Fingerprints of Ancient Masons Reveal Advanced Iron Age Construction Technique
Sometimes a discovery really brings the past alive. One such is the recent discovery of 3000-year old fingerprints that have been found in the United Arab Emirates. This discovery is allowing experts to better understand the skilled workmen of the period and indicating how ancient people were able to use their construction skills to develop a remarkable civilization in an arid landscape.
The discovery was made in the UAE, in the south-east of the Arabian Peninsula. It was made at a large archaeological site, Al-Ain, which is situated in the modern city of the same name. This location was once a settlement that was inhabited from the Bronze to the Iron Age.
According to UNESCO, it ‘includes various archaeological, architectural, hydraulic, urban, and landscape testimonies.’ The significance of the site means that it was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It was first excavated in 1967 and Emirati experts recommenced digging at Al-Ain in 2018.
View of Al Ain from Jebel Hafeet mountain. (Leonid Andronov / Adobe)
Ancient Fingerprints in Mudbricks
Archaeologists found a large number of bricks with impressions of fingerprints. The fingerprints are very deep and there is typically a set of them on a brick. Ancient fingerprints have also been found in other bricks ranging from Egypt to Denmark some dating back 5,000 years.
Prints have been found before at the site, but according to The National “these new examples are remarkably well-preserved.” This means that they can be studied to provide more insights on how people lived in the area in the remote past. Local researchers are now considering sending the impressions to experts in ‘paleodermatoglyphics,’ the science of studying ancient fingerprints.
Insight Into Ancient Construction Workers
The National quotes Ali Al Meqbali the head of the archaeology team investigating Al Ain, that “from the prints, we can figure out the age of the group.” Then by studying the impressions and their shapes and measuring their depth, something can be understood about the way that bricks were made. Paleodermatoglyphics can really help us to understand how work was organized and the nature of ancient building techniques.
The prints are most likely not from the actual makers of the brick but rather from construction workers. They are the impressions of skilled workers such as masons. The experts at Al Ain believe that the bricks with the indentations were part of a wall.
Homes excavated in Hili 2 in Al Ain. (Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi)
It is likely that these impressions were made deliberately in the mudbricks, as part of the construction of the wall. The impressions were filled with a crude mortar which would have allowed the bricks to be cemented together. This is a technique still common in the area, and according to the National, locally, “these indentations are known as ‘frogs’ and are a critical part of construction.”
This would indicate that there were a specialized group of skilled construction workers in the area. They formed a network who shared skills, resources, and information. As a result, experts have come to believe that the people in the region could conduct large-scale construction projects, based on the fingerprints found on the mudbricks.
A clay tannour / oven found at Hili 2 in Al Ain. (Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi)
A Sophisticated Culture and Society
Archaeologists have made a range of exciting finds in the location recently. They have unearthed buildings and other remains that indicate that the inhabitants of the town were very sophisticated and lived quite luxurious lives. They have found communal ovens and a seal that is providing evidence of some rudimentary form of bureaucracy. These achievements were possible in part because of the society’s advanced construction techniques, especially the ability to develop ingenious irrigation projects for agriculture.
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Clay seals - one with the engraving of a gazelle. (Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi)
The National quotes Mohamed Al Mubarak, chairperson of the UAE Department of Culture and Tourism, that the discoveries “bring previously unknown details about our past to light, for us and for future generations.” The fingerprints are showing that construction techniques probably helped the ancestors of present-day Emiratis to manage a harsh environment and to create a sophisticated culture and society. Further study of the prints by experts may reveal more insights.
Top image: The ancient fingerprints of a worker who helped build a wall in ancient Al Ain. Source: Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi / Fair Use.
By Ed Whelan