Terry O'Connor

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Just Deserts


The Baynunah camel excavation is over for this year, the incipient fieldwork beard has been shaved off and we have flown home from sunny Abu Dhabi to cold, wet, blusterous Yorkshire. There is a fair amount of report writing and data analysis to go before any sensible conclusions appear, so this is just a reflection on my first desert excavation experience.

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Two Late Neolithic camels, around 6000 years old, recorded for posterity

I went to Abu Dhabi expecting the site to be hot and sandy. It was, and we were there in winter. Working conditions would be more or less impossible at any other time of year. Once settled in, accustomed to bumping along stony and sandy tracks to the site each day and to drinking far more water than I would have thought possible, excavation is excavation. Remove sediment, find things, plot, photograph, lift: I would guess that the excavation of mammoth remains in northern Siberia follows much the same routine. Though with more midges. We investigated two clusters of camel bones out of the 100-plus on the site, gained a fairly good idea of the site formation processes, and retrieved quite a number of specimens for the archive.

By the end of it all, jokes about “Getting plastered again” were wearing a bit thin, as some of the team spent a lot of their time up to their elbows in plaster bandage, burlap, aluminium foil, wooden sticks and all the other paraphernalia of stabilizing and reinforcing brittle bones. Not that I did any of that. Oh no, I don’t have my plaster-competence badge and have to make do with dribbling Paraloid B72 into hairline cracks and all over crumbly cancellous bone. When 25% of the team are conservators, they are the ones who get plastered.

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Sonia applying plaster to a camel skull, to her trousers, to the desert etc

Desert wildlife mostly revealed itself as footprints in the sand when we arrived each morning. We logged quite an assortment of rodents, lizards and arthropods, but saw few of them in daylight.


Arabian hare (Lepus capensis) tracks

Birds were scarce too, though one lunchtime a white-eared bulbul (Pycnonotus leucotis) flew into our tent and chirruped its way back and forth for a while, reminding Sonia of Bede’s metaphor of a sparrow flying into the light and bustle of the Saxon hall, then departing into darkness. A large bird of prey seen at a distance may have been a male pallid harrier (Circus macrourus). Or not.


Marjan, Sonia and Mark at lunch. Karyne and Ahmed snooze in the background. Nice tent, n’est-ce pas?

Abu Dhabi is an odd place. The Emirate itself is largely desert, intersected by oil and gas pipelines and the occasional road. The city, however, is a gleaming monument to global capitalism, a case study in the ways that wealth can create something where it really should not exist. In pre-oil days, Abu Dhabi was a port-of-trade, dealing in local pearls and providing a place where merchants around the Gulf and western Indian Ocean could meet to do business. To some extent, I suppose, it still has that role, though hydrocarbon products have replaced pearls as the local export resource. The city, in fact the whole Emirate, is remarkably cosmopolitan. Something like 80% of the resident population are non-Emirati. Think about that: in the UK, some people get twitchy if the ‘immigrant’ population of a town reaches 1 in 4. In Abu Dhabi, the proportions are the other way about. Less attractive is the consequent ‘caste’ system, the way that the ethnicity of workers can be predicted by the nature of the jobs they do, with Bangladeshis at the bottom. Glass ceilings abound. The amiable security guard who let us through into a restricted desert area each day will have his prospects limited simply by the fact that he is Ugandan.


Fieldwalking in the desert. Mubarak, Ahmed and Mark mulling over a possible new site in the middle of almost nowhere

Apart from getting itchy about the social stratification, Abu Dhabi set me thinking about archaeological parallels, especially the Middle Saxon ‘wic’ sites around the North Sea. Just like Abu Dhabi and Dubai, they were market centres maintained by a rich elite as places of trade through which to acquire high-status products, the 8th-century equivalents of the Lexus cars that abound today. If that parallel works, what features of these modern cities might have been replicated in wics? The cosmopolitan population is one obvious feature: if traders are coming and going, and some staying while there is money to be made, then there will be a mix of ethnicities and languages. Another thing that is conspicuous in Abu Dhabi today is the vanity project. Sheik Whoever decides that a small town that is important to his tribe should have a major art gallery and collection, and money and personnel are thrown at the project to make it so. I wonder if something similar happened in association with wics, and whether some buildings and other manifestations of English Christianity had their origins in vanity projects?

Only 24 hours after returning from Arabia to Manchester Airport, it is difficult to get a sense of perspective (or of anything else). My main feeling at the moment is of having spent time in the company of a particularly skillful and good-natured small team in pursuit of some really fascinating archaeology, in a country that is familiar in many aspects (KFC outlets at gas stations) and quite alien in others (Qibla arrows showing the direction of Mecca on hotel bedroom ceilings). Oh yes, and of looking up during breakfast one morning and seeing an osprey soaring overhead. That was nice.

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Team Camel, or most of it. From the left, Marjan, Ahmed, Will, Mark, Terry, Karyne. Photo by Sonia, which is why she’s not in it.

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