Sept. 25, 1997
Vol. 17, No. 1

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    Researchers unearth oldest Arabian towns

    By William Harms
    News Office

    University 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 Oriental Institute shows, however, that towns developed much earlier, slightly before 2000 B.C.

    The team was led by McGuire Gibson, Professor in the Oriental Institute, and Tony Wilkinson, Research Associate at the Oriental Institute.

    Two towns found by the research team, considered the oldest Arabian towns found to date, are remarkable not only for their age, but for the advanced degree of agricultural engineering the civilization developed. The inhabitants 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," Wilkinson said.

    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 areas in the Middle East.

    A number of studies have been done on agriculture in Yemen from the viewpoint of modern technology, but the University project was the "the first study of the terraces in an archaeological context," Gibson said. 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.