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Who lived here before we came?

At first glance it appears to be a sea of rocks with a coppery tint and dusting of fine sand that looks like snow from a distance.

Gulf News

Archaeologist working on sites in the UAE believes Fujairah was an important part of Middle Eastern civilisations

At first glance it appears to be a sea of rocks with a coppery tint and dusting of fine sand that looks like snow from a distance. Hundreds of Zizyphus trees rise like sentinels in deep concentration with their arms reaching out to the sky. Fujairah's charcoal-brown Al Hajjar Mountains keep watch around this tableau of nature.

Any second, you expect Fred Flintstone in his leopard-skin tunic to come dashing around the corner, telling you to stop snooping around. But, nothing of the sort transpires. Instead, we travel through centuries to the Islamic era and times beyond that, as far back as the Iron Age – 1300 BC to 300 BC.

Archaeologist Dr Michelle Ziolkowski has surveyed and recorded 126 ancient tombs in Fujairah's Wadi Saqamqam, located seven kilometres north of the city.

The graves are of varying shapes, including oval, circular and two or three joined together, in a line or a figure-of-eight. All of them are from a time prior to the arrival of Islam in this land, with some possibly dating to the Iron Age and others to the Wadi Suq period – 2000 to 1300 BC. There is also the presence of Late Islamic period ceramics and settlement features, perhaps 300 or 400 years ago.

The incredible thing about the archaeological site is all these various characters are all present in a rather small area of land, a cauldron of antiquity that gives a remarkable glimpse of the people who came before us - travellers, nomads and settlers.

The discovery…

The Wadi Saqamqam site was located in the path of the Qidfa to Al Ain water pipeline project by the Union Water and Electricity Company (UWEC).

"It was identified during an environmental survey of the route for the water pipeline carried out in December 2001 for UWEC, by Simon Aspinall and Peter Hellyer of the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey (ADIAS)," explained Dr Ziolkowski.

The Wadi Saqamqam archaelogical site. ©ADIAS
"ADIAS knew there was a high possibility of ancient graves in the area because a Swiss archaeological survey team had recorded 12 burial cairns and a settlement site in the tributary valley of Wadi Saqamqam in the 1980s."

Following discovery of the site, UWEC moved the route of their pipeline by a hundred metres so that the archaeological remains could be preserved.

Later, Dolphin Energy, who is building a gas pipeline along the same route, from Al Ain to Qidfa, requested a further survey. "During this second survey, in December 2002, ADIAS recognised that there were many more ancient graves in the area, and Dolphin kindly agreed to support a detailed investigation," she added.

Dr Ziolkowski is affiliated with the University of Sydney in Australia and is now the resident associate for ADIAS in Fujairah.

She started work on the site in January this year.

Dr Ziolkowski has been working on archaeological sites in the UAE for nearly a decade and believes Fujairah is an important part of the ancient puzzle of Middle Eastern civilisations.

"When you look at the valley, you can see these numerous rocks grouped together… they appear to be placed in concentric circles.

"There is also a very long stone wall, which is evidence of settlement," she said.

"The huge rocks grouped together are the prehistoric burials. We know they are not from the Islamic period because they are not oriented in the direction of Makkah.

"Checking the direction is one of the first things an archaeologist would do here."

The work…

One of the first stages of her work at the Wadi Saqamqam site was to walk the entire site in a zig-zag pattern to locate as many features and burials as possible.

"The process took longer than I expected because the number of graves were quite high," she said. The first walk over, the steps were retraced and information about each burial documented. This also ensured the sites missed in the first sweep were recorded.

The burial sites date as far back as the Iron Age - 1300 BC to 300 BC and the Wadi Suq period - 2000 to 1300 BC. ©Gulf News
The burials were then numbered, photographed and coordinates were recorded. Pictures are taken at every stage of the process so the progress of the work can be tracked visually.

Dr Ziolkowski said: "At the site we found pottery (ceramic) shards, which may be loosely dated to the Late Islamic period. The pieces are comparable to the red ceramics that have been found in other parts of the UAE.

"One of the pieces especially seems comparable to what you would see in a particular form of water jug. It is red, with a cream slip on the exterior and one vertical line of red-brown coloured paint. The piece also contains various mineral inclusions of different colours.

"Similar samples have been discovered in sites including Julfar and Al Khatt fort in Ras Al Khaimah, parts of Oman, Yemen and East Africa," she said.

"They have been dated to 15th, 16th to 18th centuries. The interesting bit is that pottery of this kind continues to be made in places such as Lima, a village in Mussandam, north of the UAE."

Once the pottery had been collected and identified, attention was turned to excavating a few of the graves and studying their burial architecture.

It was thought many of the tombs might contain subterranean burial chambers, with an aboveground superstructure - a characteristic of graves from the Wadi Suq period.

"The aboveground features that are present on the burial are, in fact, an alteration of the original construction details. The burial has been altered to form a fox trap, commonly used throughout the historical period. Many of the burials might be dated to the Wadi Suq period," she added.

Three graves were chosen: one was circular, an oval and one double grave in a figure-eight pattern.

The excavation…

The digging was done in March this year. A square area was marked off around each grave, forming a grid system oriented north and south.

This helps provide the detailed location of every object found during an excavation.

An iron peg is also secured in the ground so every item can also be given a relative depth measurement.

All three of the structures showed evidence of construction dug into the ground and with exception of some pieces of pottery were empty.

"There are several explanations for that. One of them is that when the wadi is in spate with heavy rainfall, the water flows at a very high speed," she said.

"It brings with boulders, stones and fine alluvial soil and the movement of the water over time may have washed out the contents of the graves.

"The other explanation is looting or clearing of the graves by settlers at a later date. We also don't know how the bodies