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Excavating Zabid

Royal Ontario Museum Yemen Project Overview

Megalithic site of al-Midamman

Edward Keall
Curator Emeritus
Royal Ontario Museum

The main cluster of giant standing stones of al-Midamman (sub-site of al-Manasib)

Megalithic site of al-Midamman


Unexpectedly, in 1987 (after aborting excavations in the horrendously windy conditions at the early port site of al-Fazzah) the Canadian Mission encountered the giant standing stones of al-Midamman, in what is today largely a wind-swept dune-scape. After opting to try to understand something about the human use of the landscape before Islam, the Mission concluded that the earliest evidence of a human presence were the shells of the Terebralia molluscs harvested from the mangrove swamps of the Neolithic era.


All of the shells observed show signs of having being harvested for food consumption – the tips of the shells are all broken off, to facilitate extraction of the meat. Radiocarbon dating of the shells indicates a Neolithic era for their harvesting (8th–5th millennia BCE). Given their presence on the current ground surface, as well as being visible in the sea-cliffs, it presupposes that there was a massive accumulation of wadi-sediment at the coast in the Neolithic era, run-off that carried sediments far out from where the current shore-line is. When Iron Age-era measures were put into place in the Sarat highlands, to terrace farmland, the massive erosion stopped.


The earliest use of the area for commemorative purposes at al-Midamman included using stone pillars to be placed upright over the remains of buried infants, perhaps sacrificial offerings. The stone pillars used for this purpose were imported from far afield. Sometime later, larger uprights were set up for different commemorative purposes. It was a ceramic-era period, but also included the use of obsidian tools. Both the slender pillars of basalt and the massive blocks of granite had to have been transported to this area by some means or other from the Sarat mountains, some fifty kilometres distant.


Excavations and analytical analysis of the artifacts excavated at the sub-site of the giant uprights (al-Manasib) point to a date of around 1000–800 BCE. One of the giant stones was set upright, along with interment of a cache of bronze tools and an obsidian core block placed beneath it. Elsewhere nearby there were pottery fragments placed in such a way that deposit of the vessels must represent some kind of commemorative gesture.


Many slender pillars from the megalithic cultural expressions at al-Midamman were re-employed to form the foundations of buildings whose ground plans can only be interpreted as temples. Their ground plans place them in the cultural context of Iron Age Old South Arabia. Radio-carbon dates suggest a range of 1320-970 BCE dates for activity associated with the temples. The buildings included stone-carved decorations comparable to those found at al-Sawdah, in the Jawf region of Yemen. This is problematic, for the proposed date for the al-Sawda features are closer to 700 BCE, not even 900 BCE.


Sub-site of al-Manasib, with one of the taller upright pillars toppled over (right of picture)


Excavation trench around the base of the toppled pillar


Cache of commemorative obsidian and bronze items

originally set beneath the toppled pillar


Infant sacrificial burial set originally beneath a small upright pillar (sub-site of al-Minjarah)


Pillars and possibly an animal-head idol from

al-Midamman in the Zabid Citadel Granary Museum

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