Archaeological and Environmental Survey of the Dhamar Region


The Oriental Institute Archaeological and Environmental Survey of the Dhamar Region, begun in 1978-79 and revived on a more intensive basis in 1994, has resulted in findings that have major implications for the history of settlement and political relations not only of the region, but of Yemen generally. Thus far, Paleolithic and Neolithic sites are very slightly represented. Usually the Neolithic is implied only in lithic finds in upper parts of the humic black stratum (6000-3000 BC) that appears in stratigraphic sections. The absence of Neolithic settlements may prove to be characteristic of the region, but it may also be the result of erosion or covering of sites by sediments or of destruction by later occupation. Bronze Age sites, which are far more numerous, are more easily found in the less-watered, more marginal areas to the east rather than in the well-watered western portion of the survey region. This distribution is to be accounted for by the still-current practice of recycling stone from earlier buildings in the construction of later buildings and terrace walls, especially in the well-watered and more heavily-populated areas.

Bronze Age sites (3000-1000 BC) make up about a quarter of the recorded settlements and many are associated with visible relict terraces. A few of these sites are relatively large, with substantial stone-built rectilinear buildings, and are datable by radiocarbon to 2500-1700 BC. Some Bronze Age sites with fortifications may be the earliest walled towns in the entire Arabian peninsula. The pottery from the Bronze Age occupation is similar to that found by the Italians in neighboring Khawlan.

Iron Age or Sabean settlements (early 1st Millennium BC) make up another quarter of recorded sites and are located throughout the region, on both hilltops and valley floors. Some sites reach 10-15 hectares. Large rectilinear buildings inside compound walls characterize these sites, and some have paved roadways or steps leading up to them.

Himyarite sites are, not surprisingly, the most impressive ruins in the region, and are often accompanied by large and elaborate dams. Hakir's agricultural area was extended through the building of three large dams, while Masna'at Maryam was served by two. In contrast the capital, Zafar, was the focus of an elaborate system of more than 80 dams, almost all of modest size. The larger, more ambitious dams were all breached in antiquity, while the low dams of Zafar survive to the present day, although reused as terrace walls.

Islamic sites do not equal the number of either the Bronze or the Iron Ages, but many are found beneath modern villages, and others may lie unrecognized under present-day settlements. There are, however, several impressive Islamic sites, of which the most striking is probably the former Yemeni capital of Dhawran, now abandoned, where a major mosque, ablution area, and shrine remain standing, be it in very bad condition. The intensive recording of these monuments has been undertaken by researchers from the American Institute for Yemeni Studies (AIYS) and the French Institute for Yemeni Studies (CFEY), under the general auspices of the Dhamar Survey project.

Project funding: Oriental Institute, University of Chicago directly and through contributions.

Oriental Institute Archaeological and Environmental Investigations of Yemeni Agriculture:


Contacts:  McGuire Gibson
Oriental Institute, University of Chicago