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Protected Areas and Cultural Heritage: An Abu Dhabi Case Study

Paper presented at the 1st International Symposium and Workshop on Arid Zone Environments: Research and Management Options for Protected Areas, Abu Dhabi, UAE (23-25th January 2000). 

Peter Hellyer 
(Executive Director, Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey, ADIAS, & Adviser, Archaeology and Environment, UAE Ministry of Information and Culture,  P.O. Box 45553, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates -  e-mail:

Mark Beech 
(Environmental Archaeologist, ADIAS, and Research Fellow, Departments of Biology and Archaeology, University of York, UK - e-mail:


Research into the environment  of protected areas has tended in many countries to overlook the necessity of a multi-disciplinary approach that also examines the cultural heritage of the people concerned. There is a need to include the results of archaeological research. Results of fieldwork on the islands and coastal zone of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi indicate that both data relevant to an understanding of the cultural heritage of the people and of relevance to the current environment or wildlife and to past exploitation of natural resources can be obtained. A multi-disciplinary approach to environmental and archaeological studies in protected areas is essential. 

KEY WORDS:   Archaeology, Palaeo-ecology, Protected Areas, Abu Dhabi, UAE.

The coastal zone of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, including its islands, has been clearly identified as an important ecological community. The significance of its birdlife has been amply documented (Aspinall 1995), while other aspects of its  ecology and biodiversity have been studied by, amongst others, scientists working for the Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency, ERWDA, although the major published work by ERWDA on the ecology of Abu Dhabi (Osborne 1996) specifically notes that little attention is paid to the ecology of the coastal areas. 

Despite the paucity of published literature, however, sufficient data have been gathered to justify parts of the the coast and islands of Abu Dhabi being selected as worthy of designation as protected areas and, consequently of management. Indeed, in November 1997, in association with the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, ERWDA organised a workshop focussed specifically on coastal zone management. 

At that time, despite the documented importance of the coastal zone for the cultural heritage of the people of Abu Dhabi, through the importance of its commercial fisheries, for example, little attention was paid to the necessity of cultural heritage being examined as an integral part of the features of the coastal zone. This concentration on ecology and the virtual exclusion of cultural heritage had previously,  been parallelled elsewhere in the Arabian Gulf, as, for example, in an assessment of coastal management requirements for the Arabian Gulf coastline of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (MEPA/IUCN, 1989). 

During the 1997 ERWDA workshop, a brief presentation was made by the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey, ADIAS, on the relevance of archaeology to coastal zone management (Hellyer 1998a). Since that time, further archaeological fieldwork on both the coast and islands and data analysis from earlier work have produced results that are significant in terms of understanding the cultural heritage of the human occupants of the coast and islands since the Late Stone Age, which began in the United Arab Emirates approximately 7000 years ago.. It has also shown clearly that this cultural heritage is intimately linked with the exploitation of the available natural resources, both of the coast and islands and of adjacent waters. 

It is now apparent that any areas of the coastal zone of Abu Dhabi that are designated as protected areas because of their importance for the ecology and biodiversity of the country will contain within them archaeological and historical features that are significant components of the cultural heritage of the people. It is further apparent that study of these archaeological and historical features has produced data of relevance not only to current ecology and biodiversity, but can also produce data indicative of ecology and biodiversity in the past, in turn assisting studies of, for example, changing molluscan or other faunal populations. 

Archaeology in Abu Dhabi, and the United Arab Emirates as a whole, began on the island of Umm al-Nar in 1959, where Danish and then other teams continued work until the early 1980s. Apart from a brief survey of part of the coast in the early 1980s (Vogt et al., 1989)  and excavations at the island of Ghanadha, in northern Abu Dhabi, (Al-Tikriti, 1985),  little other work was carried out on the coast and islands, with nothing of significance being published, until the formation of the  Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey in 1992 on the instruction of President His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. ADIAS is charged, under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, with surveying for, recording and, where appropriate, excavating archaeological sites on the coast and islands of Abu Dhabi. 

Relatively little has been thus far published on the archaeology, and, therefore, on the cultural heritage of the coast and islands, although some results are now appearing ( Vogt et al 1989, Frifelt et al, 1991, 1995, King 1998, Hellyer 1998a, Hellyer 1998b, Flavin & Shepherd 1994, Beech & Elders, 1999, Beech, in press, Beech et al., forthcoming). The bulk of the data that has been recovered is held by ADIAS, and it is upon this material that the information and conclusions in this paper are primarily based. 

In the more than nine years that have followed, ADIAS has identified several hundreds of sites or groups of sites on the coast and islands of Abu Dhabi, many within areas under consideration for designation as "protected areas." In this presentation, it is not possible to provide a full explanation of the results of the work by ADIAS. It seeks simply to illustrate some of the key examples of ADIAS work, and to indicate their 

The methodology adoptedby ADIAS has been three-fold. The first has been field survey, to locate, identify and record the presence of sites. In some cases, selective collection of archaeological artefacts, such as pottery, and of environmental remains, such as mollusc shells, has been undertaken. While, in principle, ADIAS has recognised the desirability of avoiding the removal of data in a non-systematic manner, in practice, the rapid development of much of the coastal zone and islands, combined with the fragility of many of the archaeological features recognised, has made it necessary to recover at least an apparently representative sample of the available data when a site is first identified. 

The second type of work , undertaken at selected sites, has been detailed topographical mapping, drawing and recording, while in a small minority of sites, viewed from the surface collections as being of most potential interest, systematic excavation has been undertaken. 

The results of the fieldwork by ADIAS, combined with the results of earlier work, particularly on the island of Umm al-Nar, has shown that archaeological sites of relevance for the cultural heritage of the people of Abu Dhabi can be found on almost every one of the islands that have been examined as well as on parts of the coastline, generally those areas of raised elevation, particulrly on former shorelines. 

The types of sites differ considerably. At Umm al-Nar (but nowhere else yet identified) there are stone cairns which, upon excavation, have proved to be the remains of extensive collective graves (Frifelt 1991, 1995). Many of the sites identified by ADIAS, however, are less distinctive, ranging from low cairns to small, almost indistinguishable, ancient fireplaces, pottery scatters and shell middens.  A good many are of small size. Some fireplaces, for example, are indicated by merely a scatter of stones on the surface of a low sandy mound, or by slabs of stone in a rectangle that may be less than 1 metre square. These, and others, like a scatter of flint chippings or fragments of marine molluscs, may simply be overlooked, except by an experienced eye. 

Data on the cultural heritage of the people of Abu Dhabi can, however, be recovered from both large and small sites. Thus the Bronze Age collective tombs of Umm al-Nar, piles of stone that are two or more metres in eight and six or seven metres in diameter, have provided data on the burial customs of inhabitants of the coastal zone from 2,500 BC to 2,000 BC. Identification of flint tools and flakes,  potsherds and molluscs on the current land surface on the island of Dalma led to the discovery, a metre or so beneath the surface, of the oldest settlement yet known in the United Arab Emirates, now radio-carbon dated to around 7,000 years ago. Carbon 14 dating of ash from an almost indistinguishable hearth site on Marawah yielded a date of 320-200 BC, indicative of human occupation on the island during the little-known Late pre-Islamic period. 

It should be noted that many of the sites are both extra-ordinarily fragile, such that all surface trace of them can be destroyed by the passage of a single vehicle. Indeed, in the initial years of work by ADIAS, some types of site were overlooked, or misinterpreted. Only with the amassing of greater local fieldwork experience has it become possible to be relatively certain that the bulk of sites are being recognised. This, indeed, may be one of the reasons why work on the coast and islands of Abu Dhabi prior to the establishment of ADIAS was relatively unproductive in terms of identifying archaeological sites except, of course, the larger stone monuments. 

Despite their lack of grandeur, the archaeological sites found in profusion by ADIAS on the coast and islands of Abu Dhabi are of great significance. Available climatic data suggests that from around 3,000 BC, the UAE has experienced a more arid phase than it did during the so-called 'Climatic Optimum' that prevailed in the previous period. Perhaps as a result of lower rainfall, the continuation of human settlement became more difficult. Certainly as far as the coast and islands of Abu Dhabi are concerned, there is little archaeological evidence after around 2000 BC of large stone buildings. The lifestyle of the people changed as they were obliged to adapt to the impact of the changing climate. Apparently insignificant or even ephemeral though they may appear to be, many of the sites identified by ADIAS are indicative of the way in which the lifestyle of the people of the coast and islands, and therefore their cultural heritage, evolved. 

The identification, recording and preservation of such sites, however small or ephemeral,  should be an essential part of recording and preserving the cultural heritage of the people. To adopt such an approach in areas which are designated, by reason of their ecology or biodiversity, as protected areas preovides an opportunity to preserve sites in a formal manner, rather than simply as a fortuitous by-product of conservation on ecological grounds. 

The study of archaeological sites, however, does not simply record monuments, however small, or artefacts, such as pottery or flint tools. It also yields an extensive amount of palaeo-ecological data. 

The well-studied site at Umm al-Nar, dated to around 2,500 to 2,200 BC, provides an example. From excavations at the site, camel bones were recovered. It is argued by some archaeologists that these represent the earliest evidence yet found anywhere in the world of the domestication of the camel. In subsequent millennia, domestication of the camel has been a crucial factor in permitting man to survive inn the deserts of the Arabian peninsula, surely a key component in the cultural heritage of the people of Abu Dhabi. 

Other bones have provided evidence of species of marine mammals not yet recorded live in UAE waters, or only rarely so, such as members of the rorqual family, probably either the Sei Whale, Balaeonoptera borealis, or the Bryde's Whale, B. edeni, the latter having only been recorded dead (Hoch 1991, Hoch 1995). 

Excavations by ADIAS of the Late Stone Age site at Dalma have revealed a multiplicity of information, both of cultural/historical and environmental significance. The discovery of potsherds imported from the 'Ubaid civilisation of Mesopotamia are the first evidence of the involvement of the people of the Emirates in maritime trade, since geomorphological studies suggest that Dalma was already an island by that time, as a result of sea levels in the Gulf rising after the end of the last great glaciation. The presence of  shells of the pearl oyster, Pinctada radiata, in deposits at the site suggest an possible involvement in pearling. Analysis of fish bones from the site show that they include not only species found in shallow inshore waters, but also pelagic species like tuna, suggesting that the inhabitants may already have developed the skills to build boats capable of voyaging far offshore. At the same time, the presence of ovicaprine bones in the assemblage of environmental material from Dalma shows that the Late Stone Age inhabitants had already begun to keep domestic sheep and goats, even if the relatively scarcity of the bones in the assemblage suggests that other food resources remained of more significance (Beech, in press). 

Archaeo-zoological data has been recovered by ADIAS from numerous sites on the coast and islands of Abu Dhabi, and provide valuable information about the way in which the inhabitants of the past were able to survive in what was a harsh and arid environment. Material from sites on the islands of Sir Bani Yas, Marawah and Balghelam, spanning different periods in the country's history, has yielded information not only about the diet of the inhabitants, but also offers indications about changes through time, again of importance to understanding the evolution of the cultural heritage of the people. 

Reference was made earlier to the value of a multi-disciplinary approach to issues of ecology, biodiversity, conservation and cultural heritage. This appears to be borne out by the results of work by ADIAS on the coast and islands of Abu Dhabi. For the purpose of illustration in this paper, preliminary results of the study of assemblages from middens will be used. 

The island of Marawah, west of Abu Dhabi, has extensive shell middens which, from associated pottery and other artefacts, have been ascribed a Late Islamic date, between the 16th and 20th Centuries. Although these are located in several areas of the island, the most numerous, and largest, are in the village of Ghubba on the south coast (King 1998). 

The molluscs present are primarily the edible gastropod Hexaplex kuesterianus, in profusion, and the pearl oyster Pinctada radiata, although there are also a smaller quantity of spiny oyster, Spondylus marisrubri. Marine mammal bones include those of dugong, Dugong dugon, and dolphin species, including Tursiops truncatus and Sousa chinensis.  There are also numerous bones of turtles.Fish bones are also present. Species recorded include requiem sharks, sawfish, stingrays, eagle rays, sea catfish, needlefish, flatheads, groupers, terrapons, jacks and trevallies, mjoarras, grunts, emperors, seabream, barracuda, parrotfish, tuna/mackerel and pufferfish (Beech, forthcoming). Key groups exploited were the needlefish and jacks/trevallies.  Associated ceramic material is all of a Late Islamic/recent date. 

The location of the middens and their size indicates that the exploitation of marine resources was a primary occupation for the Late Islamic inhabitants of Ghubba, while the species present provide an indication of the preferred catch, this perhaps being linked to availability. 

Excavation of one of the larger middens has revealed several distinct layers, of differing thickness, separated by wind-blown sand. New work currently being carried out will permit an even more detailed assessment of the relative size of these fish (Beech, forthcoming). This data will permit further information to be obtained of the fishing strategy of the inhabitants of Ghubba, and, therefore, of this aspect of their cultural heritage. 

The presence of a substantial number of dugong and turtle bones indicates that the harvesting of these species was an important aspect of life in Marawah and also that the species were available and probably relatively common in the area. This complements data from current research by the Marine Environment Research Centre of ERWDA, the Centre for Environmental Research of the Emirates Heritage Club and other bodies. 

While the environmental data obtained from archaeological sites on the coast and islands of Abu Dhabi is crucial to an understanding of the cultural heritage of the people, it has been shown that it can also produce historical and palaeo-ecological data that indicates changes over time in the ecology and bio-diversity. 

Thus an analysis of bird bones from the Umm al-Nar collective tombs has provided information on birds no longer found in the Emirates. One of the species identified, the Giant Heron, Ardea bennuides, is extinct, and was described from and is only known from the Umm Al Nar excavations. Two other species identified from the excavations are the Darter, Anhinga melanogaster, and Bruce's Green Pigeon, Treron bicincta. The former is now found no nearer than the marshes of the Tigris/Euphrates Delta and the latter no nearer than the woodlands of Dhofar in the Sultanate of Oman. Their presence at Umm Al Nar is suggestive of a different habitat existing in this part of the UAE's coastal zone in the past (Hoch 1991, Hoch 1995). 

Another coastal site, that of a Late Islamic village on the island of Al-Aryam, has produced shells of the large mangrove-dwelling edible gastropod mud-creeper, Terebralia palustris. This species is common on middens in the northern Emirates, although primarily on sites of a pre-Islamic date. The Al-Aryam site is, however, the only archaeological site in Abu Dhabi Emirate where it is known to have been discovered. Moreover, live specimens of the species  are not known  anywhere today in the southern Gulf, although two populations are known on the East Coast of the United Arab Emirates, at Khor Kalba and Khor Fakkan (Feulner, pers. comm.). Whether or not its decline and virtual disappearance is related to human exploitation or to other, ecological, factors is unclear. 

The reasons for the decline in populations of Terebralia in the UAE since the Late Stone Age and its almost complete absence from archaeological sites in Abu Dhabi are not yet understood. It is reasonable to suggest, however, that the only way of studying this question - and of understanding its potential relevance to current studies of molluscan diversity in UAE coastal waters - is through continued archaeo-zoological research. 

Work by ADIAS has also provided information that can shed light on the past range of other species. On the island of Balghelam, north east of Abu Dhabi, for example, sampling of a Late Islamic midden has yielded bones of dugong, though in small quantities that suggest that the inhabitants of the island opportunistically harvested the animal, rather than exploiting it as a major food source. Dugongs are not known to be present in this area today, although the habitat, including seagrass beds, remains apparently suitable. 

The presence of substantial quantities of dugong remains on Late Islamic middens on Marawah suggests, in contrast, that hunting of dugongs was more organised, indicating a larger population of dugong, people, or both. The fact that a large population of dugongs continues to survive in this area today offers supporting evidence. 

Such information is not confined to recent periods. The only major dugong butchery site thus far identified in the UAE is  on the island of Akab, in Umm al-Qaiwain, and has been dated to around 4000 BC (Jousse 1999; Prieur and Guerin 1991). Dugongs are now very rarely recorded in this area, with only one or two records known in the last decade. A study of the frequency of dugong bones on archaeological sites in this area from the Late Stone Age onwards may provide an indication of the process of population decline. Archaeo-environmental data, therefore, is of value in mapping the former range and distribution of this endangered species. 

The identification, recording and preservation of archaeological sites is an essential part of work related to the cultural heritage of the people of Abu Dhabi. In association with ERWDA, the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey is now working on the formulation of a Sites and Monuments database that will prove to be an importance tool for the planning of heritage management in the coastal zone. 

At the same time, the collection of archaeo-environmental data is of value in mapping the environmental history of the coastal zone. Vertebrate remains and marine shells collected on excavations can supply valuable information concerning not only which natural resources were being exploited but also which biotopes were being harvested by former occupants of the coast and islands. By understanding ancient coastal and island environments, it is possible to comprehend better the modern situation, and to begin to monitor the degree of change which has taken place over time (Beech forthcoming). 

Archaeological and archaeo-environmental research can also benefit from a broader understanding of the current environment and habitats. In arid zones, such as the coast and islands of Abu Dhabi, an important aspect of the ability of man to survive, and, therefore, of the cultural heritage of the people, is that of the availability of fresh water. The presence or lack of surface vegetation may be an indication of subterranean water resources which could have been tapped by man. 

At the same time, research on the islands of Abu Dhabi has identified evidence of sophisticated water catchment systems constructed to trap winter rainfall. Such systems have been found, for example, on the islands of Balghelam, Futaisi, Al-Aryam, Marawah, Yasat al-Ulya, Ghagha' and Kafai, all in association with extensive settlements. In contrast, where no such systems have been identified, or where there are only small, there appears to be little or no indication of previous, and certainly not of continuous, occupation. 

The pattern of human settlement on the coast and islands of Abu Dhabi since the Late Stone Age is related to the ability of the inhabitants to utilise available resources, this, in turn, being a factor that is intimately related to the ecology and bio-diversity of the zone. 

Within the framework of any protected areas programme, ecology and bio-diversity, on the one hand, and the cultural heritage of the former inhabitants, on the other, are closely inter-related. Only through the adoption of a multi-disciplinary approach can the full potential of a protected areas programme be realised. 


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