The fu­ture digs the past

Stu­dents from Zayed Univer­sity were given a unique op­por­tu­nity to gain hands-on ar­chae­ol­ogy skills in Al Ain this Spring. Nick Leech spoke to some of the Emi­rati team ex­ca­vat­ing re­mains at Hili Oa­sis, who were hope­ful of dat­ing a for­ti­fied plan­ta­tion hous

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Nick Leech is a fea­ture writer at The Na­tional.

As an early or­ange sun rises over Al Ain, mist hangs in the grey palms of the Hili Oa­sis where a group of young women are just start­ing work, wrapped up against the early chill. Some, dressed in white lab coats, use mea­sur­ing tapes and a theodo­lite to sur­vey the mud-brick re­mains of a large but long-aban­doned house and com­pound, the Bait bin Hadi Al Dar­maki, while oth­ers stand shoul­der-deep in freshly dug trenches, shov­el­ling damp sand into wheel­bar­rows as they delve into the past.

“Peo­ple al­ways ask us ‘Are you guys dig­ging graves?’ or ‘Did you find any di­nosaurs?’” says 22-year-old Afra Ha­mad with more than a hint of ex­as­per­a­tion.

“They don’t have any idea about what we’re do­ing so we have to ex­plain what we are do­ing and why we are do­ing it,” adds her 21-year-old col­league, Mai Al Man­souri. “Ex­ca­va­tion isn’t a very widely un­der­stood idea amongst Emi­ratis.”

Ha­mad and Al Man­souri are part of small group of stu­dents from Zayed Univer­sity who have been con- duct­ing a month-long ex­ca­va­tion of the re­mains of the Bait bin Hadi as part of an eight-week-long in­tern­ship with Abu Dhabi’s Tourism and Cul­ture Author­ity (TCA).

The ex­ca­va­tion is de­signed to teach the stu­dents the ba­sics of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal method – sur­vey­ing, ex­ca­va­tion and the sys­tem­atic record­ing of their work and any finds – ac­cord­ing to an in­ter­na­tion­ally-recog­nised method orig­i­nally de­vised by the Mu­seum of Lon­don’s ar­chae­o­log­i­cal unit.

The Bait bin Hadi is be­lieved to date from the late 17th or early 18th cen­tury, at which time it would have stood as a for­ti­fied plan­ta­tion house with high walls and a watch­tower sur­rounded, as it is to­day, by Hili’s date palms, falaj ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem and gar­dens.

“The main point of this ex­ca­va­tion is to try to find out when the Bait bin Hadi was con­structed,” ex­plains 20-year-old Sara Al Hameli as we tour the crum­bling site, parts of which are be­lieved to be 300 years old.

“At the mo­ment we’ve reached 18th-cen­tury lay­ers and we know that be­cause yes­ter­day we found a piece of glass that con­firmed the date for us,” she says, re­veal­ing a dark, iri­des­cent frag­ment from a bot­tle that is likely to have orig­i­nated in In­dia or to have found its way into the trad­ing net­works of the In­dian Ocean as a re­sult of the British East In­dia Com­pany.

“We sus­pect that the glass is pre-19th cen­tury be­cause of the way it’s made and the way it’s de­graded, which makes it an un­usual piece be­cause we very rarely find glass from the 18th cen­tury,” says Ti­mothy Power, the stu­dent’s tu­tor and an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Zayed Univer­sity in Abu Dhabi.

“We have a hy­poth­e­sis, based on pre­vi­ous work by the TCA, that the house was es­tab­lished in the late 17th or early 18th cen­tury and we need to test that by get­ting down to those lay­ers and con­firm their date us­ing finds,” the ar­chae­ol­o­gist ex­plains.

“Why is that rel­e­vant? Be­cause the Bait bin Hadi was al­most cer­tainly con­structed at the same time as the oa­sis and so the con­struc­tion date of one should give us the foun­da­tion date for the other.”

If the house and oa­sis are of the same age then they date from a time when Bu­raimi’s pop­u­la­tion and pros­per­ity peaked and when plan­ta­tions such as Hili formed part of a wider Arab em­pire.

Ruled by the Omani Yaru­bid dy­nasty, this brieflived em­pire had its head­quar­ters in Rus­taq but was cen­tred on the Batina and Dhahira re­gions of the mod­ern Sul­tanate of Oman. Spread­ing through­out the Gulf and across the In­dian Ocean to in­clude parts of East Africa and what is now Pak­istan and Iran, it con­sisted of a net­work of colonies and trad­ing posts that not only pro­vided the Yaru­bids with mar­kets for their cash crops, such as the dates that were grown in Hili, but also gave them ac­cess to the slave labour that was re­quired for labour-in­ten­sive in­dus­tries such as pearl fish­ing and the date cul­ti­va­tion that took place in oases such as Hili.

“It was a time when there was a lot of wealth pour­ing into the Gulf from the In­dian Ocean and that wealth was be­ing in­vested in land,” the ar­chae­ol­o­gist ex­plains.

“This is the Bait bin Hadi Al Dar­maki, and at that time the wali [gover­nor] of Mom­basa un­der the Yaru­bids was also a Dar­maki. Now whether there is a link and whether that is sig­nif­i­cant, who knows,” says Power, clearly fas­ci­nated by the prospect of a pan-In­dian Ocean net­work peo­pled with char­ac­ters whose descen­dants might still be liv­ing in the emi­rates.

As we tour the ex­ca­va­tions, the stu­dents re­flect on a pro­gramme that has not only thrust them into the hard-end of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal method, namely dig­ging, but has also re­quired them to live in Al Ain dur­ing the week, re­turn­ing home only at week­ends.

“We ar­rive on Sun­day morn­ing and we stay un­til Thurs­day morn­ing, when we check out of the ho­tel, and we have to work eight hours a day. We ex­ca­vate and sur­vey in the morn­ings and then in the af­ter­noons we work with pot­tery finds and record and reg­is­ter them,” Sara Al Hameli says.

“It uses all of our dif­fer­ent skills, we’ve been do­ing maths and we’ve been do­ing physics and we’ve been artis­tic, we’ve drawn and we’ve dug and that’s been re­ally em­pow­er­ing.”

“Be­ing in a trench and look­ing at the lay­ers is like be­ing in a time-ma­chine be­cause you find pot­tery and bones and the post holes of build­ings and you can see how peo­ple lived in the past,” Afra Ha­mad en­thuses.

“You can see where they built their ar­ish and pitched their tents and when they left and now we can see all of this within the con­text of the chang­ing city.”

Dat­ing from a pe­riod when ex­ten­sive houses, rather than forts, would have been the dom­i­nant ar­chi­tec­tural fea­tures in the oa­sis land­scapes sur­round­ing what is now Bu­raimi and Al Ain, the Bait bin Hadi would have orig­i­nally been sur­rounded by date plan­ta­tions that were much more ex­ten­sive than the oa­sis as it ap­pears to­day.

“Peo­ple look at the present lim­its of the oases and see them as un­chang­ing but in fact they were both big­ger and smaller at var­i­ous points and we are try­ing to track that process,” ex­plains the ar­chae­ol­o­gist Peter Shee­han, the sec­tion head of TCA’s his­toric build­ings and land­scapes divi­sion who has col­lab­o­rated with Tim Power to de­velop the in­tern­ship pro­gramme.

“In all these things we are try­ing to look at what hap­pened in the wider land­scape and in that first phase, wher­ever we look, there is ev­i­dence for very wide­spread ac­tiv­ity in the 17th and 18th cen­turies in the area be­tween here and Bu­raimi.”

Although it is now largely a ruin, the Bait bin Hadi still rises above the Hili oa­sis, which would have been wa­tered us­ing the tra­di­tional falaj ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem.

A sys­tem of un­der­ground tun­nels or sur­face chan­nels built to trans­port wa­ter over many kilo­me­tres from aquifers in hills and moun­tains to lower-ly­ing cul­ti­vated ar­eas, aflaj, as falaj are re­ferred to in the plu­ral, are also known as fog­gara, mad­ji­rat, qanat and ma­ree in the many ar­eas where they have been em­ployed, which in­clude Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan and through­out the Mediter­ranean, North Africa and in parts of Cen­tral Asia.

The sys­tem is be­lieved to have orig­i­nated in the Ara­bian Penin­sula about 3,000 years ago at a time when the sys­tem helped to trans­form the lives of com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing in ar­eas with lim­ited rain­fall by mak­ing wa­ter eas­ier to ob­tain.

Un­der­ground aflaj con­sist of a tun­nel, ven­ti­lated at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals by chim­neys called thugba, that was dug at a gen­tly slop­ing an­gle to al­low grav­ity to de­liver the wa­ter to the re­quired spot.

“You look down into the oa­sis be­cause there was orig­i­nally a flat plain that the oa­sis builders dug down into,” Power ex­plains.

“That al­lowed them to cre­ate the cor­rect an­gle that al­lows the wa­ter to flow from a spur of the Ha­jar Moun­tains, just north of here, down into the oa­sis.”

Shee­han, a British ar­chae­ol­o­gist with ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence in the Mid­dle East, first ex­ca­vated the Bait bin Hadi a decade ago and has been work­ing with Power in Al Ain since 2009 and with Zayed Univer­sity stu­dents in the oases in 2015, sur­vey­ing the bound­ary walls of the Qat­tara oa­sis be­fore mov­ing into the Jimi oa­sis last year.

“Up to this date, Emi­ratis who have stud­ied ar­chae­ol­ogy have stud­ied abroad in Jor­dan or Bri­tain – and although their de­grees in­volved some de­gree of prac­ti­cal train­ing they would have been learn­ing about the ar­chae­ol­ogy of those places,” Power ex­plains.

“But we set up the in­tern­ship this year so that the stu­dents could have an ex­pe­ri­ence of do­ing real ar­chae­ol­ogy by work­ing on a real project and this is the only field school in the emi­rates.”

As well as spend­ing four weeks ex­ca­vat­ing at Hili, the stu­dents will also spend time at Qasr Al Hosn and ac­com­pany Shee­han and Power on a field walk­ing sur­vey of Hosn Al Sira in the Al Dhafra re­gion, one of the old­est mon­u­ments as­so­ci­ated with the Bani Yas tribal con­fed­er­a­tion.

Con­sist­ing of a fort sur­rounded by camp­ing grounds, the site at Hosn Al Sira is as­so­ci­ated with a “fort of the Dhafra” that is men­tioned in an Omani his­tory that re­counts a bat­tle be­tween the Bani Yas and the Al Yariba in 1630s.

“Yes this project is be­ing used to train the stu­dents, but it’s also a real re­search project and the plan is to present our find­ings at the Sem­i­nar of Ara­bian Stud­ies at the British Mu­seum in Lon­don,” Power ex­plains.

“We want to in­tro­duce the stu­dents to the meth­ods and tech­niques of the pro­fes­sion, but we also want them to ex­pe­ri­ence re­search, anal­y­sis and the pre­sen­ta­tion of that re­search in a schol­arly set­ting.”

For Shee­han, how­ever, the value of the in­tern­ship lies not just in its role in ca­pac­ity build­ing among stu­dents who may, or may not, pur­sue a ca­reer in ar­chae­ol­ogy, but in pro­vid­ing ev­i­dence that will al­low the writ­ing of a his­tory of the oases that is still be­ing un­cov­ered and that is cru­cial to Al Ain’s in­scrip­tion as a Unesco World Her­itage Site.

The con­struc­tion and oc­cu­pa­tion of Al Ain’s six oases, the old­est of which date back to the Iron Age, was made pos­si­ble, in part, by the con­struc­tion of aflaj, and have played a key role in a his­tory of settlement in the area that has waxed and waned at var­i­ous points all the way back to the Ne­olithic pe­riod.

“This is not an ex­er­cise, it’s not a mat­ter of just teach­ing the stu­dents some­thing we al­ready know, it’s ac­tu­ally go­ing through a process of find­ing things out us­ing a method­ol­ogy,” Shee­han says.

“We’re not dig­ging holes just to teach the stu­dents how to ex­ca­vate, dig­ging holes is ac­tu­ally good for all of us. The holes are about find­ing some­thing out and they’re part of that process and so are we.”

Christo­pher Pike / The Na­tional

A home at the Bait bin Hadi arche­o­log­i­cal site. Stu­dents are try­ing to dis­cover how old it is.

Christo­pher Pike / The Na­tional

Abu Dhabi Tourism and Cul­ture Author­ity worker Ab­dal Azeez brushes clean some arte­facts at the Bait bin Hadi.

Christo­pher Pike / The Na­tional

The Bait bin Hadi arche­o­log­i­cal site at the Hili Oa­sis in Al Ain.

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