What stories can be unearthed from broken pieces of pottery, many of them from distant lands and regions? Or stone and metal arrowheads and axes that have survived centuries, even millennia? What truths lie concealed in burial chambers, caves, inscriptions and drawings on rock surfaces?
Digging deep, peeling away a sequence of layers of sand and gravel in multiple sites across Sharjah, discoveries made by archaeological teams from around the world are continuing to reconstruct the story of this emirate – its environment, architecture, rituals, social and cultural life, from as far back as 125,000 years ago. Thanks to their efforts, the fascinating history of ancient Sharjah and its inhabitants spring to life through the hundreds of artefacts unearthed from around the emirate and housed permanently in the Sharjah Archaeology Museum.
Located in the Al Abar area on Shaikh Rashid Bin Saqr Al Qasimi Road, the rather nondescript single-storied structure belies the treasure trove of compelling archaeological wealth it holds within its galleries. As our guide, Maha Al Hamadi, leads us in, she tells us that archaeological excavations in Sharjah commenced in 1973 when a gravestone bearing inscriptions was discovered in Mleiha in the western foothills of the emirate by a resident in the late 1960s. ‘This marked the beginning of a series of excavations that eventually led to the discovery of the remains of ancient settlements here, allowing experts to create a more accurate chronological timeline beginning with the first signs of human presence in the region.’
In due course, these discoveries were to steer global conversations around new theories on early human migration from the east of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula through Bab Al Mandeb in Yemen and onward to the Mleiha region in Sharjah via modern-day Oman, around 60-70,000 years ago. However, in 2006, the discovery of a set of flint objects, including an axe head and stone scrapers buried four metres deep in the mountains of Al Faya, changed the earlier narrative due to its strong resemblance to tools previously found in east Africa. Scientific studies together with OSL dating – optically stimulated luminescence that determines when minerals were last exposed to light, provided conclusive evidence that hominids, precursors to early humans, had lived here almost 125,000 years ago – much older than was originally believed.
It is with this introduction on the impactful work of archaeologists, which even today continues to shape our understanding of pre-Islamic societies in the region, that our tour of the museum begins.
Some sites were discovered almost by accident, explains our guide, such as the 2004 discovery of a Hellenistic tomb in the backyard of a house by its resident in Dibba Al-Hisn. The unique contents of the tomb, she adds, threw light on Dibba’s role as a port of significance that connected the East and the West more than 2,000 years ago.
We come across a small dig site for children that allows the young ones to work with tools used by archaeologists and ‘uncover’ artefacts. Mounted on the walls throughout the museum are some large replicas of smaller artefacts unearthed from various sites. ‘These are precise in their details in terms of shape, texture, engravings and images, including cracks, and allow kids to enjoy a tactile experience and form deeper connection with these symbols of the past,’ explains Maha.
One of the first such objects that loom into view is a large, beige jar, decorated in reddish colour with horsemen and caprioles, found at the Mleiha site and dating to 250-150 BCE. We also see the enlarged model of a steatite cylindrical cup decorated with motifs of fish and birds from the Jebel Al-Buhais site, 1,000 BCE.
A large timeline beginning with the Stone Age and ending with the advent of Islam, and a map depicting the 18 dig sites in and around Sharjah, prepare us for the chronological journey we are about to undertake. Al Hamadi points to some of the most important excavation sites such as Mleiha, occupied from 300 BCE to 300 CE and where the remains of houses, tombs and forts have been found; Jebel Faya, containing evidence of pre-historic human occupation; Tell Abraq, occupied for almost 2,000 years and the site of a rich Bronze Age tomb; Al Thuqaibah and Muweilah, large Iron Age agricultural settlements; Jebel Al-Buhais, a burial site dating from about 5,000 BCE; and Al-Hamriyah, where large heaps of shells have been left behind by coastal food gatherers from about 4500-500 BCE.
Heavy rains, verdant lands
Our journey into the main galleries begins with the Stone Age, spanning from 5000-3000 BCE. Archaeological remains in this gallery include finely crafted weapons and jewellery of the men, women and children who lived here 5,000 to 7,000 years ago.
‘Throughout the year, these people travelled between the coastal regions and inland plains to take advantages of the seasonal variations in climate and resources,’ Maha explains. ‘In the past, the climate was very different from what it is today. Heavy showers turned the land verdant, attracting animals. Hunting groups therefore sought refuge in mountains to hunt and collect food. In late winter and spring, they camped in central Sharjah in Jebel Al-Buhais to raise their herds and bury their dead’
The evidence recovered from these burial grounds and camp sites give us significant insight into burial rituals and way of life of this period, she says. ‘Finely crafted tools were used to drill holes through pearls and seashells to make beautiful bead necklaces and ornaments,’ explains our guide. ‘Basketry and wooden objects may have been used but they have not survived through time.’
Numerous types of arrowheads and knives made from flint, used for different purposes, are also found here. Although no locally produced pottery had been discovered from this period, fragments of Ubaid pottery from southern Iraq have been found, indicating that the people here were probably proficient sailors.
As we step into the Bronze Age gallery, covering the period from 3000-1300 BCE, we see how the rich copper resources in the nearby Hajar mountains were exploited to produce more sturdy tools and weapons. During the third millennia BCE, copper ingots became an important export item to Dilmun (Bahrain), Mesopotamia (Iraq) and southwest Iran. Sometimes, it was alloyed with tin to make bronze, creating a harder but more expensive metal.
There are also a variety of artefacts from this time period onwards attesting to the increasing trade and development of craft industries.
‘Ceramic and soft stone vessels began to be produced locally during the Bronze Age, and it was also traded along the new trade networks,’ informs our guide. ‘The initial years showcased more hemispherical bowls with incised dot and circle decoration. Later, a wider range of shapes, sizes and geometric patterns emerged.’
It is likely that the arid conditions typical of today was established by this time, adds Maha. ‘What is interesting about this period is that as settlements began to get much larger, agricultural practices came into being, and an oasis society along with date cultivation began to be established. This also necessitated the need for large fortifications in mudbrick and stones.’
A model of a 2000 BCE house, one of the many discovered around the mountains at Khor Fakkan, is on display here. Built with stone and featuring a barasti roof, its stepped layout was dictated by the shape of the mountain it was built on. Pottery bowls, grinding stones, fishing hooks and net sinkers were found inside this house.
Models of several tombs of this period showcased here include the 1959 discovery of circular tombs in Um Al Nar island in Abu Dhabi. ‘Graves during this period came in a variety of sizes, shapes and construction design. They had several chambers where remains of large numbers of bodies were discovered. A tomb in Mleiha, for instance, contained the remains of 300 people.’
Imported black painted greyware and rare alabaster bowls from Iran, ceramic pottery and softstone utensils from other regions including Iraq, Central Asia and the Indus Valley civilisation, bronze knives and spearheads, ivory hair combs and hairpins from Indian tuskers with floral decorations engraved in Central Asian style, and a rich find of carnelian and gold jewellery that were buried along with the dead are now on display at the museum.
Look out for an impressive softstone vessel buried 4,000 years ago featuring a delicate open base work. Typical of the craft in eastern Iran, this is the only example of its kind found so far in eastern Arabia.
Al Hamadi now leads us to observe two interesting examples of rock art engravings from the mountain range in Kalba, on the east coast of Sharjah, one of which features the image of a bull beneath the motifs of a crescent moon and star.
Iron and animal figures
As we enter the Iron Age gallery, representing the years from 1300-300 BCE, she informs us that even during this period, copper continued to be the leading metal of choice in southern Arabia chiefly due to its abundance locally. ‘It would take another 800 or 900 years before iron began to be extensively used here,’ she explains.
However, what distinguishes this range of finds from those of the Bronze Age are the changes in the style of decoration, and the greater variety in the forms produced. ‘For instance, while geometric motifs dominated the Bronze Age, animal figures, including fish and birds, was characteristic of the Iron Age.
‘Two key developments during this period brought great change and prosperity to the region,’ she explains as we go further into the gallery. ‘The first of these is the system of underground irrigation channels known as Al Falaj that allowed previously uninhabited land to be cultivated and settled. The second change came with the domestication of the camel for inland travel, which enabled trade networks to expand well across the Arabian Peninsula and beyond.’
To show us how the domestication of the camel changed lifestyles and livelihoods dramatically with the opening of new caravan routes and laid the foundations for the Bedouin lifestyles that survives today, Maha leads us to the painted ceramic figurine of a camel from Muweilah, 900-600 BCE, adopted as the logo of the Sharjah Archaeology Museum. ‘It represents a camel wearing a saddle or perhaps, carrying a load, and is an important representation as it suggests the existence of tamed camels in the service of humans at the time.’
This period also bears first evidence of the development of script, and we see three clearly marked letters in the south Arabian letters on a ceramic storage jar from Al Muweilah dating to 900-600 BCE.
The presence of a large numbers of bronze arrowheads suggest that warfare was a feature of the Iron Age, possibly caused by the increase in population, both in size and wealth, she says.
Of interest here is a jar with an elongated shape, decorated with straight lines and chevrons, found in Mweilah and brought in for identification years ago – one of the first indications that an important site lay beneath its sands. Look out for spouted jars imported from Iran and metal bracelets or anklets bearing a strong resemblance to the silver Bedouin jewellery of recent times.
As we enter the Greater Arabia gallery, representing the final part of the timeline covering the late pre-Islamic history of Sharjah from 300BCE-611CE, our guide tells us that the beginning of this period marked the time when the Arabian Peninsula became part of a trading network that linked the countries in the Indian Ocean with those of the Mediterranean, thereby opening trade links with many great civilisations of the time.
‘The export of Arabia’s resources, particularly myrrh and frankincense, and the region’s rising prosperity attracted Greek ruler Alexander the Great who sent a fleet to assess the region but he died before he could put his invasion plans into action,’ Maha says.
This period is marked by evidence of contact as far away as Rome to the north, India to the east and Egypt to the west, with incense being a prized commodity of trade. Coins modelled on those of Alexander the Great, Roman glass vessels, Greek amphorae, Yemeni alabaster vessels, and several other luxury goods have been unearthed from tombs, which now moved towards single burials in tower-like structures. The increasingly important role of camels in society saw them being ritually slaughtered to be buried along with their owners. At the flourishing settlement of Mleiha was discovered a horse grave buried with its fabulous gold bridle still on – prominently showcased at the museum.
The period also marked the production of coins from the local mints and the development of writing saw the infancy of a modern economy. A bilingually inscribed tombstone discovered in 2015 in Mleiha bears the Musanad inscription and provides us with the earliest mention of Oman to date. The same information is provided in Aramaic indicating the presence of a large Aramaic community at the site.
Coinage in the region first appeared in Mleiha and signify the extent of trading at this time. Examples on display here come from Rome, Sidon, Petra, Rajkot, Persia, Parthia and Athens.
Look out for the ceramic handle of an amphora from the Greek island of Rhodes, 182 and 176 BCE, remains of a large blackware storage jar used to store water, grain or dates, and a delicate beaker made of orange clay bearing a painted design of a horned animal, from Iran, 400-200 CE.
Ancient lives and deaths
Our journey here concludes with a visit to the special gallery dedicated to the Neolithic graveyard of Al Buhais 18, located in the interior of Sharjah at the foothills of Jebel Al-Buhais, where the skeletal remains of more than 500 individuals have been recovered. ‘These group burial casts of the 5th millennium BCE are the shared resting place of a number of generations,’ explains our guide. ‘The study of the remains reveals that more than 60 per cent of them died before the age of 30.’
Don’t miss the 7,000-year-old decorated skull of a female adorned with jewellery for the ear, and a small pearl located on the upper lip below the nose. Another richly adorned woman had over 2,500 beads made of shell and stone for her elaborate burial.
With its great mix of models, informative exhibits and films, the Sharjah Archaeology Museum recreates the lives of ancient people vividly, making the past seem more immediate, and lively.
Know before you go
Saturday to Thursday – 8am–8pm
Friday – 4pm–8 pm
Children – Dh5
Adults – Dh10
English and Arabic tour guides are available.
The use of audio guides, packed with information on more than 70 exhibits, is highly recommended.
Tel: 06 566 5466
The Splendid Archaeology of Kuwait, an exhibition focusing on the history of Kuwait, featuring objects excavated across the country, with some pieces dating back to the Bronze Age (3000 BCE). Other pieces on display here include pottery, hunting tools, fishing equipment, figurines and decorated vessels, from the Stone Age and Iron Age. There are also rare collections of coins from the Arabian Peninsula and ceramics, soft-stone dishes, awls, drills, and blades made from bone and stone from the Dilmun Kingdom. The exhibition is open until April 16, 2020.