Cultural Landscape of Bisya & Salut and its Archaeological Remains
Permanent Delegation of the Sultanate of Oman to UNESCO
Al Dakhiliyya Governorate, Wilayat Bahla
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In the vicinity of Bisya, approximately 30 kilometers south of the historic City of Bahla, two major wadis converge – the Wadi Seyfam to the west and Wadi Bahla to the east. In combination with localized deposits of good agricultural soils, both wadis provided the water necessary for irrigation and enabled, therefore, permanent human settlements to develop. Extensive human settlement in this area dates back to the end of the fourth millennium BC and has continued through to the present, made evident by the large concentration of archaeological sites that still remain to be seen. The establishment of large settlements in the Bronze Age (c.3000-1300BC) and following Iron Age (c.1300-300 BC) would have required the development of locally adapted technologies to make the most of the combined hydrological and sedimentary resources. In addition to the availability of water and soil, the area also had an abundance of stone available for building, which was further supplemented by the local vegetation to provide wood for construction as well as fuel.
The favorable environmental conditions found near Bisya are not unique in the Sultanate of Oman, but the Salut plain and nearby Wadi Bahla together provide a unique picture of Bronze and Iron Age settlements, funerary and religious monuments occupying an environment where the usual constraints on development were clearly overcome by the adaptation of appropriate indigenous technologies. The distribution of individual sites is relatively dense when compared with other areas of southeast Arabia and frequently the size of the buildings is also remarkable, such that the high visibility of the sites still provide in a spectacular impression of the Bronze and Iron Age past.
The distribution of Bronze and Iron Age sites near Bisya
There are two distinct cluster one on the north side of Bisya, the other on the east of it.
Cluster A (north-west)
One group of Bronze Age sites is located alongside the western course of the Wadi Bahla (523500N; 257900E), over a distance of approximately two kilometres. These sites comprise five circular towers, each built of large stone masonry blocks. The normal dimensions of these towers is in the region of 20-25 meters in diameter but one of the towers that appears to occupy a central position in the “settlement pattern” has a diameter of approximately 45 meters, which makes it exceptionally large. This site (Qarn Qarhat Lahwid) (2517700N; 527700E) is also unique in displaying a large area of houses adjacent to it. Also important are reports that there is evidence for irrigation near to this site.
In addition to the five Bronze Age sites, there is also a significant Iron Age site located on Jabal al-Agma (2516000N; 526700E). On the lower slopes of the jabal the outline of buildings can be seen and the area is strewn with typical Iron Age pottery. Close to this site there is also a falaj in the nearby wadi, but the date of this has yet to be proven.
Cluster B (north-east)
A second group of Bronze Age sites is located along the east side of the plain formed by the Wadi Seyfam, known as the Salut plain. Three Bronze Age towers are located along the east side of the plain over a distance of approximately two kilometres. Like those east of Wadi Bahla (cluster ´A´), the towers were built of large stone masonry blocks and have diameters of 20-25 meters. The two most northerly towers (Buildings 3 (40/2516228N; 0523750E) and Building 4 (42517450N; 0523842E) were partially investigated by the al-Hajar Archaeological project in conjunction with the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, which showed the presence of a ditch at Building 3 and a large stone structure adjacent to Building 4. The furthest south of the towers (Building 5/ST1 0523560E; 2515692N, ) was since extensively excavated by the Italian Mission to Oman (IMTO), in conjunction with the Office of the Adviser to His Majesty the Sultan for Cultural Affairs, and has produced a wealth of information that will be summarized below.
The surface finds at all of the Bronze Age towers on the Salut plain indicate that the Bronze Age towers were likely re-occupied in the Early Iron Age (c.1300BC) following a period of abandonment sometime after c. 2000 BC. The Iron Age occupation was not, however, restricted to the earlier sites and new settlements were established on two prominent hills and along the eastern edge of the plain.
A small Iron Age settlement is located on the hill (2516300N; 524130E) adjacent to the Bronze Age tower, Building 4, but by far the largest Iron Age site occupies the hill known as Salut. (2515500N; 523700E) Extensively excavated by the Italian Mission to Oman (IMTO), the results will be summarized below.
Sacred landscape ... defining territories
Whilst there are two distinct areas of Bronze Age settlement (cluster B) on the Salut Plain and alongside the Wadi Bahla (cluster A), an overwhelming sense of unity is provided by the highly visible cemeteries that line the ridges and crests of the surrounding mountains. The original construction of these monumental cairn tombs dates back to the beginning of the Early Bronze Age though many were re-used in subsequent periods. The high visibility of the cairns, combined with the great number of them that exists, suggests that they were intended to define probably sacred space and ancient territories and still serve this purpose today in defining the extent of the Salut and wadi Bahla cultural landscape. The importance of sacred space may be additionally proved by petroglyphs found in the immediate vicinity of the Salut Castle (523979E; 2515692N).
Salut (40/2515600N; 52390E) – a focal point in the Cultural Landscape
Since 2004 there have been further intensive archaeological excavations at key Bronze and Iron Age sites in the area surrounding Salut, which complement the earlier extensive survey and mapping of the area. Moreover, the excavations have produced a wealth of information that indicates the importance of the sites at a regional and international level.
The excavations have centred on three main locations: 1. a Bronze Age tower (ST1, building 5), 2. the major Iron Age site (Salut) and 3. the cairn burials on the nearby mountain, Jabal Salut.
Bronze Age Tower (ST1, building 5. 40/ 2515692N; 0523560E)
There are three Bronze Age towers west and north of the Salut castle. The Early Bronze Age tower STI west of the castle is now one of the most extensively excavated sites of its type in the whole of southeast Arabia. The other two towers have been only partly researched so far. The architectural plan is not unusual, being approximately 24 meters in diameter and with a centrally located well. The presence of the well clearly shows that the earliest inhabitants were familiar with the local hydrology and new precisely how and where they could exploit the essential underground water supply. Local building materials were also used to good effect, the tower being made of massive limestone blocks that have been expertly prepared. The transport of these large blocks and the overall monumentality of the building hint at a well-organized and structured society.
Surrounding the tower is a system of concentric ditches. These are up to four meters wide and very deep. In some places they are also lined with massive masonry blocks. These ditches could have served a defensive function as well as being part of an elaborate system of water management; they are a splendid example of a local technology being adopted to further manage essential resources. The system of ditches is not yet fully excavated, but recent geophysical survey suggests that they could be connected to a number of major channels that directed water from the main wadis in times of spate.
The material culture of the Early Bronze Age at Salut can be compared with that from other sites in southeast Arabia. Pottery making was clearly widespread and very accomplished with the use of fine fabrics and painted decoration. Also present are stone vessels that were also produced throughout the region and sometimes exported to the urban centers of Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. Objects imported to Salut also indicate contacts with the outside world; these include pottery from eastern Iran and the Indus, a sensational find is a very fine Indus Valley seal adding tremendously to the material, cultural finds from the Indus Valley and proving the exchange between the cultures.
The excavations at the Bronze Age tower provide, therefore, a detailed picture of life c.2600 -2000 BC in this part of Oman. The comparative study of the different elements that make up this picture can help provide a fuller understanding of the Bronze Age throughout southeast Arabia and how it relates to distant countries that lie beyond the shores of Oman. From the other two towers further precious information is to be expected.
Iron Age Settlement at Salut
In the Early Iron Age (c.1300-650 BC) it is clear that the three Bronze Age towers located on the Salut plain were all re-occupied. At ST1 it has been shown how the central well was made larger, and whilst the original surrounding ditches were by then filled by deposits, there is evidence for a limited amount of settlement activity around the outside of the tower. The main focus of Iron Age settlement, however, clearly moved towards the two hills on the Salut plain, the most prominent of which is Salut itself.
The settlement built on the summit of Salut measures approximately 50 by 60 meters. The architectural techniques used to enable the maximum amount of space to be used reflect in some ways typical building practices seen in the Bronze Age, especially the use of very large masonry blocks. But in the Iron Age mudbricks also became increasingly important and a style of building was developed that in many ways continued in use until recent times – as witnessed in much of the vernacular architecture of Oman. Such is the legacy afforded by the Iron Age.
Salut has been more extensively excavated than any other contemporary site in Oman and has revealed a wealth of detail on building techniques and plans. The latter includes the placing of rooms around a central courtyard and the technique of constructing terraces to act as building platforms. The state of organic preservation at Salut is also good and evidence for the use of wooden beams is also preserved. Some of the beams were derived from the date palm and numerous date stones and baskets made from date fiber have been recovered. It seems reasonable to suggest, therefore, that at this time Salut would have been surrounded by palm gardens, which would have required irrigation. Further study of the Salut plain might, therefore, indicate the presence of an early falaj that could be seen as the further development of the water management practices so clearly evident around the nearby Bronze Age tower.
The material culture of the Early Iron Age (c.1300-650 BC) is also well documented at Salut. Pottery is abundant and soft stone vessels are also common. There is also clear evidence for small-scale bronze working at the site and finished bronze tools and weapons have also been found. Also among the bronze objects found at Salut are several snakes. The snake is also depicted frequently on some of the pottery and it appears likely, therefore, that snakes played an important part in the early religious beliefs of the community at Salut.
It is now clear that c.650 BC new influences start to arrive in Salut. In particular pottery styles start to change and “new” Persian designs are adopted. While there are influences from Persia, some wares also appear to come from Mesopotamia and during this time the first recognizable incense burners also begin to appear. Not long after 650 BC Salut was also increased in size by the building of the prominent stone fortification wall that still surrounds the site.
Excavations at Salut (from 2004 to the present) and the study of the material culture, alongside a series of well contexted C14 dates, have made it a key site for defining the chronology and periodization of the Iron Age in South East Arabia. The unique buildings uncovered also suggest that it probably functioned as a communal centre for the surrounding constellation of smaller Iron Age sites.
Third millennium circular graves in the very centre of the site along with nearby petroglyphs depicting horse men and other figures may further indicate ritualistic function. The petroglyphs remain to be further studied.
Jabal Salut (40/ 2516N; 52450E)
Jabal Salut is covered with monumental tombs, most of which were probably constructed in the early third-millennium BC. Most of the tombs have collapsed and of the three excavated so far, none contained any primary third-millennium finds.
During the Iron Age new types of tomb were built close to the foot of the surrounding hills, whilst earlier Bronze Age tombs were also re-used. And the importance of visibility and the sacred nature of the surrounding highlands is emphasized by a small shrine located on the highest point of Jabal Salut (40/25650N; 524500E.) The small building, which is rectangular in plan and comprising six columns covered with white plaster, was constructed in the Early Iron Age on top of earlier Early and Middle/Late Bronze Age burials; its plan is clearly orientated towards the site of Salut on the plain below.
Latest research has shown (Geology 24th February 2014) that due to climate changes (abrupt weakening of the summer monsoons) Bronze Age Civilizations in Oman and N-W India declined going along with droughts. This might explain the disappearance of third millennium BC and other Bronze Age cultures, followed only 1000 years later by Iron Age Cultures, as is also the case in Salut. The droughts might have had immediate consequences for the water supply systems as vertical supply systems like wells (ST1) and later aflaj systems as described in the legend of Sulaiman ibn Dauwd who brought the aflaj in the Iron Age to Oman. Therefore, this cultural landscape is in its chronological setting of highest importance.
Justification de la Valeur Universelle Exceptionnelle
Although archaeological sites appear in the Hajar region, the importance of the Bisya& Salut cultural landscape and its archaeological remains lies not only in the richness, quality and variety of its ancient remains, or in the fact that it was diachronically a leading centre for the exploitation of local resources, and hub for trade and foreign contact with neighbouring countries both near and far, and by the manganese producing site of al Haisha, immediately southwest of Bisya, but also in the fact that it is the most complete example of this type of cultural landscape in joining uniquely the components of settlement, agriculture and burial rituals in the ancient Omani peninsula ( present day Sultanate of Oman and United Arabs Emirates) at different phases of its history. It thereby constitutes an outstanding example for the interpretation of similar archaeological landscape sites, both within the Hajar region and around the Arabian Peninsula. The unique combination of the Profane and Sacred with thousands of tombs and graves over a time span of almost 5000 years in combination of material culture and oral tradition distinguishes this cultural landscape as of outstanding universal value.
Criterion (i): In Oman the archaeological sites found in the area of Bisya/Salut represent the densest concentration of settlement and funerary remains dating from the Early Bronze Age (c. end of the 4th millennium BC) through to the end of the Iron Age (c.300 BC). There is also evidence for the revival of the area in early medieval times (c.10th century AD) followed by continuous occupation to the present. The settlements were only made possible by the rare coincidence of favorable water and soil conditions and the technologies that were developed to exploit them efficiently and extensively. As a result, the settlement sites are frequently monumental in construction, the funerary remains exhibit the importance given to the sacredness of space and also visibility, and relations with distant places also flourished, which included contacts with the Urban centres of Mesopotamia, Iran and the Indus. Consequently, the Bisya/Salut area provides an outstanding example for the interpretation and comparative study of contemporary cultural landscapes elsewhere in south east Arabia and beyond.
Criterion (ii): As in other parts of Oman, the landscape and access to resources exerted an inevitable and profound influence on the development of the settlements in the Bisya/Salut area. The location of settlements is determined by access to suitable soils that could be irrigated. The resulting settlement pattern in the Bronze Age comprises groups of circular towers. Close to Bisya there are no fewer than five towers, one with clear evidence of adjacent houses, and in the Salut plain are three more towers. Each tower is more than 20 meters in diameter and made of huge limestone blocks indicating a social hierarchy. There is also evidence that some, if not all, of the towers were surrounded by a system of wide, deep ditches that possibly served a defensive purpose as well as a component of water management. Similar settlement patterns are known elsewhere in Oman and on the Arabian Peninsula, and whilst there is a degree of shared traits throughout the region, none is as manifest as in the Bisya/Salut area.
Overlooking the Bronze Age settlements are the highly visible late 4th millennium cemeteries that line the ridges and crests of the surrounding mountains. The original construction of these cairn tombs dates back to the beginning of the Early Bronze Age though many were re-used in subsequent periods. The high visibility of the cairns, combined with several thousand of them that exist, suggests that they were intended to define probably sacred space and ancient territories and still serve this purpose today in defining the extent of the Biya/Salut cultural landscape.
Most of the Bronze Age settlements appear to have been re-occupied at the beginning of the Iron Age. There was also, however, the establishment of new sites c. 1300 BC; Jabal al-Agma near the Wadi Bahla and Husn Salut, which occupies a commanding position in the middle of the Salut plain.
Excavations at Salut (from 2004 to the present) have made it a key site for defining the chronology and periodization of the Iron Age in South East Arabia. The unique buildings uncovered also suggest that it probably functioned as a communal centre for the surrounding constellation of smaller Iron Age sites.
During the Iron Age new types of tomb were also built close to the foot of the surrounding hills, whilst earlier Bronze Age tombs were also re-used. And the importance of visibility and the sacred nature of the space and the surrounding highlands is emphasized by a small shrine located on the highest point of the mountain facing Salut. The small building, comprising six columns, was constructed in the Early Iron Age on top of earlier Early and Middle/Late Bronze Age burials; its plan is clearly orientated towards the site of Salut on the plain below.
Criterion (iii): The Bisya/Salut cultural landscape bears exceptional testimony to the surviving cultural traditions and ancient civilization that has now all but disappeared. It confirms the continuity of the oasis phenomenon – with its reliance on irrigation technology, which in the Bisya/Salut area is evident from the late fourth millennium BC.
Criterion (iv): The Bisya/Salut cultural landscape provides the most coherent and comprehensive picture of Bronze and Iron Age settlements, funerary and religious monuments occupying an environment where the usual constraints on development were overcome by the adaptation of appropriate indigenous technologies. The cultural landscape represents a unique identity of profane and sacred space primarily marked by the settlement pattern on terraces in the immediate vicinity of the former water sources, the wadis and the tomb architecture on elevated ground and the ridges of the surrounding hills .
Criterion (v): The Bisya & Salut cultural landscape is not only an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement and land-use representative of a culture, it also exhibits human interaction with the environment. First, in a semi-arid land it owes its location and size to a large amount of easily abstracted and potable groundwater resulting from local hard rock constriction of the groundwater pathways. Second, it demonstrates not only the manner in which environmental constraints (notably, the reliance on groundwater) have influenced the settlement history of the ancient oasis settlements, but also the various ways (oasis towns, falaj systems, highly visible monuments and tombs) in which the landscape has been modified as a result of the practical and spiritual responses of the oasis inhabitants to these environmental constraints. However, despite its importance, the Bisya& Salut cultural landscape is threatened by both modern development and environmental hazards. Thus, indiscriminate house and road building, the establishment of farms and fields, stone robbing and flooding are all factors to which it is vulnerable. Substantial and informative features (including imposing stone walls and clusters of Hafit tombs), observed by archaeologists in earlier years, have now disappeared as a result of stone robbing, while modern roads and farmsteads have flattened and removed large areas of ancient remains and continuously threaten to encroach further onto the site. However, most of the territory of the cultural landscape is still unthreatened. The measures now being taken to protect the cultural landscape are in accordance with the UNESCO/ ICOMOS rules.
Criterion (vi): Salut in particular also bears exceptional testimony to the surviving oral history traditions of Oman. According to this tradition (recorded by al-Awtabi) the site was visited by Suleiman bin Dawud who subsequently ordered the building of 1000 aflaj (underground irrigation channels) and it was later the site of a great battle between Malik bin Fahm and the Persians. The latter episode is considered a major episode in the arrival of the Azd tribes and the Arabization of Oman.
Déclarations d’authenticité et/ou d’intégrité
Despite the threats described above, the Bisya & Salut cultural landscape has retained its integrity so that its size, the spatial organization of its ancient oasis settlements and their extensive cemeteries, and the monumentality of its architecture and massive stone masonry forms a unique cultural value. The landscape retains the intrinsic qualities of its physical remains and it is intended that all conservation treatment undertaken on site will continue to maintain this authenticity. Equally authentic are the sub-surface to surface falaj systems - from the most ancient to the still viable - that are gradually being located, traced across the landscape and investigated. Recently, in order to protect and preserve this outstanding cultural landscape, the Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture took possession of the Bisya & Salut cultural landscape within its nominated boundaries and imposed a preservation order on it. In addition, a cultural Management Plan, including a Programme of Conservation, is currently under discussion. All structures exposed bear witness of the past cultures through their state of originality. The unexposed archaeological settings are protected and remain, as the exposed structures authentic.
Conservation work of excavated structures at the site of Salut castle is under strict control of ICOMOS Oman. Here, as everywhere, the protection of mud brick walls forms a special challenge.
Comparaison avec d’autres biens similaires
A comparative site to the ´Bisya & Salut cultural landscape´ may be another World Heritage site in Oman namely the ´Archaeological Sites of Bat, Al-Khutm and Al-Ayn´ Ref. No 434, listed in 1988 under criteria iii and iv.
The protohistoric site of Bat lies near a palm grove in the interior of the Sultanate of Oman. Together with the neighbouring sites, it forms the most complete collection of settlements and necropolises from the 3rd millennium B.C. in the world.
Regarding the ´aflaj´ systems of Oman it has to be mentioned that they were placed on the WH list in 2006 (Ref No. 1207) comprising five aflaj over 1456 ha. The registration was made under criterion v.: The property includes five aflaj irrigation systems and is representative of some 3,000 such systems still in use in Oman. The origins of this system of irrigation may date back to AD 500, but archaeological evidence suggests that irrigation systems existed in this extremely arid area as early as 2500 BC. Using gravity, water is channelled from underground sources or springs to support agriculture and domestic use. The fair and effective management and sharing of water in villages and towns is still underpinned by mutual dependence and communal values and guided by astronomical observations. Numerous watchtowers built to defend the water systems form part of the site reflecting the historic dependence of communities on the aflaj system. Threatened by falling level of the underground water table, the aflaj represent an exceptionally well-preserved form of land use.
While the Bisya & Salut cultural landscape may be compared in terms of features and layout with other sites of the Arabian Peninsula (Bat, Oman being a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Hili, within Al Ain,), it is in a number of ways a more complete example of a cultural landscape in that it impressively demonstrates human interaction with the environment, displays most clearly the layout of the Hajar Oasis settlements, indicates the religious dimension of sacred space detectable in their highly visible monuments and tombs, contains fascinating evidence for both trade and foreign contacts, possesses a 5000 year old tradition of water supply as a probable place for the origin of aflaj - with its potential for the study of hydrology, landscapes, agriculture and society - and exhibits the development and continuity of the oasis phenomenon from its inception in Oman to the present day. In view of the latter, perhaps to truly understand the appearance and nature of the ancient oasis settlements, one should look to the modern, traditional oasis towns of the area which, for reasons of hydrology, often occupy the same localities as the ancient archaeological sites and tend to be discrete, agricultural landscapes – based on the date-palm and watered by aflaj - that constitute a controlled response to their environmental constraints.