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Archaeologists from the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi) believe that existing finds are just a small part of what is yet to be uncovered from Abu Dhabi’s Umm an-Nar Bronze Age culture Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: Recent archaeological finds in Abu Dhabi point to the emirate’s role in regional and global trade and highlight the resilience and innovation of regional Bronze Age societies, helping to build a more complete picture of the UAE’s history.

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Archaeologists from the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi) believe that existing discoveries are just a fraction of what is yet to be uncovered from Abu Dhabi’s Umm an-Nar Bronze Age culture (2,500 to 2,000 BC).

Almost 65 years since the very first archaeological excavations took place in Abu Dhabi at this same location, new excavations have begun on Umm an-Nar island (formally known as Sas Al Nakhl). The current archaeological programme also features work at locations across Abu Dhabi, including UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Al Ain.

Traces of the Umm al-Nar civilisation Image Credit: Supplied

30,000 bones

Finds from the recent excavations include a well-preserved assemblage of over 30,000 bones revealing new insights into the Bronze Age diet. This diet consisted mostly of fish and seabirds, with dugongs clearly a rare delicacy. This is a significant contrast to later periods when camel, sheep and goat meat became more common.

Stone objects include grinding stones, polished stones, stone axes, beads, a softstone bowl and pierced circular stone disks, used to weigh down fishing nets. Copper objects include a small adze or chisel and fishhooks.

The island was once home to a bustling community, uncovered artefacts show Image Credit: Supplied

Long-distance trade

A large number of the pottery vessels were found to have been imported from as far away as ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and the Indus Valley Civilisation (modern-day Pakistan and India), emphasising the island’s pivotal role in long-distance trade.

Bitumen from the site has been matched to sources in ancient Mesopotamia and was used to waterproof pottery as well as a clay-lined storage pit. One large fragment has the impression of wood and two pieces of rope; indicating that this was likely once part of the waterproofing on the hull of a Bronze Age boat, providing evidence of the long history of seafaring.

These discoveries indicate that Sas Al Nakhl Island was a thriving port from around 2,800 to 2,200 BC and is of significant international importance, due to its commercial activities with Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, in addition to the monumental cemeteries it contains.

The finds date back to the period between 2,600BC and 2,000BC Image Credit: Supplied

‘Mother of fire’

Located near to the modern city centre, Sas Al Nakhl is known locally as Umm an-Nar, which translates as “mother of fire” or the place of fire. Ashes and dark soil, which result from fires, cover large areas of the site, which may be the reason for this name. As the first site of this period excavated in the region, the island has given its name to the Bronze Age Umm an-Nar culture.

Sas Al Nakhl Island was the site of the UAE’s first archaeological excavations in 1959, conducted by a group of Danish archaeologists invited by Abu Dhabi’s then ruler, Sheikh Shakhbut, as a result of the Abu Dhabi leadership’s keen interest in history. The excavations identified monumental stone-built tombs associated with a previously unknown type of communal grave.

Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman of DCT Abu Dhabi, said: “Our Founding Father Sheikh Zayed was instrumental in driving understanding of Abu Dhabi’s history through his passion for the land and people of the UAE. DCT Abu Dhabi’s ambitious archaeology programme is a commitment to perpetuate that legacy to discover, preserve, and educate about our past. Members of the public are invited to visit our museums and cultural sites to learn more about the work done by our archaeologists and be informed about the significant contributions of DCT Abu Dhabi excavations that add greater depth and richness to our knowledge of our ancestors’ daily lives, helping us draw a more complete picture of our history and our region.”

Discoveries from the Bronze Age culture Image Credit: Supplied

There are currently seven live excavation sites across Abu Dhabi. The 2023-24 season features excavations not only in Al Ain and on Sas Al Nakhl, but also on Ghagha Island, the UAE’s westernmost island, where DCT Abu Dhabi archaeologists have unearthed structures dating back 8,500 years and Delma Island, where researchers are excavating a 7,000-year-old settlement.

Recently, new cultural sites have opened to the public such as the Delma Island Museum, which celebrates the island’s ancient pearl trade and Emirati plaster-making industry, and a new visitor centre on Sir Bani Yas, which showcases a 7th and 8th century BC Christian monastery and church. These provide further opportunities for audiences to engage with Abu Dhabi’s history.

An exhibition of the recent discoveries from Umm an-Nar and other important archaeological sites across the emirates will feature in the upcoming Zayed National Museum, set to open in Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Cultural District in 2025. The national museum of the UAE will celebrate the nation’s ancient and modern history, interwoven with the life and legacy of the UAE’s Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed.

Other ‘treasures’

Abu Dhabi’s archaeological treasures also include Miocene Trackways (footprints of a herd of an extinct form of ancient elephant) which date to 6-8 million years ago; a 3,000 year old falaj in Al Ain (which indicates the earliest known widespread use of this irrigation technology in the world); stone tools dating to over 300,000 years ago, which were found in surveys around Jebel Hafit (indicating that the UAE was an important pathway for the dispersal of humans across the globe); and a well preserved Iron Age fortress dating to 3,000 years ago, which was discovered during excavations at Al Ain’s Hili 14 archaeological site. A series of late pre-Islamic tombs have also been found in various locations in Al Ain.

Iron Age artefacts

Last year, DCT Abu Dhabi revealed new archaeological discoveries in the emirate, including sites and artefacts from the Iron Age and the Pre-Islamic period, covering a time span from approximately 1,300 BC to 600 AD.

DCT Abu Dhabi’s archaeologists unearthed significant finds during excavations of part of a Late Pre-Islamic (300 BC -300 AD) cemetery encountered during the upgrading of roads and infrastructure in the Shaabiya neighbourhood in the Kuwaitat area of Al Ain. Around 20 individual graves were uncovered, producing some well-preserved objects, including intact amphorae and other ceramics, bronze bowls and other glass and alabaster vessels. Substantial quantities of iron weaponry was also found in the graves including arrows, spears, and a number of swords, including one 70cm long example preserved intact.