Abu Dhabi archaeology group bid to stop bulldozing the past

With the current rate of construction across the GCC, undeveloped areas of land are rapidly disappearing. In order to discover historical remains before they are lost forever, the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey (ADIAS) carries out land studies before any construction work can begin. Zoe Naylor reports on a group who prevent developers from wiping out the past.

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By  Zoe Naylor Published  October 15, 2005

emirates survey team work to uncover hidden relics on undeveloped land before construction work can begin |~|91proj200.gif|~|It is a policy of the Abu Dhabi government to carry out archaeological and land surveys prior to giving consent for development to take place.|~|Elephant skulls and six million year-old fossils are not usually the sort of bounty that surveyors in the Gulf are on the lookout for —normally it’s oil. But not the people at the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey (ADIAS). They are charged with surveying undeveloped land in the emirate to see if there is anything of archaeological significance that needs excavating before construction work begins. And their findings and subsequent recommendations are held in such high regard that developers in the emirate have been known to amend their construction plans accordingly. “It is government policy here that before a development takes place, there should be an environmental and archaeological land study,” explains Peter Hellyer, executive director of ADIAS. “So we survey, identify, record and if necessary excavate sites, and make recommendations for their protection as appropriate. “This is implemented by the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi, which (under Abu Dhabi law) has the power to impose a requirement for proper studies to be carried out. Developers here know they have to commission archaeological studies as well as environmental studies; the two go hand in hand and it applies across the board,” he says. Set up in 1991 by the late Sheikh Zayed, the remit of ADIAS includes the coastal islands of Abu Dhabi, the coastal zone and large parts of the western region of the emirate. This wide remit means ADIAS works closely with a variety of government departments as well as property developers and the utilities sector. “Since 1995 we’ve been working closely with the Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations (ADCO) doing baseline studies for archaeological and fossil sites in its area of operation; primarily the desert and the coast,” says Hellyer. A baseline study is a field survey that looks over a piece of undeveloped land to see if there are any archaeological sites on it. If ADIAS finds any sites of interest it makes recommendations on what should be done about it i.e. should they be excavated or protected. “Part of the policy laid down by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) is that all the operating oil companies in this emirate should have a clearly defined HSE policy, and part of this involves the identification and protection of sites of archaeological importance or relevance to the cultural heritage of Abu Dhabi. “We’ve been helping ADCO to implement that particular part of their HSE policy for the past 10 years, and we’ve found lots of interesting sites,” he adds. Hellyer says that in the last four or five years ADIAS has also been carrying out surveys for other parts of the government. Earlier this year it completed a survey on the site of the new Abu Dhabi International Airport at the request of the airport’s Supervision Committee, and has just completed studies on some of the islands north-east of Abu Dhabi. “We’ve done fairly extensive work on several of the islands there, and we’ve identified over 100 archaeological sites of varying levels of importance,” says Hellyer. But what kind of booty does ADIAS unearth? “We’ve found graves dating to the Islamic Period (the last 500-600 years), and stone structures and pottery,” explains Hellyer. “One of the privately-owned islands has extensive sites which we’ve carbon dated to about 2000BC (local Bronze age).” He says that one of the most important sites in terms of discoveries is where Takreer (part of the Adnoc group) is building a hazardous waste disposal plant. “Before they started work they commissioned us to do a field study. We initially found some interesting things so they gave us the go ahead to excavate. The result was that we discovered fossils of world importance, and so now we have an agreement with Takreer that we can monitor future developments on the site.” And once ADIAS finds a site that it deems worthy of preserving, do the parties involved take heed or carry on land development regardless? “We make our recommendations and we have been very satisfied by the way in which these have been listened to,” replies Hellyer. “We’re happy at the way the relationship between ourselves and other parts of government are proceeding, and I think the policy of the baseline studies before development is being implemented fairly effectively.” Hellyer says that most of what they find is kept in storage; none of it leaves the emirate. “While fossils and bones may be of interest to the scientific community, they aren’t always particularly dramatic to display to the public. There are discussions underway on the building of a museum for Abu Dhabi, and I would anticipate that some of our more interesting finds will be put on display there.” He adds that they have just opened an exhibition of six million year-old fossils in the headquarters of the Environmental Agency, which includes an elephant skull, a 2.5 m-long elephant tusk and a hippopotamus jaw — all found locally. Abu Dhabi is not the only emirate in the UAE that implements archaeological studies, but the degree to which they are active in terms of carrying out baseline studies before development takes place appears to depend on the individual emirate. According to Hellyer, most of the emirates have their own archaeology department as part of their government. Abu Dhabi has two: one for the eastern region in Al Ain, and one responsible for the coast, islands and western region (under the remit of ADIAS). In Dubai it comes under Dubai Museum, which is part of the Dubai Department for Tourism and Commerce Promotion; Sharjah has a director of archaeology, as does Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah. Another major site ADIAS is currently involved in is the Taweeler Power Station, an onshore water and desalination power complex north-east of Abu Dhabi. It has also undertaken a study for another part of the ADNOC group for a site developed at Ruwais in western Abu Dhabi, the main petrochemical area. “There are also further baseline studies planned in desert areas of the emirate and on some of the islands surrounding Abu Dhabi that will be affected by future development,” adds Hellyer. He says that this is almost becoming a matter of routine, and from ADIAS’ point of view it is working very well: “It gives us a chance to look at areas we wouldn’t necessary have thought of looking at before. The companies concerned have met their guidelines, they’ve helped to unearth materials of importance to their country’s heritage, and they can still get on and do their construction. Everybody wins.” In a country where the pace of development threatens to bulldoze history away to make space for the future, it seems that the emirate of Abu Dhabi is forward thinking in terms of preserving its heritage. “I think the Abu Dhabi government’s approach to archaeological and environmental baseline studies is very good,” says Hellyer. “In the last four or five years it has become very much accepted practice that if an area is going to be developed, the baseline studies have to be done first. And if there are things found of real importance then the developer’s plans are changed. “Abu Dhabi’s approach is a good one and I think it will become steadily more firmly rooted as time goes on. We believe this is in line with accepted best international practices.”||**||

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