The Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology

‘Oil, aspiration and compulsion in Oman’, a report on an SPMA-funded project

Dr Ruth Young, University of Leicester

The SPMA kindly awarded me a grant at the end of 2012 which enabled me to visit Oman in early 2013 with a view to investigating the possibility of initiating a new historical archaeology project there.  Bat, in Daklieh Province, is one of four UNECO World Heritage sites in Oman, and has been inscribed on account of the extraordinary Bronze Age funerary monuments both at Bat and Al Ain, and the monumental Bronze Age ‘towers’ at Bat.  Ongoing archaeological investigations and development of the heritage resources at Bat are being carried out by the American-Japanese Bat Archaeological Project (AJBAP), with the current aims of learning more about the possible functions of the tower structures, the location and nature of settlement associated with both towers and the cemeteries, and also acting as a bridge between local communities and the central government in order to develop the heritage potential of the World Heritage site. 

The modern town of Bat is located adjacent to the World Heritage zone, and like the vast majority of towns in Oman comprises an oasis where date palms are cultivated, at the heart of which is the old (now abandoned) mud brick village, clustered round the central fortified tower or Husn.  The mud brick buildings in Bat can be classified into four main types or zones: firstly, the Husn and associated buildings and  walls; secondly to the north and west of the Husn are a number of large mud brick houses interspersed with modern (ie post 1975) houses; thirdly, to the south, south west and east of the Husn is the old core of the village, with a mud brick mosque and a further defensive/surveillance tower, and tight clusters of houses and lanes, in irregular blocks with no modern buildings inter-leaved; and fourthly, scattered throughout the oasis are isolated farm houses and other agricultural buildings.

The mudbrick old town of Bat

Such mud brick villages within oasis are very common in Oman, and represent a hugely important part of rural life right up until the mid-1970s when modernisation based on oil production resulted in sudden sweeping change.  All Omani residents were required to build new houses of modern materials (concrete breeze blocks dominate) and abandon the old fashioned mud brick houses permanently.  This wholesale change was intended to signal both to Omanis and to international observers that Oman was a modern country, and as such, must have had a huge impact on community and individual identity, and also on community and family relationships. 

Visiting Bat showed the enormous potential of the mud brick village within the oasis for academic study – planning the village, planning individual buildings, carrying out interviews with residents and visiting particular buildings and areas with them to discuss use, plan out spatial relationships, and link these to social relationships, excavate selected buildings, analyse recovered material culture, and synthesise the whole data set.  I was able to meet informally several older residents of Bat who remembered living in their families mudbrick house; although it was not possible to move beyond quite superficial discussion at the first meeting, it is clear that these people are willing to share their memories and knowledge, and would be happy to see such a project take place in Bat. 

I also had the opportunity for discussions with younger people in relation to heritage in general and development of Bat as a World Heritage site in particular, and these suggest that the people of Bat are very interested in their own recent history and the meaningful role this plays within their understanding and articulation of their identity.  The mudbrick buildings within the Bat Oasis therefore represent a powerful link to a personal and collective past within the living memory of many people, as well as that of their parents, grandparents and other ancestors. 

As well as spending time assessing Bat Oasis and meeting and talking to people there, I was also able to hire a car and visit a number of other places around Daklieyh and adjacent Dahrieh province.  Most of the places I visited were (purposefully) mud brick villages in oases, although I also took advantage of this excellent opportunity to visit other heritage sites in the region.  Included in this latter group were restored medieval forts, Bronze and Iron age tell sites, an iron age settlement site, an Islamic settlement site, and a mud brick village (Al Sulaif) which is currently closed to visitors while it is undergoing restoration by the Department of Tourism, with the aim of making this a visitor destination, and charging an entry fee. While this does mean that the village is not going to be lost, and it is providing jobs and potential income for local people, and restoration is carefully making use of traditional building materials and skills, the results thus far have produced a sterile set of rooms with no character or sense of being a place where people lived and died.  This is something that I noted at other restored heritage and tourism sites such as Bahla Fort and Nizwa Fort.  I was also able to visit the Muscat Festival, which a huge annual event where traditional potters, weavers, embroiderers and other craftworkers, agricultural and pastoral workers, builders, fishers, metalworkers, and representatives of many of the different clans and tribes or Oman gather to display skills or demonstrate particular elements of rural life such as harvesting, ploughing and so forth, alongside cultural displays such as dancing and singing. This gave an interesting insight into traditional Oman, and also into the areas that are recognised as worthy of display and preservation in this way to a major urban population. 

A mudbrick mosque in Bat oasis

There is huge archaeological potential in Oman, not only in the historic period, but in all others as well.  Obtaining permission for new projects is tightly controlled by the government, so setting up a sub-project under the wider aegis of the AJBAP project is logistically sensible, and the aims of the Bat Oasis Historical mesh very well both with issues of understanding the past in this particular area, and with the issues of heritage development and understanding and exploiting the recent past, particularly the built environment. 

Thanks to the support of the SPMA I have been able to assess the archaeological and ethnographic potential of Bat Oasis, strengthen connections with AJBAP, and initiate dialogue with the Omani government in person.  All these things are critical in setting up new projects, and on the strength of this initial visit I have already submitted further grant applications in order to begin systematic fieldwork in 2014, In’Shallah. 

A selection of photos from Ruth's fieldwork can be viewed on our Flickr site.