Thursday, August 5, 2010

New light on Qatar’s history

For three days annually each July, academics from the Middle East, Europe and the United States gather at the British Museum in London at the Seminar for Arabian Studies, to share the result of their recent researches into topics as diverse as traditional Arabian music, the grammar of South Arabian languages, architecture and archaeology.

Dr Andrew Petersen: has organised the first Wales-Qatar Archaeology Conference, which will take place in Cardiff on September 25 and 26
Archaeologists working in Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been giving presentations at this event for many years, but until this year the archaeology of Qatar had been given little coverage. This year saw a major change, with so many archaeologists and related researchers reporting on behalf of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) that their programme had to be spread over two days. Gulf Times was there to catch up with the latest discoveries.
Dr Andrew Petersen and his team from the University of Wales in Lampeter, UK, together with archaeologists from the Antiquities

Department of the QMA, have now completed two seasons of excavations in Qatar, firstly at the large fort of Ruwaidha on the NW coast and this year at the newly discovered small coastal settlement of Rubayqa on Ras Ushayriq, also in the north west.

Although coastal, it soon became apparent to the archaeologists that Ruwayqa was not a fishing village. Its major occupations, like those of the important town of Zubara a little further north, appear to have been trading and pearling. Four phases of construction have been identified, dating to the 18th and 19th centuries.

An extraordinary number of date presses in a range of construction styles have been excavated, leading to the conclusion that the production and export of date syrup was an important source of income for the inhabitants of Ruwayqa.

“It is estimated that each press measuring 3 by 2 metres could store 9,000 kilos of dates, producing 400 kilos of syrup,” said Dr Petersen. “We have already found 15 presses, so it is clear that production of this commodity was on a large scale. We do not know for sure where the dates came from – some were perhaps grown within Qatar, but others may have come from Bahrain and Basra. Ruwayqa is unusual in Qatar in that it has deep water just offshore, so ships could come and unload beside the settlement.”

The village was protected by a fort, and that there were sometimes troubled times is testified to by the dramatic discovery of several iron cannon balls, and a cache of silver rupees wrapped in cloth and hidden in the wall of the mosque, presumably by someone who was either killed or driven away and so was never able to retrieve his savings.

A programme of excavations at Zubara is planned by the QMA, followed by a proposal to seek nomination as a World Heritage Site. “This is an opportunity for urban archaeology to make a significant contribution to Qatar’s history,” said Dr Tobias Richter, deputy director of the Qatar Islamic Archaeology and Heritage Project, a joint project between QMA and the University of Copenhagen, which has just completed two seasons of work on this huge site.

Excavations by the Department of Antiquities in Qatar had already been conducted in the 1980s and 2002-4, uncovering two housing complexes, a section of the perimeter fortifications, a souq area and an industrial complex beside the shore. The new excavations have revealed clear evidence of town planning, and three large courtyard houses with walls that screened the inner courtyard from the gaze of visitors, decorative architectural details, and several bathrooms. The overall impression is of a high standard of living enjoyed by the inhabitants.

A large construction has been dubbed “the palace compound” by the archaeologists. This fortified compound probably housed the ruling elite, and features decorated gypsum panels and date presses. Examination of the contents of a midden beside the “palace” revealed that the inhabitants included a large proportion of meat in their diet, whereas elsewhere fish was the main source of protein.

“The settlement at Zubara did not consist only of permanent structures “as there is evidence from the number of post holes that some of the people lived in traditional huts of woven palm leaves, and probably tents as well.”

These may have been occupied by the families of the seasonal labourers who served as crew on the pearling dhows.

From the mid-18th to the early 20th century pearl fishing and the pearl trade was the single most important economic activity in the Arabian Gulf. Dr Richter observed: “Zubara preserves what is perhaps the single most important town plan of a pearling settlement from this period, and provides a snapshot image of how the social and economic relations between different members of the community became physical realities.”

The seminar is supported by the MBI Al Jaber Foundation, and in a special Mohammed bin Isa Al Jaber Public Lecture Dr Robert Carter, an archaeologist from Oxford Brookes University who has worked in Qatar, discussed pearling and its influence on the shaping of the Arabian Gulf states. Pearling began in the Gulf around 7000 years ago but the period of greatest activity was the 18th to the 20th centuries.
The imposition of a maritime truce by the British in 1820 largely put an end to the feuding between pearlers from different tribes and enabled them to concentrate on their work without fear of attack, and the decline of Safavid power ended taxation. This resulted in Arab regions being able to invest in more pearling ships, and the industry flourished as never before. In the early years of the 20th century it was estimated that 74,000 men were directly engaged in pearling.

“With the exception of Manama,” said Dr Carter, “all the main Gulf settlements – Zubara, Doha, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Julfar and others – came into existence directly through this expansion of the pearling trade, and in the mid 18th century Zubara was the largest pearling town in the entire Gulf region.”

Geomorphologist Dr Phillip Macumber has been working alongside the archaeologists from the University of Copenhagen, and gave a presentation on his fieldwork at Zubara and surrounding areas to examine the hydro-geology and show how crucial the presence of groundwater was to the existence of settlements.

The water table is shallow in the coastal areas but deepens towards the centre of the peninsula, and ancient wells would have been unable to reach it, hence the absence of inland settlements until modern times, explained Dr Macumber.
Wells near the coast did not have to be dug to any great depth, but had the disadvantage that saline water might seep into them. At the large well at Qalat al M’rair, near Zubara, the inhabitants probably had to skim the layer of fresh water off an underlying layer of saline fluid.

No wells have been found within Zubara city, as the water was probably too saline for use, and fresh water must therefore have had to be carried from wells at M’rair and other places further away from the coast.
Dr Macumber demonstrated how settlement patterns in Qatar were directly influenced by water or the lack of it, the last wet phase, which resulted in Neolithic occupation, ending about 6,000 years ago.

Once groundwater fails settlements are abandoned, and the difficulties of obtaining an adequate supply of water may have been a contributory factor in the eventual abandonment of Zubara.

Drs Paul Breeze and Richard Cuttler from the University of Birmingham, UK, reported on the ongoing work to establish the Qatar National Historic Environment Record together with the QMA. This has involved the application of comparatively recent technology, such as geophysics in archaeology and the use of Geographic Information Systems.

Dr Cuttler said that in a harsh environment such as Qatar, where human existence was always marginal until, recently, even minor fluctuations can have massive impact on changes between a nomadic and settled lifestyle.

Two hundred cores taken by the researchers from Birmingham in Wadi Debayan, just south of Zubara, have revealed organically rich sediment layers sandwiched between layers of marine deposits, showing that in ancient times there were periods when settlement could have taken place and times when low-lying areas were flooded with sea water and became uninhabitable.

Dr Cuttler and his colleagues have been recording and excavating prehistoric burial cairns from extensive cairn fields in the north of Qatar, the existence of which was unknown until very recently, and networks of large intertidal fish traps around the coast of the peninsula.

“The large volume of unexamined potential archaeological material identified during the survey indicates that the work is of high national significance within Qatar and will also have regional implications beyond the country,” said Dr Cuttler.
Dr Andrew Petersen from the University of Wales has organised the first Wales-Qatar Archaeology Conference, which will take place in Cardiff on September 25 and 26. The coastal inhabitants and settlements of Wales and Qatar, although apparently very different, in fact have much in common, says Dr Petersen, and this conference will give archaeologists working in both regions a chance to come together and compare the results of their work.

Gillespie, Fran. 2010. "New light on Qatar’s history". Gulf Times. Posted: July 25, 2010. Available online:

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