Re-visiting Wadi al Helo

“I want to get out!” My voice is tinged with fear. “But we can drive up here.” My husband counters. “Look. There’s a track.” I look at the deeply rutted track curling up towards the squat fort on the ridge. “Not with me in the car, thank you very much. I’ll walk.” Off-roading is no fun for me. I simply do not get a kick from anything that even hints at an adrenaline rush. Walking, on the other hand, is something I adore, and when finding myself on tricky terrain, it is in my own two feet I place my trust. Not cars or animals. And so my kind husband obliges me. It is a lovely winter’s morning in the UAE, and the fresh air feels like a balm for my soul. “Why would anyone rather be in a noisy car, than out walking?” I wonder aloud.

It is a short, easy walk, but the view from the top gives one a fantastic perspective of the archaeological site sitting snug against the foot of the mountains, the more recent ruins of a nobleman’s house in the foreground, and the green of the agricultural activities in the valley. Wadi al Helo is located 6 kilometres north of the small settlement sharing its name, and through which the E102 runs in the Eastern Region of the Emirate of Sharjah, not far from the coastal town of Kalba. Helo in Arabic means ‘sweet’, and as such, Wadi al Helo translates to ‘sweet valley’. It is a place rich and fertile, because of its abundant fresh underground water supply. It is not surprising then that traces of life have been found here dating as far back as the Stone Age.

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We linger at the top, drinking in the beauty of our surroundings, while nibbling on a handful of nuts. I am excited and keen to get to the archaeological site, as from the activity below it is clear that a digging season is in full swing, and I itch to find out more. It is with a rising sense of anticipation that I explore the more recent ruins lying between me and the excavations. I later learn that these more recent ruins, according to local informants, were still occupied as recently as about 50 years ago. Although not much is left of the two-storey mud and stone building, its size, erstwhile decorations that are still discernible, together with the remains of an outer wall with fortifications, is a clear indication that its former residents were people of wealth and influence.

At the entrance to the archaeological site two towers silently stand guard over their respective histories.  One is an obvious example of the many watchtowers that dot the landscapes of both the UAE and Oman from a time when tribes were at odds with one another, not that long ago, while the remains of the other one date from the Um an-Nar period (2600 – 2000 BC) of the Bronze Age. The original walls of the latter tower have been partly reconstructed during excavation, and although it is difficult to pin a date to its construction, carbon dating of a fire pit that was found against the outer wall, places its construction to a time preceding 1700 BC. Although many questions about this tower still need to find answers, it is clear that, like the newer Islamic tower, it did not have an entrance at ground level. The entrance of the Islamic watchtower that was restored in 2008 by the Directorate of Heritage of the Sharjah Emirate, is 4 metres above ground, and although I would have loved to have a peek inside, it is not possible without the wooden ladder that would have given its occupants access to its belly in its heyday.

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At the entrance of the archaeological site we fall into conversation with Dr. Johannes Kutterer, an archaeologist from the Institute of Pre- and Protohistory at the University of Tübingen in Germany, who has been excavating here since 2007 in partnership with the Sharjah Directorate of Antiquities. Not only has he been in charge of the day-to-day excavations throughout the successive seasons, but he has also done his doctoral thesis on the Bronze Age findings at the site. HLO1, as the site is referred to, is the first Bronze Age copper producing site in the UAE that has been systematically investigated. Located in one of the most fertile areas of the Hajar Mountains, it has been close to various surface exposures of copper ore, whilst also easily accessible from the major Bronze Age settlements in the larger area.

There is no indication of a major settlement during this time at or in the direct vicinity of the site, although it is likely that it could have existed. The stone foundations of a house with several rooms, which were later converted to a workshop, that has been found on site and dating back to this time, is the only indication of the presence of domestic buildings from this time period, whilst the remains of fortifications argue in the favour of a permanent presence of people at the site. The fact that houses were mostly built from wood makes the drawing of a definite conclusion almost impossible. During the Islamic Period, on the other hand, the site has been used extensively as a settlement, as indicated by the many stone structures above ground and the graveyard area. As many as a hundred Islamic graves are visible in the southern and middle part of the site.

The amount of slag, the most common remnant of metal production, found at HLO1 indicates that an estimated 5 – 40 metric tons of copper were extracted on site, which, compared to the much larger Maysar in Oman, was one of the smaller metal producing sites in the region. Fuel for the smelting process must have been easily obtainable in the area with its rich vegetation, which includes acacia and prosopis trees, as well as other big bushes and shrubs. The availability of wood was a limiting factor in metal production, which needed vast amounts of charcoal, that burns hotter than wood, to produce temperatures of between 1150°C and 1250°C for the smelting process. If you consider that it takes about 300 kg of charcoal to extract 1 kg of copper, and 12-20 cubic metres of wood to produce 1 ton of charcoal, it is clear that these sites could not have been very sustainable. Yet, a layer with a radiocarbon date of 3325 -3091 BC, not only indicates that the processing of copper ore at HLO1 is, to date, the oldest indication of metallurgical activity in SE Arabia, but it has been extracted here until the Iron Age. A clear indication that a sustainable supply of fuel must have been present throughout this time.

Dr. Johannes Kutterer is kind enough to indulge my many questions, and walk us through the site, pointing out interesting features and findings, including a mill-stone that has been used as a headstone for an Islamic grave. Many crushing and hammer stones, used for the crushing and separating of the ore from the gangue before smelting, has been found in the area. One of the most significant finds were a 4.6 kg copper ingot, almost 100% pure and cast in sand, in a workshop area that was used during the Bronze and Iron Age. During our informal tour of the site, what seems like haphazard piles of rocks, become vivid with meaning, conjuring up thousands of years of human ingenuity and life. It is often hard to imagine that these rocks once played witness to a lifestyle, not just fraught with hardship, but embellished with the gamut of emotions that make us all human, despite being separated by thousands of years.

We take leave of Johannes so that he can get back to the job at hand, and follow the animal trails made by goat and donkey hooves into the quiet of a side wadi (valley) now absent of life, except for two donkeys against the opposite slope. I stare at these animals in wonderment, as their kind have been used as pack animals as far back as the Bronze Age, pre-dating the domestication of the camel. With the sun warming our backs, we leave all traces and sounds of modern-day life behind, and quickly fall in love with the solitude and quiet enveloping us. The absence of human voices and trash, indicates that this is not a place frequented by the masses, and I am grateful for that, as we stroll deeper into the wadi.

Visited: December 2015

Notes:

* GPS co-ordinates for the turn-off from the main Sharjah-Kalba road:  N 24° 58′ 51.2″  E 56° 13′ 12.6″  (Follow the dirt road and veer to the right where the road forks, at the dead palm trees.)

* GPS co-ordinates for the archaeological site:  N 24° 59′ 25.4″  E 56° 13′ 06.5″

* Please remember to respect the site if you visit it by not disturbing any of the ruins or excavation pits. It is a rare privilege to be able to wander through it freely.

* Dr Johannes Kutterer’s doctoral dissertation can be downloaded in PDF format. Most of the facts listed in the blog post come from his findings as described here.

* Time-scale (dates can vary slightly depending on sources):

The following information has been taken from Dr. Johannes Kutterer’s doctoral dissertation, and differ slightly from dates listed in the Sharjah Archaeological museum, where artifacts from this and the many other archaeological sites located within the emirate can be viewed.

Neolithic 9000 – 3900 BC
Final Coastal Neolithic 3900 – 3000 BC
Hafeet 3000 – 2600 BC
Umm an-Nar (Early Bronze Age) 2600 – 2000 BC
Wadi Suq (Middle Bronze Age) 2000 – 1600 BC
Late Bronze Age 1600 – 1250 BC
Iron Age 1250 – 500 BC
Early Islamic 800 – 1100 AD

 

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