Reporter 454, 19 June 2000


Linguist helps to decode the trade secrets of Oman’s ancient mariners

An Australian-led survey team has just published the findings of its work at the site of an ancient Indian Ocean port which was once at the epicentre of world trade – until it was almost totally flattened four centuries ago. A Leeds linguist had a key role in the survey, helping archaeologists interpret their finds by consulting elderly seafarers in neighbouring villages.


Expert witness: Dr Dionisus Agius, centre, interviews Omani elders who provided valuable insights

Dr Dionisius Agius, reader in Arabic and the Medieval Mediterranean, joined the Oman maritime heritage project research team in exploring the ruins of the old town of Qalhat and explored the seabed off its shore.

The aim of his two-year Leverhulme fellowship was to study traditional dhows of the Arabian Gulf and Oman, establishing an historical-linguistic link between the present and the medieval Islamic period. This fitted neatly with the aims of the Oman project and helped its researches into the discovered artefacts.


Faded glories: the 600-year old mausoleum of Bibi Maryam, above, is virtually all that still stands of the ancients trading city of Qalhat

The underwater archaeology team chose Qalhat because it was for many centuries the gateway to the Gulf and the Indian Ocean – the entrepôt of the monsoon trade, much frequented by merchant ships as the diaries of Pliny the Elder, Marco Polo, Ibn Battu’ta and Alfonso d’Alboquerque pointed out. The many fine pieces of broken pottery and glass littered all over the ruins suggest that it was once a thriving port town.

For five weeks, 32 researchers camped at the low cliffs of Qalhat overlooking the beach, enduring temperatures as high as 55°C in the shade. Dr Agius’ role was to gather oral history from sea captains, fishermen, seamen, merchants and village storytellers, while the rest of the team – from the Western Australian Maritime Museum, Earth Watch and the Royal Navy of Oman – conducted onshore and undersea surveys.


Tried and tested: a modern Omani dhow, above, preserves highly traditional design features

Dr Agius interviewed more than 60 locals in the towns and villages of the region and gleaned a great deal of information on maritime terminology, fishing and sailing techniques, the use of metal and stone anchors and ringstones. The wealth of local knowledge on ship-types and anchors added value to the findings of the underwater expedition.

"The experience added a wider dimension to my research," he said. "Archaeologists, historians and linguists get better results if they work in a team."


Timesless scene: vessels still plying the Gulf of Oman would have looked familiar to Marco Polo

He was lucky to meet a substantial number of interviewees over the age of 50, some in their late eighties, and many who could cite maritime lore dating back to the time of their great-grandparents in the mid-19th century.

"One problem was the tragic loss of some of my field notes when my tent blew away," he said.

"The Omanis blamed the jinns (or genies) which were supposed to haunt the area, and insisted on performing ceremonies with frankincense and myrrh to drive out the demons."

The underwater archaeological team found 25 stone anchors, rectangular and ring-shaped, near Qalhat harbour. The lithic finds comprised Indo-Arabian stone anchors and anchor fragments, ringstones, three-hole Mediterranean or Red Sea stone anchors, a single-hole stone anchor and what is thought to be a Greek anchor of a previously unknown type, dating from the 6th-4th centuries BCE.These artefacts constitute the largest underwater collection of Indo-Arabian stone anchors known anywhere in the world.

"Their study has the potential to reveal much about ancient, early Islamic, and medieval maritime trade and technology," said Dr Agius. Trials of the holding power of replica anchors are continuing and will yield additional information on the handling of the anchors, and the size of ships which used them.

Disappointingly, no wrecks were found in spite of the use of remote sensor equipment. The salinity of the Gulf water and the abundance of green organisms had caused the complete disintegration of sunken vessels.

Ceramics and other artefacts noted on the surface of the site generally reflected the known history of Qalhat regarding dates, culture and foreign trade. The presence of discarded pottery waste and kiln furniture suggests a very active local ceramic industry, while ironworking is confirmed by the presence of slag deposits.

No excavation has been done at Qalhat, so the bulk of the definitive archaeological history of the site remains locked and protected under the ground – and the surface of the Gulf of Oman.

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