Sometime in the near future, passengers travelling on the new railway line across Abu Dhabi will be marvelling at the landscape out of their windows not realising that they are not only making a journey across land but also in time.

"In effect, it would be a travel through the past, as well as the present!" says Dr Mark Beech. This archaeologist is not usually given to such flights of fancy. But the discoveries he and his team have made since they began their survey for the construction of the new GCC railway project in January this year is reason enough for his imagination to take wings. "While surveying the Baynunah area, we came across this site of fossil shells from the late Miocene period, dating backalmost eight million years," hesays, barely able to suppress his excitement.

That's not all. Archaeologists from the Historic Environment department at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) led by Dr Beech, discovered a number of palaeontological (fossil), archaeological and historical sites during the course of the survey.

Some of the sites identified for protection along the route include one in the desert southwest of Al Ain where Bedouin pottery was found; in the Samha area where the skeleton of a blue whale estimated to be 5,000 to 6,000 years old was discovered; in Al Fayah as well as Sabkha Matti areas where 7,000-year-old flints were unearthed; near Jebel Barakh where 150,000 to 200,000-year-old stone tools were found; in Baynunah where a prehistoric cairn tomb was found and in another part of Baynunah where eight-million-year-old fossil shells from the late Miocene period were discovered.

The Preliminary Cultural Review (PCR), as the survey is called, was carried out for the Freight and Railway Passenger Study, a railway committee established for Abu Dhabi. The brief was to undertake a PCR survey of the proposed route of the new freight and passenger railway planned for Abu Dhabi. The survey was conducted by four archaeologists from the Historic Environment department, coordinated by Dr Beech, between January and June this year. The new rail network is to begin operations between 2011 and 2013.

"It's a huge project, and starts at the Abu Dhabi-Saudi Arabia border," says Dr Beech. "Our job is to survey every proposed kilometre of the railway route. It runs from Gweifat on the Saudi Arabia-Abu Dhabi border up to the Dubai border with branches running off from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain, and also to the different industrial areas and other important areas like Tawila and the new Khalifa Port area. There's a branch off to Mussafah, to the new ICAD industrial zone, to the Ruwais oil refinery area, and a new branch that proposes to connect Abu Dhabi with Liwa.

"We have finished surveying part of the initially proposed routes of around 600km. We check if there are any archaeological sites or palaeontological fossil sites in the area. We recently completed a big report and did a presentation to the railway committee. They've been very cooperative. They contacted us at every stage of the design and development and they've been happy to help us out whether it's archaeological sites or repositioning the tracks so that it doesn't damage the sites."


Early settlements

Dr Beech, who started working in the UAE in 1994 for the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey (ADIAS) before it was merged into ADACH, has been part of many an archaeological find. They include excavations of a church and monastery on Sir Bani Yas Island, and the discovery in 2004 of the earliest settlements dating back 7,500 years in Abu Dhabi on Marawah Island. His team's work again established that Abu Dhabi was inhabited more than 7,000 years ago when they found the earliest known houses in the UAE on Delma Island.

But all these discoveries did not prime Dr Beech and his team for the sheer scale of new finds that they would uncover during the course of the railway survey.

"The interesting thing about the fossil site we found near Baynunah is that it has shells," he says. "But these are not marine shells; they are from eight million years ago. There was an ancient river that flowed through here then, and these are fresh water shells from the late Miocene period. At the same site we found pieces from a crocodile's back, which is like an armour plating."

Jebel Barakah, the oldest archaeological site known in Abu Dhabi and one of the oldest in the UAE, again proved to be the site for rich pickings. "The railway passes by the area and on survey we found stone tools age dating to the Middle Palaeolithic between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago.

"At another fossil site near Ruwais we found the foot bone of a hippopotamus," says Dr Beech brandishing the piece excitedly. "It's surprising for people to know that these fossil sites have signs of animals associated with rivers, such as the hippo. We also found bones of turtles and ostrich, so the fossil finds are varied." Besides these, there were also findings of palaeontological importance. The fossilised skeleton of a blue whale dating back about 6,000 years ago was excavated at a site in Mussafah. "Close to Al Ain, we found many examples of pottery. It was obviously an old Bedouin camping site between Al Ain and Abu Dhabi."

The PCR is obviously working very well for ADACH and Abu Dhabi, and has also aroused a lot of interest in the other emirates as well.

"I have companies calling me from places like Dubai, curious about the work we do," says Dr Beech. The reason: the PCR applies to all companies, bodies or individuals who seek to construct or alter the ‘cultural landscape' of the emirate. "We have an application form that starts off the PCR process," explains Dr Beech. "Any company involved in big projects, building things like new roads, pipelines, railway routes, factories or housing which requires an environmental permit, must apply to our department for clearance."

(The application can be downloaded from the ADACH website. Details of the company and information of the project like mapping and location have to be given.)

Once the application is submitted, the archaeology team swings into action. There is a fee for the service which is a minimum of Dh500. The fee depends on how large the survey area is, where it is located, and if the team has to stay overnight.

"Mostly they are one-day trips, but the railways survey ran into three weeks," says Dr Beech. "We check the area, using the GPS mainly for navigation and mapping. We use satellite images from government departments, the geographical information provided, and software to process the information and data to make our own maps of the location."

In Abu Dhabi it helps that the department already has a database of the location of the main archaeological and historic sites.

"We have three main types of sites - palaeontological or fossil sites, archaeological sites and historic buildings," says Dr Beech. "The fossil sites are distributed mostly in the western regions. There are some historic buildings on the islands, especially Sir Bani Yas and Delma, a few in Abu Dhabi, but most of them are located in the Al Ain area. So most of our work on conservation and restoration of such sites is based in Al Ain." Dr Beech maintains and manages the database of all the sites discovered and coordinates the responses to the PCR surveys.

Dr Beech and his team's work started immediately after ADACH was established towards the end of 2005. The surveys began in 2006, and have been increasing by the day. "The economic development of the emirate is evident in the number of surveys we have to do," says Dr Beech. "This year we have already done five times more surveys than we did the previous year, and we are not even near the end of the year yet. I am completely swamped with work."

This is evident when you take a look around his office, which is overflowing with papers and evidence from the various sites. It is difficult to pin him down for an interview as he's either at a site supervising a survey or off to Al Ain for official meetings.

A picture of the emerging face of Abu Dhabi can be drawn from the kind of projects that Dr Beech's team inspects - hotels, businesses, both commercial and residential and a large chunk of infrastructural developments.

But contrary to what you would imagine, the Historic Environment department is not the bane of development. "Our department has not stopped construction," asserts Dr Beech. "In general, around 98 per cent of the projects we survey are cleared. We are not out to create problems for them. We are only safeguarding the cultural heritage of the country.

"We should remember that cultural heritage is a part of the future of the country," he stresses. "It is one of the big earners; you've got to have something for the tourists to see - historical buildings, archaeological sites, etc. Some key sites are open for tourism, and more will be in the future. But it has to be carefully planned and done the right way." The plan is to display some of the excavated artefacts in museums.

"We still haven't finished the survey," says Dr Beech. "We have completed the initial proposed conceptual corridor. The railways committee will have to change some of the design of the routing of the railways." And so it goes. Meanwhile, Dr Beech and team juggle around seven to eight applications a week. "We seriously need to increase the size of our team," says a harried Dr Beech.

But it's work that Dr Beech obviously loves. "Our findings get incorporated in the national database for Abu Dhabi with details, descriptions and coordinates of the sites," he says proudly. "They are also included in our archives. So, for example, scientists who want to study the Neolithic period can look at material from east Samha where we found three Neolithic sites, or palaeontologists can study material from our two new Miocene fossil sites."

Dr Beech has dreams of housing the finds in a museum that will tell the story of Abu Dhabi as it has been discovered. "Just imagine, the site where we discovered the Bedouin pottery was the route the Bedouins used to migrate between Al Ain and Abu Dhabi all those years ago," he marvels. "And soon you will have modern-day Bedouins travelling the same route on trains… an Emirati encountering his past."

Conservation: The need of the hour

Does ADACH have a blueprint for conservation of the region's past?

"At ADACH we follow international best practices," says Dr Beech. "Our authority was established with the recommendations of UNESCO. ADACH is playing a leading role in conservation and heritage within the UAE.

Coverage of conservation and heritage issues is slightly uneven between the different emirates. It is very important at this point to establish good procedures for protection of sites because of the rapid rate of development. Even though there is an economic slowdown in different parts of the world, the rate of development here is phenomenal.

"The good thing in Abu Dhabi is the Preliminary Cultural Review (PCR) system to check sites; there are so many developments that have taken place here and elsewhere in the UAE where they haven't undertaken proper evaluations.

"The concerned departments in all the emirates do their best. But the smaller emirates are at a disadvantage as they are under-funded and under-staffed. We are one of the best but we also have issues; one of them is a lack of trained people to deal with the situation. One of the problems in the UAE is that there is only one department that teaches field archaeology at UAE University in Al Ain. It's the same across the GCC. There was a programme at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, but it closed down and now they're trying to revive it.

"Elsewhere in the Gulf region, there are very few places where you can study archaeology. There is a programme in Bahrain, a department at Kuwait University and King Saud University in Riyadh. If you compare it with the UK, every city has a university with an archaeology department. There may be around 30 departments teaching archaeology. In India, every university teaches archaeology at the undergraduate level, which would again be around 20 to 30 departments.

"There is a dire need for trained archaeologists in the UAE to cope with cultural heritage management. I think previously people didn't consider it a serious job. But with the development that threatens the landscape, it is being increasingly looked upon as a very responsible and desirable position. With the new museums being built on Saadiyat Island, there are going to be more openings in the cultural heritage sector; if not through museums, through tourism and tour companies.

"I think there is interest among students; I feel it's just that teaching about archaeology and cultural heritage has to start at the lowest level possible, like primary schools.

"We also need cultural heritage and archaeology to be embedded in the curriculum. By the time students arein secondary school or high school they should have a reasonable level of knowledge about the history of theland from the earliest period to more recent times.

"Maybe the inhabitants were sailing to the coast of Gujarat, even Malabar, in those days for trade. So, it shows this wasn't just an isolated area. It was connected to the Indus Valley civilisation, modern-day Pakistan, as well as to the great civilisation of Mesopotamia. "There has been a suggestion to establish a federal-based council for archaeology to help promote and preserve certain key sites. But there has not been much progress on that.

"It would be a good idea to have regular meetings and conferences between departments from all the emirates to exchange ideas and information. A central pool of information on heritage as well as the environment for all the emirates would be a great asset for protection of the same.''