A Bronze Age Culture in Zabid [Archives:2000/25/Reportage]

June 19 2000

Tawfeek Al-Shara’abi
Yemen Times
A lecture titled “The Wadi Zabid Project of the Royal Ontario Museum” was held Wednesday June 14 in the American Institute for Yemeni Studies. The lecture was presented by Dr. Edward J. Keall, head, Near Eastern and Asian Civilizations Dept., Royal Ontario Museum, professor at the university of Toronto in the Middle East Studies Department.
The lecture was attended by many personalities interested in the archeological heritage of Yemen.
He has been working in and around Yemen since 1982 when he became interested in Zabid. In 1987 he officially started working after a formal agreement of cooperation between the Department of Antiquities and the Canadian Archeological Mission. Ever since that date the Canadian Archeological Mission has been coming to Yemen in different seasons to conduct studies on the historical city of Zabid to study its Islamic remains. He was ultimately concentrating on the Islamic archeology of the citadel, and more recently addressing the prehistoric and historic landscape in Zabid’s hinterland.
The mission also has a restoration program in the citadel of Zabid and recently this program has been in Al-Iskandariah School, the citadel mosque.
Dr. Keall also talked about the different achievements and archeological monuments that Zabid is distinguished for.
He gave a detailed account of their major discovery in 1997, the pillars or as the Canadian team called them the ‘stonehenge’ of the Middle East because of their similarities in age and appearance to Britain’s pre-historic monument. These pillars were actually an unprecedented discovery that have been made by Royal Ontario Museum. The finding was actually an unknown Bronze Age Culture identified by the presence of granite megaliths erected in a far remote place; a barren scrub and sand dune landscape which is near the Tihamah Red Sea Coast of Yemen. What is more interesting is that the discovery was made almost by accident. The ROM team had been working in the area for years without having the slightest idea about these pillars. Dr. Keall said “This amazing discovery was unknown to all, until once, on my way back to the camp from an aborted excavation near Zabid, because strong abrasive winds had made further work intolerable.
I simply took a wrong fork and that led me to meet with a farmer who asked me what I was doing there. Then, he led me to see some stones scattered in an area more than 200 meters long in Al-Midaman area. From the pottery scattered on the ground near these stones I could make it out that these went back to the pre-Islamic period. Then, the same farmer led me to see the big stones half a kilometer far from the first site. I was surprised to see giant stones of granite megaliths standing three meters high. I believe that the source of these stones was either the Surat Mountain chain some 50 kilometer away, or the off-shore volcanic islands to the west.
As our team conducted excavations around these big stones, it was obvious that there were some valuable objects placed underneath them that can be referred to as an act of commemoration. Besides, the team also uncovered the skull and ribcage of a 5 year old child found beneath the fallen ends of two slabs. I believe that the child had been sacrificed as a commemorative act.
There were also traces of three buildings that were fixed. They were more recent than these stones. The people who established these buildings put up the big stones around 2000 BC and around 1000 BC. They made these buildings of stones. Unfortunately, there is not enough left to know what they are used for. Probably they were temples, judging from the decorations we have in the stones.”
Regarding the last season, Dr. Keall said “It lasted from January 15 to March 15. The objective of the season was to understand more about these standing stones. We were trying to discern what resources these people had that made them able to form these commemorative monuments as it is now a desert. Now we have made a little progress.
Our major objectives for the coming season will be to find out what these people had in their lives; if they were farmers, what did they farm? What was their food? And to understand about the life of the ordinary people.
Dr. Keall talked about the team who conducted these exploration activities and said “Every year when I come I arrive with a team of five or six Canadian or American or British specialists. Each year they are different. We also work in cooperation with the Department of Antiquities. Ahmad Al-Osabi has been one of our representatives for many years now. Mr. Abdul Habib is another one who is working on the citadel continuing the restoration program.
Regarding the funding, Dr. keall said that there are different organizations that contributed to fund the project. However, he said that the largest amount he could get was from the Canadian government. Besides that the Department of Antiquities contributes some money as well, he said.
We have a base in the citadel of Zabid and each season we choose a different aspect to explore something that we are interested in. So we moved from one place to another, such as Al-Midaman, Haiss. However, our base is in Zabid.
“Al-Iskandariah Mosque and the paintings and inscriptions we came to find represented a remarkable achievement. No body knew that this ‘wakfiah’ was there covered with plaster work. It took almost two years to understand exactly what was being said. After deciphering the inscriptions, the local people said that nobody remembered this “wakf”, he concluded.