This week saw the publication of some amazing news from the Arabian pensinsula. French archaeologists have recently discovered the oldest sanctuary in Arabia near the Strait of Hormuz and evidence of ritual practice involving the marine mammal often believed to be the source of the legend of the mermaid.
The latest edition of Antiquity reveals the results of the French Archaeological Mission’s expedition to the UAE, namely a site on the island of Akab, the oldest sanctuary in Arabia, as well as the oldest known ceremonial site dedicated to a very particular marine mammal, the dugong.
The island of Akab is located 50km north of Dubai in the large lagoon of Umm Al Quwain and the ancient sanctuary provides us with the first evidence of the rituals practised by the prehistoric coastal societies of the Gulf. Akab was a fishermen’s village between 4700 and 4100BC. The locals lived in circular dwellings and fished with nets and lines using hooks made from the shell of the pearl oyster. The fishermen exploited the resources of the lagoon and the nearby mangrove but they also fished tuna, which meant venturing out into the open sea.
However, perhaps the most interesting news relates to a mound of bones discovered in the 1990s. Test excavations then interpreted the mound as a sea cow butchering site. The excavation was resumed between 2006 and 2009 by a new team of prehistorians and faunal experts and their work has shown that far from being an unorganized mound, but a complex structure of intentional form.
Carbon dating on a dugong bone has attributed it to the second half of the fourth millennium (3500-3200 BC). The structure consists of an ovoid platform extending to nearly 10 square metres and contains the remains of at least 40 dugongs.
There appear to be a full range of dugongs represented, from calf to mature animal, yet no complete animal has been found. That there was an intentional selection is clear from the fact that certain anatomical parts, such as the ribs, vertebrae or limbs, are under-represented. Furthermore, evidence shows that the bones were deposited shortly after the animal was killed.
In addition to anatomical remains, 1,862 small finds were also present in the structure, including beads and tools, and some remains of other animals namely gazelle, sheep and goat.
That this is a ritual site is clear – the dugong skulls are all oriented eastwards (as are human skulls in Neolithic necropolises in other sites in UAE). There are also echoes of the site in the green turtle necropolis at Ra’s al-Hamra in Oman, which is contemporary with the Akab monument.
This dugong construction is unique in the Middle-East in its scale, though other dugong bones have been found Al Markh, a fourth-millennium settlement site in Bahrain and the Bronze Age the sites of Umm An Nar, Tell Abraq, Shimal and Ra's Ghanadha in the UAE. But it has no parallel in the Neolithic in other parts of the world. The Australian coast of the Torres Strait has some comparable ceremonial sites, but they date to the 14th C AD at the earliest.
Animal lovers will be pleased to note that the dugong is now protected by the UAE, having previously been hunted for its flesh, oil and hide.