Building Capacity for Archaeology in the United Arab Emirates

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The historic oases of the United Arab Emirates constitute salient features of the desert landscape. Driving inland from Dubai or Abu Dhabi, a visitor to the UAE passes through an endless panorama of sand dunes, until at last the silhouette of the Hajar Mountains appears on the horizon. There, on the outwash plains between the mountains and the dunes, a string of date-palm oases reach south from Ra’s al-Khaimah to al-Ain. In the pre-oil period, it was these oases on which the coastal settlements depended for their basic foodstuffs and building materials; moreover, the dates grown in the oases provided a vital cash crop brought down to the coast and shipped to India. It is not too much to say that settled life would not have been possible without the oases. The origin and development of the historic oases therefore constitute key research objectives towards furthering our understanding of the pre-modern UAE.

Students from Zayed University in Abu Dhabi have been involved with research into the oases for the past three years. In 2015, we set up the “al-Ain Oases Mapping Project” in collaboration with the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA), who have overall responsibility for managing the UNESCO World Heritage Site of al-Ain. The project forms the basis of an archaeological field school taught as part of the BA Emirati Studies. It aims to document the present oasis landscape and identify surviving historic components, whilst at the same time engaging Emirati students with their heritage and building capacity for archaeology in the UAE. It further draws on the students’ community links and bilingualism to contact former residents of the oasis villages and undertake oral history interviews. Students have been fully involved with the research process and have presented their work at the “Seminar for Arabian Studies” in the British Museum. Their work has been published in co-authored peer-reviewed journal articles allowing them to build compelling CVs needed to take their careers forward.

The success of the field school encouraged us to expand the scope of the research project, and in 2017 we created an archaeological internship programme in partnership with our partners at the TCA. We brought a group of five interns who had previously completed the field school to work in two trenches sunk into the courtyard of the Bayt Bin Hadi al-Darmaki in Hili Oasis. The students were given training in stratigraphic excavation and single-context planning in accordance with the industry standard methodology developed by the Museum of London Archaeological Service. This is the first time that an Emirati university has offered such intensive archaeological training. One of the students is now planning to work as a professional archaeologist at the TCA and another is planning on continuing her education at post-graduate level in the United Kingdom. They will accordingly become the first female Emirati archaeologists in Abu Dhabi, an achievement we are all tremendously proud of.