Three-thousand-year old fingerprints have been found on ancient bricks at an Iron Age village in Al Ain. The impressions are believed to come from workers who were building a wall at Hili 2 — a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The major discovery provides evidence of a skilled network of craftsmen adept at construction in what is now modern-day UAE.
Revealed this week, the find also confronts stereotypes that the early Emiratis lived bleak, short lives. Instead they show a vibrant community of people thriving in a harsh landscape.
“We are thrilled with the results of our investigations,” said Mohamed Al Mubarak, chairman of the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi. “The discoveries at Hili 2 bring previously unknown details about our past to light, for us and for future generations.”
While ancient prints have been found before, these new examples are remarkably well-preserved. Experts from DCT are now considering sending them for forensic analysis to learn more about the people who left their mark.
“From the prints we can figure out the age of the group, ” said Ali Al Meqbali, DCT’s head of archaeology in Al Ain. “It will also help us understand the building techniques.”
Excavations by at least five archaeologists over the past few months have shed new light on how Iron Age people lived, cooked, grew crops and socialised. Clay seals and communal ovens have also been found.
Hili 2 — located to the northeast of Al Ain town centre — was first excavated in the 1970s when the existence of well-preserved houses was revealed. But teams returned in 2018 to begin targeted, painstaking investigations on each house. The fruits of that arduous work are now being borne out.
The key question was how these people built walls. It is now believed that craftsmen used their hands to create indentations in the mud-bricks which then held the mortar — made of mud, stones and water — and bonded the wall together. Today these indentations are known as “frogs” and are a critical part of construction. Many bricks had these fingerprints but it is not yet clear how many people are involved.
“The research at Hili 2 reveals an unparalleled window into the past,” said Mr Al Mubarak. “The archaeological results illustrate how our ancestors used available materials, in a sophisticated and optimal fashion, to build houses and buildings that would last for millennia.”
Excavations have also revealed the existence of well-preserved ovens. Known as tannours, they are built of clay and contain burnt stones. It is believed the stones would have been heated and then sheep or goat meat would be cooked on them. These tannours were found not in individual houses but at communal spaces and it is likely they were used by families at special occasions. A clay seal with an engraving of a gazelle that was probably used for decoration or administration was also unearthed.
“It helps us understand the daily activities and lifestyle of this time,” said Mr Al Al Meqbali. “They cooked together and lived together.”
The new findings at Hili 2 — now being sent for further analysis — prove again how adaptable and skilled the people who lived here thousands of years ago were. A testament to their work is that 3,000 years on, many of the walls built by the people at Hili 2 are still standing.
It also follows a wave of archaeological work by DCT over the past few years that has radically reshaped our understanding of the past.
Recent work on Marawah Island, for example, has shown the existence of an advanced Stone Age community who expertly exploited the resources around them. Elsewhere in Al Ain last year, archaeologists unearthed the remains of a 1,000-year-old mosque — thought to be the earliest yet discovered in the UAE.