By Dorothy Wright
Archaeologist Peter Magee’s excavation of the Iron Age II settlement (1100-600 B.C.) of Muweilah in the present-day United Arab Emirates provides evidence that the site is far more than what first met the eye — a desert site far from both the coastline and inland oases, whose sand dunes and scattered scrub vegetation rendered it suitable perhaps only as a campsite for loosely knit bands of nomads. Instead, the assistant professor of archaeology’s excavation of Muweilah has revealed evidence of a permanent settlement — a trade center in which some members of a complex social hierarchy controlled and restricted the regional movement of goods, including ceramics from present-day Iraq, southeastern Iran, and elsewhere in Arabia. Rather than relying on a traditional stylistic analysis of the ceramics to determine their source, Magee and his colleagues are analyzing their elemental composition using X-ray diffraction, inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICPMS) and proton induced X-ray emission/proton induced gamma ray gamma emission (PIXE-PIGME).
“These analyses have revealed the largest and most diverse range of imported materials in eastern Arabia,” Magee says.
Artifacts on the surface of the land provided the first significant clues. “Some of those artifacts were not the sort you would expect to find at a campsite,” Magee recalls. “There were fragments of large storage jars, which we associate with larger, permanently occupied structures.”
In the first excavation a decade ago, Magee’s team focused on an area near the location of the jar fragments. “Initially we found campsites,” he recalls with an ironic laugh, “reinforcing the notion that we were challenging. However, within a few days it was clear that we were dealing with the remains of a large building, which, after eight seasons of excavation, turned out to be the largest and most complex Iron Age settlement in the region, and probably in all of eastern Arabia.
“In fact, the site continues to surprise us,” Magee says.
At first, the team thought the structure might have been just one or two houses. “Then it became clear that there was a fortification wall around these houses,” Magee continues. “And then it was clear that there weren’t just houses at this site, but also a palace building, which contained a lot of unusual materials. Fine ceramics, including incense burners, were concentrated in certain rooms within this palace and found alongside rare metals, such as iron.
“This evidence challenges the traditional model of societies that live in a desert environment, that is, of an unstructured society without differing levels of access to goods — an egalitarian band of nomads,” Magee explains. “Clearly that was not the case at Muweilah.”
Since he joined Bryn Mawr’s Department of Archaeology in January 2002, Magee has involved Bryn Mawr juniors, seniors and graduate students in the excavation and related analyses. “This past winter we found a different area, in which the domestic buildings indicated that there was differential access to goods even within the lower social strata of the settlement,” Magee says. “Evidently, the people in this area used fine, spouted vessels, whereas those on the other side of the settlement used coarse ceramics.”
The students’ involvement doesn’t end with the excavation. “The analysis of materials back at Bryn Mawr is very important,” Magee says. “In particular, we are using compositional analysis to identify the sources of these artifacts.”
The use of geological tools to analyze the elemental composition of archeological artifacts is relatively new in the field. “ICPMS, which has only been used in the last ten years, analyzes up to 50 elements and thus, enables an incredibly fine analysis of the composition of these artifacts,” Magee explains. “PIXE-PIGME also is an uncommon archaeological tool, yet it is inexpensive and non-nuclear, and we prefer non-nuclear methods of analysis. Capable of analyzing 10 to 15 elements, it is proving itself to be a robust analytical tool.”
Last year one of Magee’s students compared the efficacy of these analytical techniques in her senior thesis, which was co-supervised by Don Barber, assistant professor of geology. “The results were very interesting,” Magee observes. “It is not always necessary to use the more expensive, high-resolution methods. In certain case studies, X-ray diffraction can be used to differentiate the sources of the ceramics.”
Undergraduates and graduate students prepare samples, perform X-ray diffraction at Bryn Mawr, send samples out for ICPMS and PIXE-PIGME, and analyze the complex data. “At Bryn Mawr we can supervise undergraduates in these complicated forms of research, allowing them to explore the problems and methodologies,” Magee says. “All of the analyses have very important research questions attached to them, which ultimately can be brought into a publication.”
Magee notes that students who have excavated with him have had other important insights. The staff of Sharjah Archaeological Museum and the Sharjah authorities with whom he collaborates encourage student involvement in the excavation. “They are very keen for students to come out and work there,” he says. “They think it is important for students to gain archeological experience and to be exposed to an Islamic and Arab country.”
Magee concurs. “In fact, almost without exception, students find that some of their perceptions shift when they have been there for a while.”
Dorothy Wright contributes news and feature articles on science, technology, engineering and general interest topics to a variety of publications, including Civil Engineering and Engineering News Record.