As new prehistoric findings are brought to light at Al Ain’s Hili dig site, we talk to the archaeologists to find out what this means for our understanding of life in the desert as we know it
Although it’s only been 46 years since the UAE was founded, it’s hard to imagine what life was like 50 years ago, let alone 5,000.
A time when man forged weapons from fire and copper at the beginning of the Bronze Age, we don’t have the archives, photos or memories from its people that might help us better understand how a settlement lived, died, traded and farmed here for over a thousand years.
What we do have, though, are clues. Jagged ceramic shards, crumbling structures, bone fragments, plant matter: these are the vestiges of a thriving civilisation that had, until recently, lain buried beneath the desert sand.
Piecing these clues together is exactly what the archaeologists at the Hili 8 excavation site in Hili Archaeological Park, Al Ain, are trying to do.
It was in 1977 that archaeologists first began to dig for information in an area that had lain undisturbed for thousands of years.
With initial surveys led by a French team, those first excavations uncovered bronze artefacts, beads, grains and seeds and the remains of animals that gave weight to the theory that these prehistoric desert ancestors had not just survived, but thrived, and farmed the lands for crops.
“These sites provide evidence of prehistoric agriculture in the region,” explains Abdullah Al Kaabi, an archaeologist working with the Department of Tourism and Culture – Abu Dhabi.
“We didn’t previously have any evidence of people settling in one place. The excavations carried out by the French team found remains of barley, wheat and date palm, so we know that at that time, these people were starting to settle in one place and keep animals.
“It is close to the mountain so it had materials for mining, and a good source of water,” he adds. “Everything they needed for life was here.”
Further evidence of that life can be found in excavation of the dwellings scattered throughout the site, where pottery shards give us yet more clues of domestic existence.
“The stratigraphy (layers) and decoration help us know more about how people lived then,” observes Omar Al Kaabi, another archaeologist working on the dig. “It tells us what jars were used for cooking, water or cereal storage.
“These ceramics give us the dates of what happened, but they also tell us how settlements were laid out. For example, a lot of big jars in one place may have contained items for trade, but smaller jars in an area of a structure might show an ancient kitchen.”
That’s not all. With new technology at their fingertips, the team can now sort through the dirt to unearth more information, explains Omar.
“Metal objects can tell us what they made or how they lived, while shards of bones – human and animal – can tell us what they were eating at that time, as well as the diseases they may have been suffering from.”
Past, present and future
So how do the Hili discoveries change how we understand the lives of our ancient predecessors – and what we know of UAE history now?
“People have lived on this site for more than 1,000 years, and it gives us an idea of how society changed in that time,” says Abdullah. “The findings in this region also help us to understand what was going on in other cultures and how they were connected.
“Some people think the UAE is a new country, and that’s not true,” he continues. “History shows how our people lived and adapted to their life here. We are just a small part of the world, but there are connections everywhere.
Omar agrees: “It’s our responsibility to excavate and explore this so that the public understands where we came from, and that history goes deeper than they think.”
To find out more about Hili Archaeological Site, visit: visitalain.ae