The University of Chicago News Office
August 31, 1997 Press Contact: William Harms
(773) 702-8356

Arabia’s Earliest Towns Found by University of Chicago Archaeologists

University of Chicago archaeologists have discovered that, contrary to what scholars previously thought, towns developed in Arabia long before the frankincense trade evolved.

Traditional scholarship regards the first Arabian towns as being a direct result of the frankincense trade between southern Arabia and the Mediterranean during the first millennium B.C., roughly coincident with references to the Queen of Sheba (or Sab’a). A discovery by a team from the University’s Oriental Institute shows, however, that towns developed much earlier, slightly before 2000 B.C.

The towns found by the Oriental Institute team were remarkable not only for their age, but for the advanced degree of agricultural engineering the culture developed. The people built some of the world’s first agricultural terraces and later developed an excellent system of dams to use floods from mountain valleys.

Terraced agriculture in Yemen probably began about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, making it among the oldest in the world, the archaeologists said. China did not develop the practice for another 1,000 years.

The two towns the team excavated are Hamat al-Qa, which dates between 2250 B.C. and 1500 B.C. and Al-Sibal, which dates between 2500 B.C. and 1700 B.C. They are located in a high plateau region about 50 miles from San’a, the capital of Yemen. The towns apparently grew up independent of trade with other areas of the ancient Near East.

“Rather than growing up in the arid valleys fringing the Arabian desert, as was the case of the incense trade towns, these early centers developed on the more verdant plateau to the southwest, at elevations in excess of 6,500 feet," said Tony Wilkinson, Research Associate at the Oriental Institute and a leader of the research team.

The towns, one of which had a defensive wall, also had other settlements that were subordinate to them. The cities had rectangular houses and streets. A primary industry at some sites was the production of tools and weapons from obsidian, an extremely hard, glass-like rock found in the base of nearby hill slopes.

The discovery of the towns, which were up to 12 acres in size, expands understanding of the emergence of urban civilization and shows how the people living there developed a form of agriculture that is still used.

In Yemen today, as elsewhere in the world, terraced fields remain an important feature of mountainous agricultural regions. In Yemen they help support villages in one of the most densely populated area in the Middle East.

A number of studies have been done on agriculture in Yemen from the viewpoint of modern technology, but the University of Chicago project was the “the first study of the terraces in an archaeological context,” said McGuire Gibson, Professor at the Oriental Institute. Gibson and Wilkinson recently completed three field seasons during which they identified ancient terraces and found numerous new archaeological sites in the mountainous central region of Yemen.

Gibson and Wilkinson determined that a rich loam developed between 9,000 and 5,000 years ago when the mountains were covered with thick vegetation and rainfall was probably greater than today.

As people cleared vegetation to plant crops, they likely developed the system to enlarge the cultivated area in the mountain valleys, but the techniques also operated as a means of preventing

erosion, Gibson said. Unlike elsewhere in the world, soil was not transported to the area, but terraces were constructed with available stones and soil settled behind them.

Although terraces remain in use throughout the area, many of the oldest ones have fallen into disrepair. The Oriental Institute team estimated the age of the oldest terrace by dating an archaeological site nearby that they think was built between 2000 and 3000 B.C, they said.

The early construction of terraces, which was followed some two thousand years later by the erection of dams, demonstrated a thorough understanding of civil engineering, the researchers pointed out.

Stone dams were constructed across wadis, channels created by rainwater. Many of the dams in the area with the most terraces were low, relatively weak structures used to collect rainwater and direct it towards valley fields.

The team also found higher dams, which also deflected flood water. To channel the water, workmen built sluices adjacent to the dams and in many cases carved these chanels through bedrock.

“To build the dams, people used very finely cut volcanic rock,” Wilkinson said. “The builders of the dams had a precise understanding, not only of dam construction, but also of the whole watershed system that fed the dams. They were able to construct just the right size dam for each particular area.”
Last modified at 03:50 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

University of Chicago News Office
5801 South Ellis Avenue - Room 200
Chicago, Illinois 60637-1473
(773) 702-8360
Fax: (773) 702-8324
Contact Us