Terry O'Connor

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Return to Camelgeddon!


If it’s November, this must be Baynunah, a desert region of western Abu Dhabi. For the second year, we have been on an excavation at a 6000-year old site where a great many camels met their end at the hands of Neolithic people, on the edges of a patch of wetland. Today the site is bone dry: literally so, as white fragments of camel bone litter an area of about 1/3 hectare surrounded by sand dunes. Last year we showed that this was the site of prehistoric hunting of wild camels. The question for 2016 was whether it was one spectacular event or a series over a period of time and, if the latter, how many events over how many years?


Baynunah camel site from the north-east. From here, you can barely see the camels

But you don’t want a lot of blather about camel bones. After the thousandth or so, even camel bones begin to pall somewhat, despite the fact that this is one of the best samples we have of extinct wild dromedary camels. They were big brutes, that much is clear, and anyone that took them on as prey needed to push the odds a bit. By driving the camels into shallow water with soft sediment, hunters slowed up the camels, probably disoriented them, and increased their chances of getting amongst the critters with flint-tipped projectiles.


Ah, here are some 6000 year-old dead camels

It is easy not to notice the desert. The site is close to a corridor in which oil and gas pipelines and overhead electricity lines run across the desert. This year, we had a nearby gas pipeline under construction, giving a constant background noise of vehicle engines and compressors, a noise-scape that gradually came closer to the site as the days passed and the pipeline progressed. Finally today, on our last day on site, they were just a couple of dunes away. But rejoice! It was Friday, so everyone was off-site at Friday prayers, leaving the desert to us.
One of the fun things about arriving on site in the morning is the evidence of nocturnal wildlife. The big dung beetles that live all around, including in our site tent, leave a characteristic trace with their V-Shaped feet. Small hoppity tracks of gerbils are usually to be seen, as are the larger tracks of desert hares. Snakes and skink tracks are more difficult to distinguish, as skinks drag their belly along the sand. However, they do have legs so the traces of feet dragged through the edge of the trail can usually be seen. Today’s bag included a fox-sized canid.


Morning wildlife, mostly desert hares plus a gerbil (left)

We try to get to the site fairly early, even though it is an hour’s drive from our base on the coast. Early enough, the air is relatively cool and the light low enough for photography. By mid-morning it warms up appreciably, even though this is winter, and by noon everyone heads to the tent for an early lunch and a snooze. Afternoons are often breezy: cooler, but a real nuisance as sand blows everywhere and site notebooks get ideas of their own. Finally the sun begins to get low again, we take a last round of photos, and head for home. The late afternoon light on the desert is my favourite part of the day, the low angle accentuating subtle differences in the wrinkling and rimpling of the sand and the reddening light bringing out the subtle colours. I even have my favourite sand dune on our homeward run, sure evidence that it is time to return home. When we get back to Al Mirfa, the priorities are simple: shower and beer. The former removes that peculiar compound of fine sand and sunscreen that coats the desert archaeologist and the latter makes the world seem a better place, even when it isn’t.


Nearly sunset. Sonia lacing up the tent for the night

One amusing detail this year was that my birthday coincided with our arrival at Al Mirfa. I had kept this quiet. However as we checked in at our hotel, the receptionist handed me back my passport with a smile and wished me a happy birthday, having seen my birthdate on the passport. There followed a bit of intrigue. Our room wasn’t quite ready, would we like to get some lunch? So we did, then found out why the room needed more attention. Rose-tinted leaves spelled out ‘Happy Birthday’ across our bed, and a rather fine cream cake (with candles) awaited us. My plan to let my birthday pass quietly had been thwarted, though it was a rather nice gesture.


Let’s keep this quiet, OK? No fuss…..

Waiting by the vans in the early morning is enjoyable. Trees and bushes around the parking area are alive with white-cheeked bulbuls, laughing doves and sparrows, with occasional visits from bee-eaters and parakeets. There are some geese, too, to remind me of my years on the York campus.
Frankly, a couple of weeks of desert fieldwork is fairly exhausting, and I am amazed that our local colleagues run several sites like this every year. Will we be back in 2017? I hope so, funding permitting, as there is more to do at this remarkable site. Besides, I want to keep an eye on my favourite sand-dune and wake up to the chattering of bulbuls.


Lizard. Obviously.

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