Middle Hadramawt Archaeological Survey Preliminary Results, October 1999 Season

by Paul Zimmerman
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University of Pennsylvania

Yemen Update 42(2000):27-29

Figure 1: The distribution of confirmed Stone Age sites (left) and confirmed pre-Islamic sites (right),showing the apparent move inwards of sites through time.

With generous aid from the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, the second season of the Middle Hadramawt Archaeological Survey (MHAS) was undertaken in October1999. This survey, the fieldwork component of my doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, aims to expand our understanding of settlement patterns in the Wadi Hadramawt, as they changed through time. In reaching this goal, the 1999 season sought to create a new, comprehensive, map of archaeological sites in the region between Qatn and Tarim. Assisting and supervising me in this endeavor was Hussein al-'Aydarus of the General Organization for Antiquities, Manuscripts, and Museums.

Though a number of previous expeditions have visited the Wadi Hadramawt, survey coverage in the (sub)region between Qatn and Tarim&emdash;herein referred to as the "MiddleHadramawt"&emdash;has lacked consistency. For example, the French mission that excavated Shabwa conducted surveys in the western reaches of the Hadramawt system and also in the Wadi 'Idm to the east, but only, to my knowledge, visited a few sites near Shibam (in the middle of the "Middle Hadramawt"). Likewise, though the Soviet-Yemeni expedition that excavated Raybun conducted fairly intensive mapping and survey, their coverage east of Qatn is patchy. The survey component of the NYU expedition to Jujah was even more narrowly-focused, seeking primarily to add detail to the French and Russian sketch maps. Moreover, primary attention was paid by these surveys to Pre-Islamic Hadrami and Himyari sites, at the expense of earlier and later sites. Indeed, the only prior survey thatspecifically sought to find Stone Age sites in the Middle Hadramawt was conducted in the early 1960s by the American Foundation for the Study of Man. It is hoped, then, that the survey data from the MHAS can be used to augment these prior surveys to create a new map that,with reasonable consistency and the accuracy afforded by modern mapmaking technologies, represents all archaeological time periods

The 1999 season of the Middle Hadramawt Archaeological Survey, however, is conceived of simply as an initial step. Upon creation of the new regional map, another field season will be undertaken to explore a more narrowly-defined archaeological question That season, currently planned for 2001, will seek to explain patterns in the location of Middle Hadramawt sites. Specifically, the upcoming season will focus on sites from the First Millennium BC through the early Islamic period, in hopes of correlating site size, kind, and distribution with the changing trade routes and political climate. Though this analysis is still to be undertaken (relying, as it does, on detailed maps and collections from the upcoming season), some preliminary trends can already be noted

Broadly speaking, the more deeply one travels into the longer tributary wadis of the Wadi Hadramawt, the greater the density of stone-age sites. Wadi Sarr, Wadi Bin 'Ali, and Wadi Dhahab, in particular, each have dozens of Stone Age sites of various types. Conversely, Pre-Islamic and early Islamic sites (to the degree that the latter can be identified archaeologically) are found in greatest concentration within the Wadi Hadramawt and at the mouths of its major tributaries. The zone extending westward from Shibam, as shown in Figure 1, is especially densely packed with Pre-Islamic sites.

Figure 2: A stone ring and cleared surface suggest that this was the site of a Stone Age hut or encampment

Typically, Stone Age sites in the MiddleHadramawt are stone alignments, cairns, and rings on the scree slopes of the wadis and their rock ledges (Figure 2). Very rarely do these sites have any easily datable material, though occasionally neolithic projectile points and palaeolithic hand axes have been found&emdash;the latter in great quantity at two sites deep within Wadi Bin 'Ali (Figure 3). Nevertheless, the heavy "desert varnish" patination on these sites' stones indicates their great age. It is presumed that most of the stone rings are the remains of ancient huts or tents, and that the cairns and alignments are graves and mortuary markers Better preserved specimens of these constructions have been noted so that future excavation can test these hypotheses and,hopefully, provide accurate dating.

Figure 3: One of dozens of hand axes found on the surface of two sites within Wadi Bin'Ali.

Despite the paucity of stone alignments and cairns in the main wadi, their location on the walls of the wadi makes it unlikely that they were all obliterated by the wadi's later inhabitants. It is much more likely, then, that these types of sites were never present in the main wadi in the first place. This, in turn, suggests that their placement represents either the actions of jol-dwelling populations which would descend into the wadis to erect these monuments, or wadi bottom dwelling populations that would travel into the outer wadis to erect these monuments. I suspect that the former hypothesis is true&emdash;but either case strongly suggests that these cairns and alignments served ritual (and probably mortuary) functions.

If there were Stone Age populations living on the floor of the main wadi, their traces are now surely covered under the accumulated alluvium from thousands of years of say irrigation. This is a point that has been repeatedly invoked in discussions of Yemeni archaeology. While certainly a factor affecting the preservation and discovery of numerous sites, its effect should not be overstated. Two types of silt were clearly visible in some of the larger wadis. The first type, well known, is light and fine-grained and deposited by say irrigation. The second type,however, is darker, coarser, less clearly stratified, and often overlain by gravel beds. Occasionally, these gravel beds also have cairns and stone rings built upon them, proving that the alluvium below them (the latter type of silt herein described) cannot bean thropogenic. This observation supports Gardiner's discovery of Levallois flakes in the silt in Wadi 'Amd in the 1930s and argues for caution in using alluviation as a marker for human activity.

In contrast to the Stone Age sites in the Middle Hadramawt, a whole class of which may be hidden beneath later alluviation, the range and distribution of Pre-Islamic sites is probably reasonably intact (even if, as is likely, some individual sites have been lost). The clustering of Pre-Islamic sites on the new map, then, seems purposeful&emdash;and I expect that a great number of the sites are located where they are, in part, because of the incense trade route. Sites found in the deepest reaches of the tributary wadis are almost exclusively graffiti stones. Sometimes covered with palimpsests of personal names written in the Musnad script, these stones probably served as markers to travelers entering the wadis from the jol, and records of their passing. The clustering of settlement sites around Shibam, however, indicates that this was ahub of activity. This strategic location at the confluence of Wadi Bin 'Ali and Wadi Hadramawt saw traffic coming northwards through Wadi Bin 'Ali as well as westwards from the major sites of Sunnah and Mashgah in Wadi 'Idm&emdash;and these sites' inhabitants no doubt serviced and profited from the incense trade.

Indeed, the general pattern of Pre-Islamic settlement in the wadi&emdash;the even spacing of the wadi's major sites and the relatively blank spaces in between&emdash;suggests a"string of pearls" along the caravan route. A closer inspection will test the contemporaneity of these sites, as well as the travel times between them. It will also explore the role of lookouts and possible caravansaries such as al-Ghuraf at the mouth of the Wadi 'Idm. In the Wadi Hadramawt, practically every outcrop has a fortress (see Figure4). But while the identified fortresses are almost exclusively from the Islamic period, closer inspection should reveal the location of Pre-Islamic fortresses which would be expected to have watched over portions of the trade route.

Figure 4: The mud brick core of a Pre-Islamic or early Islamic fortress overlooking the confluence of the Wadi 'Idm and the Wadi Hadramawt.

Preliminary inspection of the 1999 MHAS data poses more questions than answers. However, one question strikes meas particularly interesting: why does the area around Shibam have so many more Pre-Islamic sites than other parts of the wadi? Some possible explanations are posed here, to be tested in the upcoming field season. Next year's work, then, will focus most closely on this zone, with careful mapping and collections from every known Pre-Islamic and early Islamic site there, in hopes of establishing the chronology of those sites as well as any functional differentiation between them. This analysis should suffice for my doctoral dissertation, but other questions, such as the nature of this region's earliest settlement, beg inquiry and, with luck, will have me returning to the Wadi Hadramawt for many years to come

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