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Ancient recycling discovered at the Saruq Al Hadid site. Source: Jan Kurzawa / PAP.

Ancient Metalworkers in Dubai Desert Had Sustainable Production Ethics

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Archaeologists in southern Dubai unearthed evidence of upcycling at least 3,000 years-ago.

Polish archaeologists discovered the ‘upcycled’ objects at the famous Saruq Al Hadid excavation site near the northern verge of the Rub al-Khalil desert (southern Dubai), Saruq Al Hadid. Dating to 3,000 years-ago, the range of Iron Age artifacts discovered here speaks of a metallurgic center in which inhabitants, according to an article in The First News were “early green pioneers” who rather than discarding broken ceramics, reshaped them into tools. True sustainability.

Treasures From an Ancient Mining Oasis

Saruq Al Hadid was an ancient industrial metallurgical center that specialized in copper smelting and the many layers of thick black slag tell archaeologists that this production base lasted until the pre-Islamic period, about 300 AD. This once thriving desert community is now covered by deep sand dunes.

Copper slag from the Saruq Al Hadid site. (Alexandermcnabb / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Copper slag from the Saruq Al Hadid site. (Alexandermcnabb / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

 Archaeological teams began digging in 2002, and since, the site has revealed an enormous amount of 3,000 year-old artifacts made from copper, bronze, iron, gold, and silver. These discoveries tell scientists about an oasis, or maybe a complex of oases, with a large number of trees and even lakes that enjoyed a period of relative prosperity and peace.

In recent excavations the Polish archaeologists discovered “2,600 metal objects” including weapons, decorations, jewelry, and iconic or magical items like figurines of snakes, said Dr. Juchniewicz. The majority of these items are thought to have been made about 3,000 years ago but researchers now know that mining and smelting metals had been carried out at the location as long as 1,000 years earlier than believed.

Fighting Mother Nature’s Scowl

Dr. Juchniewicz told Science In Poland that broken ceramic vessels “were not thrown away”, but rather, they were modified into tools and this is the only explanation for the location of metal production furnaces in a place that is today an endless desert. And the Polish researchers said they were “astonished” to find traces of the Iron Age equivalent of upcycling, meaning 3,000 years ago the inhabitants recycled rather than tossing broken items over their shoulders.

Ancient metalworkers recycled rather than tossing broken items away. (Jan Kurzawa / PAP)

Ancient metalworkers recycled rather than tossing broken items away. (Jan Kurzawa / PAP)

While Dr. Juchniewicz says she is very satisfied with the results from the first season of research, there are still many more secrets to uncover, and while nearly 3,229 square feet (300 square meters) were thoroughly examined, working in Saruq was very difficult because of the need to “constantly fight the ever-changing desert dunes and sand landslides”.

Small Settlement With A Big Spread

The environment challenges would have been no different when Saruq Al Hadid was in its heyday and the metalworkers must have been consumed with accounting for changing and extreme environmental conditions. But so too must have been the alchemists, for they needed accurate temperatures to best control the densities of their amalgams.

Perhaps equally as interesting as the metallic treasures listed above, 53 clay seals were unearthed from the site which represent the largest collection of Iron Age seals in the Arabian Peninsula. What’s more, these seals have distinctive patterns from 'Dilmun', as well as animal, figurative, crescent, pyramid, and star designs which demonstrate the sites links with Mesopotamia, the Indo-Iranian area, and Egypt. A 2017 University of New England research paper published by the Seminar for Arabian Studies, Saruq-al-Hadid Archaeological Research Project says another collection of seals and pottery link the site with the  Sumerians of Mesopotamia while carnelian beads point to links with the Indus Valley.

Pottery fragments found at the ancient recycling site. (UAE)

Pottery fragments found at the ancient recycling site. ( UAE)

Big Spread With A Massive Reach

Further demonstrating the international reach of Saruq Al Hadid, in September 2014, the University of New England (UNE), Australia, began a three year program of archaeological fieldwork on the site of Saruq Al Hadid and found early Iron Age carved wooden artifacts crafted in local woods such as Acacia, Ghaf, and Sidr, but also items made from olive and pine wood, which points to early trade links with the Levant.

So if you find yourself in Dubai one day, with a few hours to spare, the Saruq Al Hadid Archaeology Museum in the Shindagha heritage district of Dubai features mind blowing collections and detailed explanations of the archaeological history associated with each of the items. And what it perhaps the museum’s finest attribute is its simplicity, in that the rooms contain clearly classified collections of metalwork, animal bones, snake symbols, and jewelry, together telling the story of a lost culture of metalworkers in what is today an uninhabitable sun scorched desert.

Top image: Ancient recycling discovered at the Saruq Al Hadid site. Source: Jan Kurzawa / PAP.

By Ashley Cowie

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