent to the tomb entrance is a small child's grave, and there are a further two small graves a few meters to the west of the tomb, on the crest of the small hillock into which it is built. None of these graves, excavated in January 1988, yielded anything of much significance but will be preserved along with the main construction.

While the architectural aspects of the tomb are of considerable importance, one other aspect is of crucial significance in helping to understand the prehistory of the area now comprising Fujairah Emirate. The grave provides the first hard evidence that the Wadi Ham route through the Hajjar Mountains was in use in Hellenistic times, linking the east coast with the major sites at Mileiha, south of Dhaid, and at Ad-Door, in Umm al Qawain. The first concrete evidence for Hellenistic influence on the east coast came from Badiyah, also in Fujairah Emirate, earlier this year where a number of second millennium graves were also found to have been re-used in the Hellenistic Period. Prior to that, archaeologists believed that the Hellenistic Period must have influenced the east coast but lacked firm proof. The Bithna discovery now also proves the existence of communications via a land route between the east coast and the rest of what is now the UAE.

Archaeologists keen to identify the pattern of human settlement and of trade routes in the region around the beginning of the Christian era will now be encouraged in their search for settlement sites along the east coast. If ships could travel from Ad-Door to India and Pakistan, they could equally well do so from ports along what is now the Gulf of Oman.

Looking a little further back, the Bithna tomb again underlines the fact that the archaeology of the UAE in the Iron Age must be examined as a single entity and not the two separate periods hitherto assumed. However difficult it may have been to cross the Hajjar mountains, the culture of the area as displayed in its pottery, its stone vessels, and its burials, was basically the same every where, allowing for some local and regional variations. Until this past winter, the bulk of archaeological work on the east coast was on the coastline itself. Now, the Swiss-Liechtenstein Foundation has proved that there are key sites inland that can help to fill in a few strategic pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of the UAE's past.


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