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Wadi Al Helo: Testimony of Bronze Age Copper Production

Date of Submission: 01/02/2023
Criteria: (iii)(iv)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Culture and Youth of the United Arab Emirates
State, Province or Region:
Emirate of Sharjah
Coordinates: N 24º 59' 29.28 E 56º 13' 07.14"
Ref.: 6641

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Wadi Al Helo, or the sweet valley as the name indicates in Arabic, is home to multiple archaeological sites and historical layers located in the Hajjar Mountains of Sharjah, southeast of the Arabian Peninsula. The Wadi itself extends over an estimated area of 84 square kilometres, that bear testimony to the process and significance of copper mining and smelting during the Bronze Age and its role in the development of the transnational connections during this substantial period in the geocultural history of Southeast Arabia.

The Bronze Age copper site in the Wadi presents evidence of the interrelationship between the Bronze Age metallurgists as well as the geological landscape and its natural resources, represented through the specific technological ensemble of copper production particular to this region. The selected site also communicates the significance of copper during this period of human history in the region through the numerous depictions of T-figures in the rock art that marks the valley and the surrounding mountains. T-figures are a symbol found commonly in the rock art of the Arabian region believed to be a representation of a dagger.

The copper site of Wadi Al Helo is situated on a wadi terrace in one of the most fertile ridges of the Hajjar Mountains chain with access to abundant fresh water and vegetation. It is surrounded by the natural protection of the mountain ridges, and the easily accessible surface exposure of copper ore. The ecological, geological and geographical setting indicates a conscious selection of the copper production site by its historical inhabitants. Though only a portion of the valley has been excavated and further research bears great potential to study life in the Bronze Age, the Wadi’s currently explored components tell the story of how early inhabitants of the region worked within the constraints of their natural environment. These constraints included the challenges posed by the hard bedrock of the geological belt of ophiolite that forms the mountains in this region and the unavailability of resources such as clay or flint, which together informed the development of a specialised technological ensemble that helped the Bronze Age peoples of Wadi Al Helo produce pure copper, a highly valued resource in its historic context.

Wadi Al Helo’s site includes attributes of Bronze Age copper mining, copper smelting and casting, along with the natural geological features of the valley that influenced the production process. The copper ore deposits in the Hajjar Mountains have been a major reason for the strong development of the Bronze Age in Southeast Arabia. A cuneiform inscription of the Ur III period mentions the land of Magan as the origin of copper, with subsequent archaeological research in the 1970s leading to the general agreement that the land of Magan refers to the Oman Peninsula, i.e., Northern Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The first chemical analyses of metal artefacts from Ur, Kish, and al-Obeid, indicated a mineral content characteristic of the copper from Southeast Arabia, including the geological make-up of Wadi Al Helo’s copper ore deposits. Copper was traded not only with Mesopotamia, but traces of Magan copper have been found as far as the Indus Valley Civilisation with evidence of copper bead workshops discovered in the World Heritage site of Dholavira, indicating the importance of copper as a material during this time.

The link between the produced copper and its historical transport across transnational networks is reflected through the rock art found in the valley and across the Hajjar Mountains. The rock art of the Hajjar Mountains bears not only exceptional variety, but chronicles the natural biodiversity, cultural and artistic development in the region through the numerous depictions of the now extinct Syrian wild ass, boats, abstract patterns, and most importantly the T-Figures. The rock art of Wadi Al Helo presents a remarkable degree of aesthetic and stylistic similarity across the Hajjar Mountains extending into present-day Oman. The rock art routes that connect the Wadi to the surrounding landscape mark out the overland networks that spanned the region and reach all the way to the coast and sea ports, indicating the movement of people through the mountains. The links of Wadi Al Helo’s rock art routes to the nearby sea ports of Khatm Al-Melaha or Kalba highlight the role Wadi Al Helo played in the regional and global transnational networks that mark the Bronze Age in this part of the world, while the T-figure carvings on these routes highlight the value of copper in particular in the development of these networks. Future excavations are expected to reveal more rock art sites, allowing for more research into their connection with the role of copper and metallurgy through Wadi Al Helo’s and the region’s history.

Wadi Al Helo’s archaeological sites including the Bronze Age copper site and rock art is an exceptional testimony of the use of natural resources in their geographical and geological environment. Together, they offer the most exceptional evidence of the site and the region’s historical importance during a significant period of human history.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Wadi Al Helo presents the earliest proof for metallurgy in Southeast Arabia during the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. The copper site is an outstanding testimony of a technological ensemble of copper metallurgy particular to the region, and the interrelationship between the indigenous copper producers of Wadi al Helo and their adaptation to the geological and geographical factors of the location. These adaptations include Wadi Al Helo’s open-pit copper mining fields to contend with the difficulty of digging in the tough ophiolite bedrock, the smelting workshops located at strategic elevations in the valley to catch wind for the furnaces, and the particular composition of its slag deposits that demonstrate the indigenous inhabitants’ high quality copper produce despite the challenges of the natural environment.

Copper cast at Wadi Al Helo was of high refinement, nearly 100% pure, compared to metals found in neighbouring sites. Archaeo-metallurgical analyses of metal objects excavated in the region indicated that Wadi Al Helo was part of a large exchange network between Bronze Age sites around the Arabian Gulf. It was arguably the main provider of raw copper to other bronze-producing sites in the area (such as Tell Abraq, Kalba, and Umm an Nar), where it was alloyed with tin and brought back to Wadi Al Helo as finished products.

As local topography determines human movements in the mountains, the movement of people and products through Wadi Al Helo to the coast and over land routes is recorded via rock art along the mountains. Depictions of a boat and the distinctive T-figure carvings indicate the links of the site with regional and transnational networks.

Though copper was a valuable commodity during the Bronze Age, both as a raw material and for alloying with other metals to produce bronze, the geological and geographical challenges of the Southeast Arabian mountainous landscape were addressed by the adaptation of the copper production technology by indigenous copper producers to harness the natural resources of the environment and produce copper at a very high quality. The impact and importance of copper during the Bronze Age makes copper producing sites highly significant within the region’s global history. Wadi Al Helo provides a prime exemplar of all these elements.

Criterion (iii): The copper site of Wadi Al Helo is an exceptional testimony of the Wadi’s indigenous inhabitants’ metallurgy knowledge and practices, and a distinct prehistoric copper production tradition during a key phase of the region’s history. The watchtower serves as a record of the Wadi’s economic significance and the value of copper as a resource during the Bronze Age, while the network of rock art routes through the local topography traces the patterns of movement of prehistoric peoples through the landscape to the coast. The artistic diversity of the rock art and their placement throughout the local topography, along with the significance of the T-figures as a cultural link to copper products, serve as a record of the prehistoric Bronze Age copper producing communities of Southeast Arabia that have since disappeared.

Criterion (iv): The copper site of Wadi Al Helo is an outstanding technological ensemble of a specific typology of copper metallurgy during the Bronze Age in Southeast Arabia, a significant stage of human history where copper played a role in the development of transnational prehistoric links. The open-cast mining pits on the copper ore veins in the valley, the use of ophiolite crushing stones and anvils to separate the ore from the rock and break it into small pieces for smelting, the sandy clay used to line the furnaces, the slag deposits, the workshops and casting pit, and the acacia groves used as fuel for the furnaces all present a complete technological ensemble that traces the process from copper ore extraction to the production of almost pure copper at Wadi Al Helo. The ensemble includes the methods of protection for the copper resource through the watchtower at the entrance of the valley. The ensemble is also extended to the methods of human movement from Wadi Al Helo through the mountains, explored through the depiction of ships and T-figures in the rock art routes that pass through the valley, and the routes’ links to the regional over-land and sea routes.

Criterion (v): Wadi Al Helo is an outstanding example of prehistoric land use and movement, characterised by the indigenous copper producers’ adaptation to the natural challenges of the geographic and geological features of the mountainous landscape which allowed them to develop a typology of copper mining and smelting representative of this region, and the rock art which marked out a network of routes through the valley and linked it to the coast. Rather than transform the landscape, the inhabitants coexisted with the features of the natural environment and adapted their copper production process to utilise the available resources. These adaptations included the use of ophiolite rock tools rather than flint, acacia wood rather than charcoal, locating the furnaces at a higher elevation to catch the wind, making clay from the sandy matrix of the rock sediments that were available rather than from limestone, open-cast mining rather than underground tunnels, and utilizing the natural protection of the mountain ridge around the valley enhanced with a watchtower. The natural outcroppings of rock and boulders inscribed with the rock art serve as landscape markers through the local topography through which the area’s inhabitants travelled to the coastal ports.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The authenticity of the property is of a high level, and relates to the property’s ability to convey the outstanding universal value through the successful preservation of its archaeological footprint and the relevant components within their authentic environment, location and setting, and spirit and feeling. The authenticity of the rock art and the link between the rock art routes and the copper site is of a high level. The current state of preservation and conservation has been slightly affected by natural factors such as heavy rainfall and weathering. It has been constantly monitored and the required intervention has been implemented. The need for a future intervention plan, risk management and conservation plan has already been recognised.

The selected property within the Wadi is of adequate size and encapsulates the main attributes required to communicate the narrative of the copper production, the Bronze Age, transnational networks, and rock art; while allowing for the possibility of future excavations to uncover more components significant to the property’s value. These components include the currently excavated open-cast mining grounds, the workshops on the mountain slope, the acacia groves, the slag heaps, the ore veins, the hard rock for the crushing stones, and the watchtower which blend harmoniously with the landscape of the site. Effective administration, community relations, signage and legislation has helped preserving the property’s integrity and value.

Wadi Al Helo archaeological sites are under the protection and jurisdiction of the Sharjah Archaeology Authority, an entity of the Government of Sharjah mandated with the monitoring and management of the site. The property is legally protected under Law (4) of 2020 on Sharjah Cultural Heritage.

Comparison with other similar properties

Wadi Al Helo: Testimony of Bronze Age Copper Production represents the importance of copper and copper production as a key resource that comprised an important stage of human history in Southeast Arabia, and led to the creation of a specific typology of copper mining and smelting to work with the natural environmental conditions of the region. The nomination reflects the development of a technological ensemble of copper metallurgy in Southeast Arabia to make use of and adapt to the natural geology and geography, and still exchange a product of high quality during the Bronze Age.

However, given that copper remained an important resource globally till the modern age, and since copper was a key export of Southeast Arabia as a whole during the Bronze Age, it is necessary to draw comparisons with sites both on and not on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Comparisons to the Bronze Age copper site of Wadi al Helo were identified based on the following comparative keys:
The complete ensemble representing the process of copper production from mining to smelting integrated in one location;
The open-cast typology of the copper production and extraction process
The interrelationship between the Bronze Age metallurgists and the landscape and its natural resources;
Bronze Age transnational routes and networks as marked with rock

Metallurgy was a prominent industry of the Bronze Age, associated with the establishment of the first large- scale planned industrial settlements of human history. Regionally, Maysar (Oman) was the first thoroughly excavated site pertaining to copper mining and smelting. While it was grander in scale than Wadi Al Helo and shows evidence of a shared time period and technology, the majority of the Bronze Age traces at Maysar have not survived since later settlements built over the prehistoric remains. Shahdad (Iran) bears evidence of large scale industrial activity and settlement related to metallurgy and shares many resemblances with Wadi Al Helo. Despite the greater diversity of the types of metals and alloys produced, at its current level of excavation, Shahdad does not present the complete testimony of any single typology or ensemble to as great a degree as Wadi Al Helo. Timna (Israel), a site on the World Heritage Tentative List, presents a similar narrative of copper production in the Bronze Age and was similarly well known in the region for its copper. However the typology differs from the open-cast mining of Wadi Al Helo, and it does not present an entire ensemble since the copper smelting took place further away and not on-site at Timna. The World Heritage site of Krzemionki Prehistoric Striped Flint Mining Region (Poland) is a similar witness to an extinct traditional mining landscape and is a landmark of the significant period of early human history associated with the mining and production of tools. While the site presents the most comprehensive mining system for its time and evidence of settled community around the mining activity, it presents a different typology of underground mining and is associated with flint rather than copper.

The site of Shahr i-Sokhta (Iran), and the World Heritage sites of Proto-urban Site of Sarazm (Tajikistan) and the Prehistoric Pile Dwellings around the Alps (Europe, transnational), present a similar narrative of transnational exchange of metals in the prehistoric world and are comparable to Wadi Al Helo. While similar in terms of Bronze Age routes marked with rock art, evidence of cultural relations and links with other ancient sites, and the narrative of representing significant changes in prehistory caused by/related to metallurgy; there are notable differences as the evidence presented in these sites focuses primarily on the daily life of people in the Bronze Age and the early development of proto-urbanism rather than the role and development of metallurgy itself.

Sites pertaining to copper mining and smelting on the World Heritage List - such as Roros Mining Town and its Circumference (Norway), Mine of Rammelsberg and its Water Management System (Germany), Sewell Mining Town (Chile), and the Mining Area of Great Copper Mountain in Falun (Sweden) – present a narrative of copper production in the Middle Ages and Modern Age and therefore bear limited comparison with both Wadi Al Helo’s narrative of Bronze Age copper production typologies and the Southeast Arabian region.

Other commodities mined and processed in similar cultural landscapes such as flint, bronze, tin and nickel in sites across southern Iran and the Arabian region will also require comparison on the basis of their importance in changing global patterns of metallurgy typologies and technologies, though their focus was not with copper. Wadi Al Helo: Testimony of Bronze Age Copper Production stands out as an example of a complete technological ensemble, a specific typology of copper mining and smelting developed by the indigenous inhabitants to match the geological conditions, and the importance of copper during the Bronze Age as a significant stage of human history both in this region of the world and beyond.