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Ancient Oman: Archaeological Digs and Historical Discoveries in the Sultanate of Oman

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(The following is a post by Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Everyone is aware of some of the major archaeological discoveries in the Middle East: the King Tut discovery in Egypt in 1922 by Howard Carter, the British archaeologist, or the 19th century archaeological discoveries of Babylon and Nineveh in what is today Iraq. Mesopotamia, that area between the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates is known as the cradle of civilization because it is the first place in the world where complex urban centers grew. However, anywhere you dig in the Middle East, you will find traces, remnants of ancient civilizations, and ancient peoples. The African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED) has for years run annual conferences on some of these ancient but also, to the general public, lesser known civilizations. The purpose is to expand and enrich the knowledge of the countries of the Near East by placing the region in its historical context, whilst concomitantly drawing attention to the rich collection of archaeological materials available at the Library of Congress by displaying 60-80 relevant items during the symposia. In the last three years alone, for example, we organized a 2017 symposium entitled “From Oxus to Euphrates: the Sassanian Empire”; in 2016, we held one on “The Assyrian Legacy: From Ancient Civilization to Today’s Cultural Revival”; and in 2015, the annual symposium featured “The Phoenicians and the Ancient City of Tyre.”

On April 24, 2018, in partnership with the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center (SQCC) we held a symposium on “Ancient Oman: Archaeological Digs and Historical Discoveries in the Sultanate of Oman.” Like the others, it was an all-day three panel conference, with nine participants, three AMED moderators, a keynote speaker, and opening remarks by the ambassador of Oman, H.E. Hunaina al-Mughairy. Like the others, this was a first, as there had never been a symposium on the archaeology of Oman at the Library Congress. It was also, to the delight of the archaeologists gathered that day, the first time that they had all met, and were gathered together under one roof to discuss their findings. Although they were all working in Oman, and knew about each other, they were scattered in various regions and had not had the opportunity to get together to compare notes.

The keynote speaker, Dr. Said bin Nasser Alsalmi, director general of the Office of the Adviser to His Majesty the Sultan for Cultural Affairs, gave a PowerPoint presentation on the ancient history of Oman from the dawn of history to the present. This was followed by the first panel entitled “Ancient Magan: Connecting the Ancient World Through Copper.” As early as 2300 B.C. ancient Sumerian cuneiforms texts (the oldest writing system in the world on clay tablets in what is Iraq today) had identified the region, that is Oman today, as a rich source of copper. So the civilization located in Oman came to be known by that name Magan.

Map of Oman. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 1996. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

The first speaker on that panel, Kimberly D. Williams, associate professor of anthropology at Temple University, and director of Social, Spatial and Bioarchaeological Historical Studies of Oman, discussed mortuary rituals at the Umm an-Nar site at Dahwa on the Batinah Coast of Oman. She argued that during the period 2700-2100 BC Umm an-Nar site showed significant evidence of interregional exchange between Magan and Indus peoples (located in the northeast Afghanistan to Pakistan region). The exchanges likely centered on the industrial copper smelting at the site. Locally produced ceramics and Indus ceramics were found in both settlement and mortuary contexts at Dahwa, where a large tomb and bone pit provide an important avenue to explore if and how mortuary rituals were affected by these interactions.

Eli Dollarhide a doctoral student working together with Zenobie S. Garett in the Department of Anthropology at New York University on a project to map Magan, presented a paper on “Surveying de Cardi’s Oman: A re-examination of the Bronze Age record at al-‘Amlah.” Beatrice de Cardi was one of the first archaeologists to work in the Omani interior. Her work, carried out in the mid-1970s, on Bronze Age pottery from Oman dating to the 3rd millennium BC, offered an early glimpse of the important trade connections present between Mesopotamia, Ancient Iran, the Indus Valley, and southeastern Arabia. Her excavations also uncovered a dense cluster of prehistoric tombs and settlements near the village of ‘Amlah in present day Oman (approximately 34 miles east of the city of Ibri in northwestern Oman), and her discoveries have played a vital role in introducing the world to the rich archaeological record of Bronze Age Oman.

Group picture of some of the participants, SQCC Executive Director, and AMED moderators. (Photo by John Reagan)

Covering the same period, Mark Kenoyer, professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, discussed technology and trade in ancient Oman, and argued that “The wide range of pottery types, stone beads, stone vessels and copper/bronze objects found at these sites indicate a robust tradition of local production as well as inter-regional trade in raw materials and finished goods” with the region mentioned above.

The second panel moved to the first millennium AD, and focused on trade and settlements in ancient Dhofar, in southern Oman. Located on the Arabian Sea, Al-Baleed in the Dhofar region, was one of the most vibrant ports in ancient times. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Krista Lewis, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas, and the director of the “Land of Frankincense Archaeological Project,” discussed how the town grew into a thriving city, and experienced a series of political and economic developments and phases of reorganization, reconstruction, and expansion over more than a thousand years.

Joy McCorriston, professor of anthropology, at the Ohio State University, and director of the ASOM Project (Ancient Socioecological systems in Oman), discussed “Monuments, Mobility and Pastoral Territoriality in Ancient Dhofar.” She raised a question at the start of her presentation: “What can we learn from the dynamic lives of ancient Dhofaris?” and answered it by saying that 95 percent of all Omanis were pastoralists and that her work had established that they were among the earliest people to domesticate animals, namely cattle and sheep, some 8,000 years ago. It was only 2,500 years later that agricultural technologies were adapted in the region. She also discussed the monuments and tombs she and her team excavated in the Dhofar region.

The last panelist on the second panel was Michael Harrower, associate professor of archaeology, at the Johns Hopkins University, and the director of the “Archaeological Water Histories of Oman Project.” A specialist in satellite imagery mapping, whose research has been funded by agencies including NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Archaeological Institute of America, and National Geographic, he used hyperspectral imaging to find objects and identify materials. For example, he was able to detect areas where there had been copper, and regions where trees had been burnt for charcoal during the Bronze Age. He also identified more recent items in Dhofar such as metal tools, weapons including daggers, and household utensils such as spatulas. He also located semi-precious beads such as Carnelian beads.

The third panel focused on contemporary Oman, and how archaeology is affecting the country. The panelists included Nathan Reigner, a SQCC research fellow who discussed the impact of archaeology on Omanis and the growing awareness of the need to preserve their rich cultural heritage while promoting it to the world. He presented various frameworks that would promote stewardship of historical sites, and encouraging public-private partnership collaborations.

A sampling of books was on display at the conference, “Ancient Oman: Archaeological Digs and Historical Discoveries in the Sultanate of Oman.” (Photo by Levon Avdoyan.)

Christopher Thornton, senior director of Cultural Heritage, the National Geographic Society, and director of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bat in Oman, was the next speaker. He maintained that tourists who came to Oman never ventured inland, and never saw the historic sites. So in 2015, he experimented with a new approach: National Geographic Expeditions partnered with Mejdi Tours, an elite tour company, and together they created the first overland trip through Oman and the neighboring United Arab Emirates designed for tourists from the West. The 10-day-long trips ran monthly for two seasons and experimented with different itineraries, different themes, and different guides. Accompanied by experts who could provide context and content where formal information was lacking, travelers were exposed to parts of Oman that most tourists had never seen. Thus, archaeology is beginning to shape the tourist economy of Oman.

The last panelist was Eric Staples, assistant professor of History at al-Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates. He discussed “The Jewel of Muscat Project” that being the reconstruction of a ninth-century sailing ship, which was built in 2008-2010 and on which he and a crew of Americans and Omanis sailed across the Indian Ocean. Staples’ paper discussed the project, an experimental archaeological project, and examined the ways in which the Jewel of Muscat was utilized to emphasize the more maritime aspects of Oman’s national heritage, while simultaneously including it within the larger discourse of Oman’s role in the Indian Ocean.

The audience was spell bound by the presentations and remained in attendance throughout the day. The display of books on Oman was held in AMED’s conference room and was visited during the lunch and coffee breaks. Some of the books were lent by SQCC, who promised to donate them to the Library to complement our already rich collection.


A Selected bibliography of Library of Congress Materials on Ancient Oman

Countries of the Near East Section: Oman

Symposium video (to be posted here)

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