Greater Mesopotamia

Greater Mesopotamia

Ancient Kingdom of Oman

ExcavationsPosted by Bruno Overlaet Tue, February 02, 2016 15:39:55

Belgian archaeological expedition in the U.A.E. reveals the existence of an Ancient Kingdom of Oman.

A Belgian team directed by Dr Bruno Overlaet from the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels, and working in close collaboration with Sharjah's Department of Antiquities made a discovery of major historical importance at the archaeological site of Mleiha in the central region of the U.A.E. The find was made on 17 December 2015, the last day of the team's fieldwork. The discovery was revealed to the press by the Ruler of Sharjah, His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan Bin Muhammed Al Qasimi on 28 Januari 2016.

A monumental tomb measuring approximately 5.20 by 5.20 meter is under excavation, work on it is planned to resume in the fall of 2016. A square building of lime-bricks once stood on top of two underground burial chambers. These chambers, which once contained the deceased and the grave goods, had walls constructed with large boulders. The passage between the rooms was blocked with bricks and a large monumental inscription that had fallen down from the upper structure.

The bi-lingual inscription is written in Aramaic and Ancient South Arabian. The exceptionally well preserved text reveals the identity and the family lineage of the deceased, as well as the date when the monument was built. The central panel of the stone is written in Ancient South Arabian. It states that the tomb was build by the son of a certain ʿAmīd, who was in the service of the king of Oman. An Aramaic inscription is placed on the rim around the central panel. It gives the date when the monument was erected, in the year 90 or 96 of the Seleucid era, the equivalent of 222/221 or 216/215 BCE.

The inscription provides the oldest mention of the name Oman and proves that a kingdom of Oman already existed in the late 3rd century BC. The local Abiel dynasty, known from its coins minted at Mleiha, can in all probability be associated with this title of "King of Oman”. Their kingdom was apparently centered around Mleiha and probably consisted of the territory of the U.A.E. and the Northern parts of the Sultanate of Oman. Up to now, the oldest mentioning of the name was in Classical sources from the 1nd century CE where Omana refers to a harbour on the Oman peninsula. This Omana in the Periplus Maris Erythraei (Voyage around the Erythraean Sea) and in the Natural History by Plinius the Elder, is usually associated with the coastal sites of either ed-Dur in Umm al-Qaiwain Emirate or with Dibbah in Sharjah Emirate, both in the U.A.E. The identification of Mleiha as the royal seat, suggests the Classical authors referred to a harbour that served Mleiha, as the capital of the Oman Kingdom.

At this stage, only the upper part of the burial chambers has been excavated. The excavation will be resumed in the Fall of 2016.


illustrations :

01. Belgian excavations at Mleiha. View of the tomb with the inscription.

02. Belgian excavations at Mleiha. View of the tomb with the inscription.

03. Belgian excavations at Mleiha. The inscription.

04. Eisa Yousef of the Sharjah Department of Antiquities and Dr Bruno Overlaet, director of the Belgian team, examining the funerary inscription.

Short selection of press coverage:


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6th archaeological campaign at Mleiha

ExcavationsPosted by Bruno Overlaet Mon, January 12, 2015 14:25:20

6th archaeological campaign at Mleiha, Sharjah (UAE)

The Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels.

A Belgian team works at Mleiha since 2009. The 2014 campaign (20/11-18/12/2014) was mainly a study campaign on the architectural remains, finds and ceramics that are kept in storage at the site. The field activities were limited to surveying and to the continuation of the excavation of two monumental tombs that had started the previous year. At the same time, a drone for aerial photography was tested in various weather conditions and environments. The 2014 expedition is supported by the Royal Museums, the FWO (Research Foundation - Flanders) and the IAP VII (Greater Mesopotamia: Reconstruction of its Environment and History) and works in close collaboration with the Directorate of Antiquities of the Emirate of Sharjah, headed by Dr. Sabah Jasim. The expedition is directed by B. Overlaet (RMAH), members and collaborators of the 2014 team were E. Haerinck (senior archaeologist), B. De Prez, P. Pincé and L. Van Goethem (archaeologists), H. Steenbeke and M. Coppejans (architectural reconstructions) and Patrick Monsieur (amphora identifications).

Fig. 1. The 2014 Belgian field team and local workmen.

The excavations

During the first four years a large surface with 7 monumental tombs and 4 more modest pit graves (zone P) was excavated on the eastern fringes of the site (Fig. 2). In 2013 a ground penetrating radar survey targeted its surroundings, extending the research area eastwards up to the modern wadi. A series of tombs with monumental square superstructures were revealed and the excavations documented the presence of modest pit tombs between the clusters of monumental tombs (Fig. 2). The two monumental tombs excavated in the 6th season are located on the low mound Z. Both tombs were looted but still produced interesting finds such as Rhodian amphora fragments, Mesopotamian glazed luxury vessels, various types of gold beads and alabaster vessels from Yemen. All these point to a date in the first half of the 2nd century BCE. They illustrate the importance and the role of Mleiha on the Arabian trade routes and contribute important elements for the chronology of the Oman peninsula.

Fig. 2. Drone photography of graveyard area AV with the Belgian excavations.

Drones and aerial photography

Drones are ideal for oblique overviews of excavations, vertical photography in view of mapping and measuring and for more general surveying purposes. Drones can replace the use of ladders and scaffolds and of kites or hot air/helium balloons on many digs. Professional drones remain expensive and complex, however, and demand a skilled and well trained pilot, often seconded by someone to operate the camera. In recent years, archaeologists have therefore started to experiment with low budget recreational drones fitted with lightweight cameras. Commonly reported problems of these early attempts were, however, a limited flight time due to battery capacity, low quality photography and particularly the inability to use the drone in anything but very light winds. The latest generation of “consumer drones” have become increasingly user friendly and most of these problems have been solved. We opted to experiment with a standard version of a “DJI – Phantom 2” quadcopter mounted with a 12 MP camera on a damped 2D gimbal for stability. The camera can be tilted in flight between a horizontal and vertical position. An OSD or “On Screen Display” module streams the camera view and technical and navigational data to a monitor on the remote controller. This makes it ideal for low altitude aerial surveys in accordance with aeronautical regulations (below 50 meter). The relatively small drone necessitates video piloting (FPV, First-Person View) via the monitor when surveying larger areas since it is impossible to keep track of it with the naked eye.

Fig. 3. The drone in its transport case and mounted on a backpack.

The drone is kept “flight ready” in a custom made protective transport case at the excavations and can be made ready for flight within minutes. It can thus be used on the spot without delaying any of the excavation activities.

During the 2014 expedition at Mleiha trials were made in different environments and weather conditions. Flights were made above the excavation field in the wadi plain and during surveys around the excavations and on the nearby Jebel Fayah mountain ridge. Surveying flights above the wadi during the early morning hours produced excellent shadow marks. Flights could normally continue for several hours until stronger thermals started to develop and “dust devils” started occurring. The general experience was very positive, however. The drone could be flown in moderate to strong winds and performed well in all conditions. With a maximum flight speed of 15m/s. (54 km/h.) it can even counteract gusty winds.

Fig. 4. Subtle shadow marks of very low mounds with monumental tombs in area AV. The oblique view emphasises the effect of the shadows.

Drone surveying in the mountains demands a somewhat different approach. The drone was mounted on a backpack and used from various points near the top of the Jebel Fayah (see fig. 1). Flights were made early in the morning and halted once thermals, accelerated by their path across the mountain, reached vertical velocities of more than 1m/second. In a mountainous environment is keeping visual track of the drone essential in view of the effect of local winds and turbulences on the flight path close to the relief. Turbulences and thermal activities can be strong and develop rapidly. In general, these first trials on the Jebel Fayah were all together positive. The technical equipment was effective and allows covering large zones in limited timespans. During these first trials, two structures - likely to be a musallahs or prayer area - were located and documented. A general aerial survey of the mountain area could supply important data to identify and protect local archaeological and historical heritage.

Fig. 5. Mountain top of the Jebel Fayah with a square structure, possibly a musallah.

Fig. 6. A Dust Devil, a strong thermal sweeping up the sand, moves over the excavations.

Fig. 7. View from Mleiha towards the Jebel Fayah.

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Belgian research @ Karon (Tajikistan)

ExcavationsPosted by Bruno Overlaet Tue, July 01, 2014 10:03:44

Belgian research at Karon on the Oxus, Badakhshan - Tajikistan

Royal Museums of Art and History & Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

Following a first visit to the site in October 2013 by B. Overlaet (RMAH) and the identification of quern stones near the site as related to gold mining, an interdisciplinary team set out to investigate this industrial activity and its impact on population and landscape. This research wanted to complement the ongoing work at Karon by Tajik and Russian expeditions. The Belgian team consisted of Prof. Dr. Bruno Overlaet, Laurence Van Goethem (Royal Museums of Art & History, Brussels) and Rindert Janssens (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels). During this first campaign at Karon (21/5 – 12/6/2014), a survey was made, an Islamic graveyard was explored and geological and biological samples were collected for analysis.

Karon is situated on a mountain top along the Panj river (Oxus) between Khalai Khumb and Kevron in the Darwaz region of Tajikistan. Since 2012, the site is studied by Prof. Y. Yakubov (Academy of Sciences, Tajikistan) and Dr. A. Nikitin (Hermitage Museum, Saint-Petersburg), who were now joined by the Belgian team.

Karon: view towards the mountaintop palace, sunken garden and pavilion.

Karon has a long history of human occupation, shown by the presence of various types of tombs and isolated finds such as Kushan and Sogdian coins. Yet, most of the constructions we see today date from the 15th-16th century, the time of the Timurid and Shaybanid rulers. There is a huge walled area with a palace, terrases, a large sunken garden and several pavilions and buildings, many of which remain to be excavated. It is clear, however, that the wealth of local rulers was based on the control of the ancient trade route and on gold mining. A huge landslide has landed rotary stone querns, used for the milling of gold containing quartz, at the riverbank of the Panj.

The palace, on the highest point of the site, overlooks a large valley with several constructions, among them a sunken garden, a pavilion, a graveyard, a wine press and a large open space, referred to as the polo field. The “Sunken Garden” is a deepened area of 50 by 90 meter with three descending terraces and a rectangular area, possibly a pond, accessible from a staircase along the eastern side. The retaining walls are strengthened with half-columns. Karon’s Sunken Garden is one of the many garden complexes that were created in this part of Central Asia under the Shaybanid dynasty (1428-1598 AD) and that are known to have been inspirational to Muhammad Zahir al-Din Babur (1526-1530 AD), the first Mughal emperor. The use of terraces, ponds and retaining walls with half-columns resembles Bagh-e Babur near Kabul

The “Polo Field” is a large area with a terraced embankment on one side and a large dry stone wall along the other, and has the approximate size of a modern polo field, hence its name. In a large complex such as Karon, a Maidan, a large open area where various activities could take place, is a feature that is to be expected.

In between the “Sunken Garden” and the “Polo Field” lies a square pavilion, possibly a mausoleum, built in dry stone technique combined with bricks for the curvature of the arches. The monument is still under investigation but it is clear that it has known many building phases. Several overlapping platforms are present at its base and at some point, the building was encased in walls with half-columns, much like those of the Sunken Garden, that completely closed the access to the building. A 6th-7th century coin found in the upper part of the pavilion is the only find at present and suggests the core of the building may predate the Shaybanid era. Its central position in the valley emphasizes its importance.

Karon: the central pavilion.

Industrial gold mining activities

The Belgian team set out to investigate the gold mining activities and survey the area. A large number of rotary quern stones are present amidst landslide debris along the right bank of the Panj river, just below the mountaintop site of Karon. These were mostly lower quern stones but also some upper mill stones and two upper mill stones which had been in the process of being extracted. Their present location and their position (many are tilted or even upside down) is not their original place of use. They have been moved, most probably by a landslide but recent roadworks involving rock blasting may also have had an impact.

Rotary quern stones nr. 6 and 7 (top) and upper mill stones 25 and 26 during the extraction (bottom)

Contrary to the exploitation of alluvial gold from the river, which is a relatively simple technique (panning or washing out), the use of quern stones indicates the more complicated exploitation of gold containing quartz veins. This requires a large skilled labour force and a central power that organises and oversees the complex workflow of mining, ore reduction and smelting. The technology is documented in Egypt and consists of the following steps:

1. 1. The ore mining : the veins of gold containing quartz can be mined in open areas or by following the veins in underground tunnels (often open fire is used to break down the quartz veins to workable lumps).

2. 2. The quartz ore had to be crushed and milled to obtain a powdery material that could be further concentrated by washing. Large blocks were crushed with hand hammers or pestles on dimple stones; the smaller particles were then milled in rotary querns to a fine substance.

3. 3. Smelting of the ore (on-site or in a specialised refinery) followed by “gold from lead separation” techniques. These chemical processes involved heavy metals which may have impacted on the environment and involved individuals.

The geological and archaeological survey was directed at locating possible mining and industrial areas. Iron smelting activities are attested in rooms near the mountaintop palace, which is considered to be the local seat of power. The presence of Chinese export porcelain and painted muqarnas dates this palace to the 15th-16th century. Possibly the smelting and refining activities took place in this area, where excavations are ongoing. The geological survey was based on a petrological analysis whereby in-situ rocks were described and sampled for further chemical, mineralogical and petrological research. On the field 5 rock units were observed: (1) fylite (high diagenetic equivalent of mudstone), (2) fylite with quartz veins, (3) shists (medium diagenetic equivalent of mudstone), (4) granite-granodiorite and (5) granodiorite intruded with quartz veins. The shists may be reformed to saprolite by chemical and fysical weathering of this rock-type and in some zone’s well-formed pyrite crystals up to 1 cm3 occur.

There were no archaeological traces of the mined quartz veins, possibly they were located in the landslide area to the west of the mountaintop palace. Any open mining activities in the saddle areas between the mountaintops, may be hidden by recent erosive depositions.

The environment and impact of gold mining activities on humans

The sunken garden in front of the mountaintop palace was studied and sampled to establish its use and flora. This was done by digging a pedological window of 1 m3 in the square lowest area of the garden (though to be possibly a pool) and describing the sedimentological and pedological features. Samples now need to be processed.

location of the graveyard and view of tombs 1 to 5

A graveyard on the slope descending from the mountaintop palace towards the sunken garden was partly excavated. A row of 8 cist tombs was discovered. The tombs were constructed on the natural bedrock, the long sides with shist stones, the front and top with large slabs. The tombs were protected upslope by a low dry stone wall, in front of the tombs was a narrow paved path. The downslope short side of several tombs was destroyed by erosion. One of the tombs had been re-used and contained two skeletons. The individual had been killed by two cuts in the head, one of which had removed part of the skull. The second skeleton was only partially preserved. Since the graveyard belonged to the Islamic era, the skeletal remains were reburied. However, biological samples were collected from five tombs. They will be tested for the presence of heavy metals as possible side-effect from ore refining activities and analysed with regard to nutrition. Carbon 14 dating on the different individuals will provide a time range for activities at Karon.

general view and detail of tomb 5

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