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Dr. Abdullah Al-Naima and Dr. Ferhan Sakal

Earlier this year, The Department of Archaeology at Qatar Museums (QM) announced the discovery of new archaeological remains in Asaila, located west of Qatar. The initial excavation and investigation date of this site is between 300 BCE and 300 CE, which makes it one of the oldest archaeological sites in the region. The excavation has unearthed the sacrificial grave of a camel along with tombs of people buried with their belongings. To learn more about how these remains can help our understanding of the past of the region and what it signifies for us today, we sit down with Dr. Faisal Abdullah Al Naimi, Head of Archaeology at Qatar Museums, and Dr. Ferhan Sakal, Head of Excavation and Site Management, for this month’s Research Matters.

  1. Can you share some brief details of how this discovery came about?

Prehistoric populations in Qatar, and even in the whole Gulf region, have always been a lesser understood part of the history of the region. We do not know a lot about the lives of these people and we are trying to squeeze as much information from the few remains we have. Due to climate conditions, non-availability of suitable material, and also maybe because of their lifestyle; people living in this area did not choose to build monumental durable architecture and did not settle in large settlements, towns, or cities as others did in different regions of the West Asia, like Mesopotamia, Anatolia and the Levant. In the absence of information that archaeologists normally gather from settlements, our main focus has always been the grave mounds these people constructed. It seems that they chose to build visible, and in some areas even monumental, grave mounds to mark the location of the graves of their loved and respected ones.

In the past, graves would deliver information about the sex, age and diseases of the buried person and objects inside the graves would allow us to compare them with similar objects found in a settlements context in order to correlate and date them. With the new methods used in archaeology, medicine and other science fields graves are now like time capsules with lots of diverse information about the buried person and their environment. Now we are able to say what these people ate, suffered from and even if they were local or came from elsewhere. This gives us a great opportunity to reconstruct their lives, understand their movements and interconnection with others and their environment. To collect this information, we started an excavation project identifying grave mounds of different types, from different periods, and different regions of Qatar.

Of course, archaeologists do not conduct all this research alone. Archeology is a very interdisciplinary field of research and collaborates with other sciences like geology, geography, biological anthropology, zoology, botany, chemistry, etc. Therefore, our current research is a collaboration between the scientists from Sidra Medicine, the Biology Department of “Tor Vergata” University of Rome and the Archaeology Department of Qatar Museums Authority. The samples we were collecting during the excavations are now being analyzed in Qatar, Italy, UK and USA.

  1. What kind of remains were discovered in the excavation and what can you tell us about them?

The graves we excavated in Kharsaah (in the Asailah Region of West Qatar) are the largest ones in Qatar. Because they were visible over millennia, they have been subject to robbing activities, probably already in the antiquity. This was true for the human graves we excavated. However, between the human graves a ritual camel grave was discovered that was not touched by robbers. This grave contained the complete skeleton of an adult camel and after the excavation, it became clear that the camel was brought to its grave alive and forced to sit inside the grave pit and then slaughtered. Its neck was folded backwards and placed on its back. In the same grave we also found remains of a young animal, which we believe is the calve of the adult camel. This is the first time a complete camel skeleton was ever found in Qatar. One ritual grave for a camel was previously discovered in the 1960s at Al Mazroah, however, the camel skeleton there was not complete.

From the human grave mounds we have collected samples and even found some objects, which were given to the buried person as gifts for the next life. These objects and the bioarchaeological samples are now under study.

  1. What do these remains signify, especially in understanding the history of Qatar and the region, and what does it mean for the people of Qatar?

By studying these remains, we will be able to understand the interconnection of people living in the region and their relation to each other and even to other groups beyond the Gulf. This will help us to understand the role of the Qatar Peninsula during the prehistoric ages and why people chose to live in this peninsula, which lacks many important resources like sweet water.

The ritual camel grave puts the grave mounds of Kharsaah in a context where elites of a group that existed in this area 2000 years ago chose to take their riding animals to next life. Similar graves have been found in Oman and the UAE. Through our research, we are now able to better understand the extension and the age of this funeral tradition, which is even mentioned in pre-Islamic poetry.

  1. What is next in the pipeline after this discovery and how do you plan to build on the findings of this project?

The remains retrieved in the excavation are currently being analyzed by a broad array of anthropological techniques.

The morphological analysis of the human bones allows the assessment of gender and age at death, the estimation of living stature and physical constitution, as well as the evaluation of the health status and stress markers that might help reconstruct activity patterns.

We are also studying the ancient biomolecules of the samples retrieved. The study of ancient biomolecules provides a direct understanding into the biological past and allows us to track evolutionary processes in real time. As an example, the isotopic and genetic analysis of the samples retrieved helps us to chronologically date those samples as well as to study the evolution, the mobility, and the dietary patterns of the ancient population of Qatar.

We expect this ground-breaking project to place Qatar at the forefront of international research.

  1. Any word of advice for our upcoming researchers and scientists who are interested in archaeology and history of the region?

Compared with other regions of Western Asia, the archaeology of the Gulf is still a very young area of research and therefore full of opportunities. Additionally, the transition of the Gulf States from traditional economies to a state of modern development and urbanization pushes archaeologists to document archaeological remains in newly- chosen development areas. This gives young researchers great opportunities to conduct research while using cutting edge technology and methodology to establish themselves as actors in the field of future archaeological research.

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