The Bronze Age
At certain locations in the desert, water originating from mountain ranges many kilometres away can be drawn from aquifers deep below the ground. In some places, the water emerges at the surface as natural springs. The discovery of these water sources led to the establishment of camps and seasonal settlements across the Emirate. During the Bronze Age (3200–1250 BC), villages developed around the life-giving waters of oases in the Al Ain area, in eastern Abu Dhabi, where date palms, wheat and vegetables were cultivated and animals were reared. Control of water enabled a more sedentary lifestyle while the discovery of how to mine and smelt copper from the nearby Hajar Mountains permitted the development of trading links with distant civilisations in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and the Indus Valley (what is now Pakistan).
Large settlements such as Hili to the north of Al Ain, as well as the hundreds of stone cairns in the foothills of Jebel Hafit, indicate the local population probably grew during the early Bronze Age, starting around 3200 BC. Copper production would have required a settled and specialised labour force, which would have been fed by the expanding agriculture. The UAE's first urban settlements emerged at this time. Inhabitants used copper locally for weapons and agricultural implements and exported the rest in exchange for imported goods. Even into the ‘Iron Age' the UAE continued to use copper instead of switching to the new metal. This was probably because of the wide availability of copper in the mountains.
Hafit Period (3200–2600 BC)
Date stones from cultivated date palms and 3 different cereals, including barley, 2 varieties of wheat, peas and a variety of melon, among other archaeobotanical remains, were found at a site known as Hili 8, just south of Al Ain. These pieces exemplify Hafit period archaeology and highlight the importance of the area during the Early Bronze Age, while also suggesting the type of farming undertaken by these early inhabitants. There is further archaeological evidence that the UAE's earliest inhabitants kept domesticated cattle, sheep and goats.
Furthermore, dotting the northern and eastern slopes of Jebel Hafit are over 500 circular stone graves dating to the Hafit period. Known as ‘Hafit-type' graves, they were first discovered and excavated here and comprise massive cairns of uncut stone piled around a keyhole-shaped chamber.
1, 2 or 3 ring-walls encircle the chamber, rising to a height of 3–4 metres. Narrow entrances on the wall typically faced the sun, raising the unanswered question of whether or not this had something to do with Shamash, the Sun God, whom the Mesopotamians worshipped. Although most of these graves were plundered by grave robbers in antiquity, excavations have shown that each grave held the remains of more than one person, perhaps a family.
The excavations of the Hafit graves yielded small fragments of copper and several bronze objects, in addition to small collections of pottery, mostly originating from Mesopotamia approximately 5,000 years ago. These are described as the Jemdet Nasr type, named after an archaeological site near Babylon in Iraq famous for its distinctive polychrome pottery.
Umm al-Nar Period (2600–2000 BC)
The island of Umm al-Nar, adjacent to Abu Dhabi Island, has given its name to one of the most significant periods in the history of south-eastern Arabia. Archaeology as a science in the UAE was first practised at this site with excavations in 1959 by a Danish team that identified a settlement from which smelted copper was exported to the powerful dynasties of Mesopotamia as well as over 50 large stone-built collective graves. Evidence of the Umm al-Nar civilisation exists throughout the UAE and northern Oman.
Stone-built houses from Umm al-Nar island provide a contrast to the sun-dried mud-brick homes typical of Hili, located near Al Ain. Archaeological work at Hili has revealed a number of settlements and tombs from the Umm al-Nar period. These settlements included a high tower, built around a well that used buckets to draw water. One building was several metres high with a thick circular wall enclosing several rooms and a central well, surrounded by a moat. It was probably the fortified dwelling of a community leader.
Trade contacts with both Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley expanded during the Umm al-Nar period. Copper was widely exploited and exported, as was the stone known as diorite. Diorite comes from the Hajar Mountains and was used to make statues of the great rulers of Mesopotamia.
The aforementioned collective tombs are the most notable element of the Umm al-Nar culture. On Umm al-Nar Island itself, the burial chambers are usually circular, with diameters ranging from 6–14 metres and built of dressed stones. In some cases, over 300 individuals were buried in a single tomb. Towards the end of the Umm al-Nar period, however, burial patterns changed, and people began to be buried in a subterranean pit. The reason behind this change of tradition remains a mystery.
Wadi Suq Period (2000–1250 BC)
Named after sites first identified in the Wadi Suq, between the Gulf of Oman and Al Ain, the Wadi Suq period followed on from the Umm al-Nar period. In fact, a number of settlements reoccupied earlier sites, but exhibited markedly different burial patterns. Although the first burial site from this period in the Emirates was discovered in Al Ain, the Shimal area to the north-east of Ra's al Khaimah offers the best archaeological evidence of the period, including a settlement and several graves. Among artefacts typical of the period are small gold and silver pendants in the shape of two headed mythical animals. Evidence shows that jewellery has been made and worn in the region for some 7,000 years. Accessories included hairpieces, bracelets, rings, anklets and necklaces.
A Unique Seal
Recently, a small, unique and fascinating archaeological discovery was made in Abu Dhabi and in a rather unusual place. This small green stone cylindrical seal, about the size of the last joint of a finger, was found on the surface of the desert near Medinat Zayed during an EAD-sponsored soil survey of the Emirate. The seal is marked with beautifully inscribed decorations of women with their hair tied back in plaits, a stylised couch and a spider. Pierced with a central hole, it would probably hang around the neck of the owner to be used as an official stamp. Experts have dated the seal to the Jemdet Nasr period, around 5,000 years ago, at the beginning of the Bronze Age. Originating in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) it is the only such artefact of its type and period to have been found in Arabia, although it is not possible to be certain how, or when, it actually arrived at the site where it was found.