The world’s oldest natural pearl, called the “Emirates’ pearl,” is, for the first time, being shown to the public at the Sharjah Archaeology Museum in a special exhibition celebrating a four-decade partnership with French archaeologists to unearth the hidden secrets of the United Arab Emirates’ past.
The exhibition, titled “40 Years of Archaeological Cooperation between the United Arab Emirates and France” is to run through January 31, 2018. It is supported by UNESCO and co-organised with L’institut Français in the UAE, the cultural department of the French Embassy.
The “Emirates’ pearl” is one of 100 unique objects excavated by the French Archaeological Mission to the UAE since it began work in 1977. Teams led by the French Archaeological Mission have worked in Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah and Umm al-Quwain on the most significant excavations carried out in the country.
The exhibition is guest-curated by Sophie Méry, an archaeologist and ceramologist specialising in the early history of Arabia who led the French Archaeological Mission in Abu Dhabi from 1995-99 and has since headed the mission in the country.
“We present here today a number of objects from all the main 11 sites we excavated, and they are from the Neolithic to the Islamic period until the 17th century AD,” Méry said. “We have made a selection of the objects we found including ornaments, weapons, jewellery, vessels in pottery or soft stone, incense burners, etc…”
“Through our excavations, we are able to show that there is a continuum in history which (starts) in the Neolithic times, even before the cultural identity, which is the central identity of the Emirates. It goes to 7,500 years ago.”
Méry explained that the style of the jewellery and the weapons “are very special, rather unique,” while sharing technologies and some styles from neighbouring countries.
“The technology of the fish hooks — made of mother of pearl and shell fish and oyster shells — is common in the UAE and Oman. As far as we know today, these are not found in Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Kuwait,” she said.
“We were also glad to find in Umm al-Quwain the most ancient pearls, which means the most ancient vestige of pearling in that emirate, and it dates back 7,500 years ago.”
French Ambassador to the UAE Ludovic Pouille hailed the “very symbolic” event, which he said not only “marks 40 years of cooperation in the field of archaeology but celebrates more than 40 years of friendship between the UAE and France.”
“We are so proud to have been able to work with Emirati archaeologists to help them in discovering and revealing to the public the history of this country. This country is young — only 46 years old — but its history goes very deep. This exhibition is a very good opportunity to discover that the UAE was already a hub between the Mediterranean and the Indus civilisations 7,000 years ago,” Pouille said.
“We have pieces from five emirates and from across 11 sites where the French archaeologists have worked for the last 40 years and will continue to do so for the next 40 years to help discover the history of this country with their Emirati friends and counterparts,” the ambassador added.
Excavations started in 1977 at Jebel Hafeet, Hili and Rumeilah in the eastern region of Abu Dhabi emirate. In 1985, the French archaeologists’ work extended to sites in Sharjah, Umm al-Quwain and Ras Al Khaimah and, in 1999, to Fujairah.
French archaeology teams have returned every year, making critical discoveries of numerous valuable artefacts, including flint arrowheads, mother-of-pearl fish hooks, painted pottery and jewellery made from shells that date from the Neolithic period.
Bronze Age objects at the exhibition include pottery created locally and elsewhere in the region, revealing the UAE’s importance as a centre of trade. Iron Age objects include a range of weapons, such as copper arrowheads and a bronze dagger. Advancements in pottery are revealed by intricate incense burners and figurines.
Highlights from the Late Pre- Islamic Period include silver coins, a bronze bull head and a bronze plaque inscribed in Aramaic. More recent Islamic Age discoveries feature a huge range of pottery and ceramic objects made locally and taken to the UAE from Iran, China and Thailand.
Manal Ataya, director-general of Sharjah Museums Authority, said: “The excavations have revealed many treasures that provide us with significant knowledge of the past socio-economic habits of the people living here from the Neolithic to Islamic periods.
“For visitors, these discoveries present an incredible opportunity to learn about UAE history and heritage and to understand the important role of archaeologists in discovering artefacts and sites that enrich our country’s identity.”
N.P. Krishna Kumar is an Arab Weekly correspondent in Dubai.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.