Desert zooarchaeology at Saruq al-Hadid – James Roberts

James Roberts (University of New England, Armidale) discusses his exciting research with the Saruq al-Hadid Archaeological Research Project:

Three years ago I was given the opportunity to head to a site in the United Arab Emirates to look at some animal bone. Along with my supervisor at the time, Professor Naomi Sykes, I found myself heading into the desert to the site of Saruq al-Hadid.


Saruq al-Hadid location

Excavations have been undertaken at the site since the early 2000s focusing mainly on the Early Iron Age (1300-800 BC locally) evidence for metal working. However, a survey undertaken in the mid-2000s identified a significant amount of archaeological remains in stratigraphic layers below this metal working debris. Upon commencing excavations at the site in 2015, the Saruq al-Hadid Archaeological Research Project (SHARP) focused on understanding the site’s stratigraphy.  Working alongside the local Dubai Municipality government the SHARP team were able to identify five broad archaeological horizons at the site, the earliest of which has been dated back to c.2200 BC, the Early Bronze Age in the region.

Compound at Saruq al-Hadid. © Qutaiba Dasouqi

The extensive excavations at the site undertaken by SHARP, over the course of three 4-5 month field seasons, found 1400 years’ worth of occupation at the site dating from 2200 BC – 800 BC. Currently defined as a ‘temporary, persistent place’, it appears that the site was never permanently occupied but rather frequented by human populations, perhaps on a seasonal basis. The excavations unearthed a wealth of material; from dozens of weapons and other metallic objects, to ornate jewellery and ceramics. A particularly notable competent of this material culture is the frequent occurrence of iconographic snake representations, primarily in copper and ceramic form. These representations tie into the wider regional phenomenon of snake depictions being found on objects excavated from multiple contemporary sites. Provisionally dubbed the ‘Snake Cult’, this phenomenon is yet to be fully explored.  Alongside these enigmatic artefacts approximately 1.5 tonnes of faunal remains were recovered from the site, with animal bone being one of the few materials that has been recovered from the site’s entire occupation history. This means that zooarchaeological studies have a great potential to inform on the multiple uses of the site through time.

Over the course of the eleven months I spent on site, I was able to record data from about two-thirds of this material. This analysis sheds new light on human behaviour at the site and in the wider region. From previously un-evidenced interactions between humans and wild animals in the region in the past to new information regarding the timing of camel domestication, the study of these remains has proved to be incredibly rewarding. By combining these results with the findings of the project’s archaeobotanist, we have also identified fairly compelling evidence that the arid environment of Saruq al-Hadid is somewhat different today to how it was 4000 years ago.

© James Roberts

All of these major findings will be written up into five main papers, as part of the PhD by publication that I am currently halfway through. There are many other ongoing studies into these faunal remains, many of which are collaborative with the other material studies being undertaken at the site; for instance, the analysis of blood residues on microliths from the bone midden, in order investigate the potential role of a microlithic tradition in hunting practices at Saruq al-Hadid during the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1500 BC).

Looking to the future, the site is still undergoing excavation and literal tonnes of recovered faunal remains are waiting to be analysed. Additionally a large portion of the known site is yet to be excavated and there is likely archaeology hidden under the sand throughout the surrounding area. Working on the remains from this site has truly demonstrated to me the valuable insights that the study of animal bone can give and its potential to be combined with other material studies. Who knows what new insights into humanity this site will provide in the years to come!

Sunset at Saruq. © SHARP-UNE

For More information on the site and the zooarchaeological studies, see: