The Musandam Peninsula (Oman) Expedition

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Dr. Richard Rothaus (Sauk Rapids, MN), Jim Mandelli, P.E. and Dr. Simon Donato musandam_mapcompleted an expedition to investigate a largely unexplored area in the Musandam peninsula of Oman in March 2011. The expedition was led by Dr. Simon Donato, founder of Adventure Science (adventurescience.ca) an organization focused on scientific investigation of extreme environments unreachable by standard field teams. The group also carried flag #71 of the New York based Explorers Club. The mountains of the Musandam create the bottleneck known as the Strait of Hormuz, and the rugged area has only a handful of inhabitants, clustered in small seasonal camps and villages along the coastline. The upland areas are roadless and unmapped. The last geological research party to document the region was a Royal Geographic Society of London expedition in 1971. Of the interior, this team wrote “the terrain was far too mountainous to explore, therefore we did not visit it.” This ruggedness, combined with the military tensions in the region, has kept visitors at bay.

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According to local fishermen, the team was the first group of Westerners in the area in over 20 years, and the only group they knew of attempting to reach the interior. The idea for the expedition was formed by Donato and Rothaus during three previous field seasons in southern Oman studying paleotsunami deposits. The Musandam expedition was focused on scouting for tsunami deposits and an overview survey of the inland archaeological sites. The logistical challenges of the expedition were substantial. As the region is roadless and prior knowledge of trails was sketchy, the team opted to place water caches at multiple small inlets and to backpack the rest of the supplies. The team arrived just at the beginning of the 2011 “Arab Spring” and the increased tensions made it difficult to hire a boat to shuttle the supplies and the team members.

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The team worked from a series of basecamps. Donato and Mandelli, both accomplished endurance athletes and climbers, worked the highlands, and Rothaus working the lowlands and archaeological sites. Donato and Mandelli were able to travel at a high speed that allowed them to document numerous upland sites that would be unreachable by most individuals in the short time allotted. The initial plans to travel overland from cache to cache proved problematic in the rugged terrain, and the team encountered numerous cliffs, scree fields and other hazards not marked on existing topographic maps (which are Russian Cold War relics). Some areas were so difficult that even Donato and Mandelli could not traverse them. Rerouting using satellite images and judicious flagging down of fishing boats proved successful.

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No tsunami deposits were located. While disappointing, the result was not unexpected as the researchers knew this was a long-shot. Archaeological sites, however, were numerous, including the very large site visible on satellite images and dubbed “the Machu Picchu of Oman” by the team. The team identified over 20 sites, including several agricultural settlements. These settlements were marked by awab, which are enclosed agricultural fields. These awab are curiously clustered in the upland areas, where access to fresh water, trade routes and other food sources are limited, and in such positions they are a testament to the willingness of humans to bend the environment to meet their needs.

While awab often are terraces used as catchments for sediment and moisture, these awab were simply walled-off plateau areas where the rocks had been meticulously (and at great effort) removed. While some of the structures had cisterns and rain catchment elements, the team rarely found evidence of irrigation in the awab, and it seems that many were watered by hand.

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Associated with the awab were small settlements, probably housing no more than four or five families. Most of the structures were partially intact, a result of rock being the only available building material as well as the arid environment. Several of the structures evidenced under-floor storage areas; a necessity to protect perishable items from the heat and sun. The date of these awab and structures is uncertain. For obvious reasons, the team was on each site for only a short amount of time. Some of the remains seem to be 18th and 19th century structures associated with the Shihuh, the main inhabitants of the region. While the Shihuh are now mostly town dwellers, in the past they would used upland areas for growing barley, and favored a boiled barley dish (harees) that was sjulfar_jugtored under the floor. The team found several old Bait al Qufl (locked store houses), many of which still contained the large ceramic storage jars used for oil, grain and water. These storage jars are a type of Julfar Ware, manufactured in a village south of the expedition area. While the Julfar ware provides a date for the structures, it is not a very good date: Julfar Ware was manufactured from the 14th century until 1970, with few stylistic variations. More precise dates may be possible, but that will have to wait some other expedition focused on the issue.

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The team suspects that some of the awab and structures are earlier than the 18th and 19th century. One problem of historic archaeology in the area is the very slow pace of change. Houses built in the 14th century looked pretty much like the houses of the 19th century. The ceramics, as already noted, are similar as well. Noticeably lacking in the project area are the Chinese and southeast Asian fine wares that dominate sites on the Portuguese and western trade routes. The team found only a few such pieces, and none of those were particularly diagnostics. Donato, in a particularly sharp-eyed moment also spotted a single carnelian bead. The lack of other goods is part of the interesting story of the extreme area. The Portuguese aggressively moved into the Strait of Hormuz in the 16th century in an attempt to control trade routes, and into the 17th century they took over and created towns along the eastern Arabian cost. This period looms large in the archaeological record, as huge amounts of trade goods moved through the region. The uplands of Musandam, however, seem largely untouched by these events.

Accounts of the expedition appear on the Adventure Science website, the Explorers Club website (http://www.explorers.org/pdf/Flag_71_-_Simon_V._Donato_Flag_Report_7-19-11.pdf), and the Feb 2012 issue of AAPG Explorer (http://www.aapg.org/explorer/2012/02feb/adventure0212.cfm).

 

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