By Conrad Prabhu — Three decades of painstaking archaeological research focused on the Hajar region of Oman have yielded some extraordinary findings: ancient oasis settlements dating back to the second half of the 4th millennium BC, a 5,000-year-old falaj, trade links with other civilisations, and beehive-style tomb cemeteries. They attest to the rich antiquity of a region of the Sultanate that also boasts modern-day settlements, as well as historical monuments, notably the Bahla Fort — a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The significance of the study, led by veteran experts Jeffery and Jocelyn Orchard of the University of Birmingham (UK), was the subject of an insightful presentation made by the pair at the recent Unesco Symposium on the Sultanate’s rich and diverse archaeological wealth, organised by the Ministry of Heritage and Culture. Titled ‘An Early Cradle of Arabian Civilisation Brought to the Forefront of Cultural Resource Management’, the event was held under the patronage of Dr Irina Bokova, Director General of Unesco.
Launched in 1980, the study was originally initiated as an archaeological expedition of the University of Birmingham to Oman. Since renamed ‘The Hajar Project’, it is now directed by the Orchards on behalf of the Ministry of Heritage and Culture. The pair have been assisted in their work by a multidisciplinary team comprising archaeologists, surveyors, geophysicists, osteologists, biological anthropologist, hydrogeologist, archaeological conservators and arabists.
Limiting their focus to two areas within the Hajar region — Wadi Bahla and Wadi Meleh, the team’s work has centred on three key objectives: the archaeological landscape of the Hajar region, the oasis towns that have successively inhabited this area, and the semi-arid environment that had shaped these settlements in antiquity.
In their presentation titled, ‘Centres of Power and Flywheels of Wealth’, the Orchards discuss the pivotal role of falaj and groundwater systems in sustaining settlement activity over millennia. Archaeological remains of ancient settlements abound in the vicinity of water sources, they point out.
In the Bisya area of Wadi Bahla, the team found compelling of continuous settlement activity within a 100 sq km area. “The earliest oasis settlements — which we have named the Hajar Oasis Towns — first appeared in the Hajar region sometime in the second half of the 4th millennium BC. They owed their existence to falaj — irrigation technology whereby a system of subsurface to surface channels conveys groundwater by means of gravity from a mother-well (umm) to the settlement and date-plantations it serves.
This phenomenon both shaped the oasis landscape and formed a part of it, each Hajar Oasis Towns being characteristically organised around a cultivated territory of c. 200-400 hectares, in which the date palm was the primary perennial crop, while annual crops included barley, wheat, melons and sorghum. Land was also given over to the grazing of cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys which were valued for their milk, meat and hides and, in the case of cattle and donkeys, as beasts of burden,” Jeffery and Jocelyn Orchard stated in a preview of their presentation.
The team also discerned a key feature that distinguished these oasis towns from settlements uncovered elsewhere around the Sultanate. Circular monuments of assorted shapes and designs were found in each settlement. These were found in a “four-point diamond formation” not far from ancient gravesites dotted with so-called beehive or turret-style tombs. The cemetery itself was typically located on the ridges of the nearby hills, according to the Orchards.
The most dramatic of their discoveries was a 5,000-year-old falaj at Ghubrat Bahla, followed closely by the unearthing of another falaj system of similar vintage at nearby Bisya. The finds have helped reinforce the theory that Arabia — and not Iran, as previously thought — is the birthplace of these ancient irrigation systems.
Other evidence uncovered by the research team points to thriving trade and commerce between the Hajar Oasis towns and far-flung civilisations. “Evidence for community copper working at sites like Hili, Maysar and Bisya (where the falaj was apparently involved), and the presence in the Hajar region of traders named Hafit, Umm an-Nar and Wadi Suq (after the places where their remains were first discovered) allows us to construct scenarios for trade within the Hajar region, comprising the manufacture from locally mined materials of copper ingots, cosmetic pastes and soft stone vessels which, with agricultural produce, could be loaded onto boats for the international trade with Mesopotamia, Iran and the Indus civilisation, or bartered at coastal sites for shells, shell-beads and fish,” they stated.
Importantly, the Orchards argue that the Hajar Oasis Towns were potentially the forerunners of the concept of community land, known as haram in Arabic, a term still in use in the Hajar region to this day. Undefended as they were, these towns were protected by a “common doctrinal believe that held that the territory of each to be sacrosanct”, they point out.
“This leads to the conclusion that the Hajar Oasis Towns were the ancestors of the haram or hawtah — traditionally, the sacred oasis enclave of Arabia — of which examples — notably the oasis of Mughshin in southern Oman — still survive to this day.”
Perhaps, the most profound of the pair’s findings is the likelihood that the inhabitants of the Hajar Oasis towns belonged to a pan-Arabian civilisation that thrived across a wide swath of territory extending to the Red Sea. This is attested by the presence of beehive/turret tomb graveyards extending in an arc from the Hajar region all to the way to Sinai. The possibility that this pan-Arabian civilisation is in fact the legendary Ad civilisation of antiquity is not ruled out.
“However, more in-depth exploration of these cemeteries and the society they represented will be necessary to confirm this hypothesis and also to establish the possibility of contact with ancient Egypt where the beehive/turret tomb type is also known,” they noted.