The largest Iron Age ceramic jar ever discovered in the UAE dated to 3,000 years ago hints at a bustling trade scene from the 1st millennium BC. But the dimensions of this vessel really have researchers scratching their heads. To fully get a sense of how big it was, archaeologists believe the building in which it was housed may have been constructed around it! There is also the presence of a ceramic fragment with three letters in Sabean, the oldest language in the UAE. It is a South Arabian language dated from the 7th century BC.
Having recently been added to the Sharjah Archaeological Museum from the Muwaileh archaeological site, the newly discovered ceramic jar adds weight to the theory that Sharjah was part of the incense trade route between the south Arabian Peninsula and Persia.
A Massive Jar: The Economic Heart of the Settlement
Due to the size and situation of the Iron Age jar, it’s true function is currently undetermined. The jar stands at a whopping 155 cm in height, with a body diameter of 141 cm and a rim diameter of 94 cm (61 x 55.5 x 37 inches respectively). The columned building it was found in measured 10 x 12 meters (34 x 39.3 feet), within a larger fortified settlement. And the jar is too large to fit through the entrance to the room it was in.
The building was constructed between 600 and 900 AD, with the ceiling of the hall supported by 20 columns made of date palms and stone bases, arranged in rows of four by 5, reports National News .
The jar was found in pieces and had to be painstakingly reconstructed piece by piece.
Manal Ataya, Director General of Sharjah Museums Authority commented:
“I invite everyone to see this one-of-a-kind artifact at our museum as it best demonstrates the beauty of discovery and the remarkable feat undertaken by dedicated archaeologists and conservators that spent years piecing together numerous fragments without initially knowing what the finished vessel would look like.”
She and other archaeologists have speculated that this was the ‘economic heart’ of the settlement and a place for the ruling elite to welcome guests. Such a space is called ‘majlis’, which is an Arabic term for sitting room (or a gathering or tribunal of sorts), used across various parts of Asia as well. Majlis exist even today and function in much the same manner.
In addition, 2 more storage jars’ remains have been found on the floor of the great hall, with 30 other smaller jars in a bridge-spouted style found in a room adjacent. This space was possibly used for providing service whilst guests were in the main hall like space outside.
Ataya concluded, “With seasonal expeditions over several years, the pieces were assembled and conserved to unveil the beauty of this enormous jar and its secrets. We greatly thank the work of the archaeological teams operating in Sharjah for their efforts to reveal our ancient history.”
The giant jar is now on display At the Sharjah Archaeology Museum. ( Sharjah Museums Authority )
Muweilah Archaeological Settlement and the Incense Trade Route
During this period of history, other civilizations and societies were also undergoing radical changes. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were being built in modern-day Iraq, reports Al Arabiya . The Chinese had invented printing , and in the Arabian Peninsula area, the landmark falaj or aflaj irrigation system was being developed.
This revolutionary irrigation system , in a traditionally dry and arid area, supported centuries of civilizations that were to come after, whilst keeping the farmers in the area self-reliant and secure. Irrigation channels, settlement areas, and traditional management practices all fit into this mould – ancient engineering techniques allowed a sustainable use of water resources to cultivate palms and other produce. Most importantly, it created a mutually beneficial relationship between the communities here to sustain each other in a communal fashion.
Part of the modernized but traditional falaj irrigation system still present in parts of the UAE. (Altaf Habib, CC BY-SA 4.0 )
With 3,000 such tiny irrigation systems, Muwaileh archaeological area was one such beneficiary of this system. Here, numerous houses of mud brick, similar to several others in the UAE, were built as widespread settlement began, and is now widely considered to be one of the most significant Iron Age sites in the UAE – particularly between 1,100 and 600 BC.
It has been under exploration since 1989, first by a French expedition and then Australian. The site was allegedly damaged by a massive fire, which led to its abandonment. Domestication of the camel played a vital role in the local economy of this site and it was also heavily reliant on the manufacture of copper goods.
Outside of domestic frontiers, several goods were traded, in a route that stretched from the Mediterranean world to Northern Africa and East Asia, with the peninsula playing a vital midway role. Arabian frankincense and myrrh played a key role in this trade. By the 3rd century AD, with the beginning of the decline of the Roman empire , the long-distance trade routes started collapsing and the frankincense trade routes particularly, collapsed entirely.
Top image: Iron age ceramic jar discovered in UAE. Source: Sharjah Museums Authority
By Sahir Pandey