Archaeological research in Yemen


This article was published in the British Yemeni Soceity's journal, 1996

The pre-Islamic archaeological sites of the Yemen display all of the characteristics which archaeologists have traditionally used to define a civilisation. These include sites representative of urban communities which require highly organised economic systems, of which the ancient irrigation works of the Yemen are but one vestige. There is evidence of specialist artisans producing a wide range of goods, such as pottery and a variety of items made of alabaster and other types of stone. These include simple containers, incense burners, offering tables, funeral stelae and statuary. Furthermore, there is abundant evidence of the specialized skills necessary in the construction of buildings which include everything from dams to monumental temples. Such a society will have had its merchants, officials and rulers to administer economic and political power, and this is evident from one of its most significant features, the presence of a writing system. In addition to exhibiting the characteristics of a civilisation, as defined by these criteria, the archaeological remains of the Yemen are also very distinctive and show strong, locally developed styles. However, it is also clear that this was not an isolated civilisation and was indeed an important and integral part of the Ancient World.

Surprisingly, despite all its attractions and prospects, and not to mention the vexed question of "the Queen of Sheba", the archaeology of the Yemen has, until recently, received relatively little attention from the professional archaeologist, and although archaeology and epigraphy have most to gain from a complimentary approach, it is the epigrapher that has previously had the most available means to comment on Yemen’s pre-Islamic past. The corpus of Epigraphic South Arabian texts has gradually accumulated since the early nineteenth century, having been recorded by numerous European travellers, explorers and epigraphers. Frequently these same visitors made comments on some of the more memorable archeological remains, although their accounts were purely observational, and it is not until the late 1920s that the first archaeological excavation was undertaken. Even since that date, various obstacles and strategic problems were such that, prior to 1975, excavations had been conducted on as few as seven major sites. But since 1975 there has been a marked increase in the amount of archaeological research throughout the Yemen, with participants from many countries now working in co-operation with Yemeni colleagues and bringing together a wide range of disciplines aimed at further elucidating the characteristics and evolution of Yemen’s rich and varied heritage.

In this brief presentation it is my intention to give an outline of the historical development of archaeological exploration in the Yemen, and, because the archaeology and epigraphy are so interrelated, this will include the initial important discoveries and recording of South Arabian inscriptions. I will also attempt to make clear some of the main objectives of current archaeological research.

It is not unusual for accounts of the early scientific exploration of the Yemen to begin with Niebuhr’s description of his time spent there in 1762-63. Although Niebuhr was informed of ancient sites, such as Zafar, and heard about the inscriptions "which neither Jews nor Mahometans can explain", he was unfortunately unable to visit and record what he correctly guessed to be the relics of Yemen’s pre-Islamic past. Therefore, despite all of the achievements made by Niebuhr and his colleagues, the recording of South Arabian inscriptions and the first hand description of South Arabian antiquities was something which eluded them and it is not until the early nineteenth century that subsequent visitors to the Yemen were able to fulfil this task.

A significant advance in European awareness of South Arabia resulted from the discoveries made by members of the British ship, the Palinarsus, which surveyed the southern coast of Arabia. Notable amongst the discoveries were those reported by Lieutenant J. R. Wellsted who, in 1834-35, visited two important sites at which he was able to copy examples of South Arabian inscriptions and at the same time provide a description of the sites where they were located. The first was at the coastal site of Husn al-Ghurab where he copied the inscription located near the entrance to the citadel, on the summit of the conspicuous volcanic outcrop at Bir Ali. Wellsted published this inscription in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1837. The site where he was able to record a second inscription was located some distance inland in the Wadi Mayfa’ at the site of Nakab al-Hajar.

For bringing to light the inscriptions from Husn al-Ghurab and Nakab al-Hajar, Wellsted is frequently accorded the acclaim as the first to have rediscovered examples of this important component of ancient South Arabian culture. However, one of his colleagues, H. J. Carter, had already reported the inscription from Husn al-Ghurab in the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Bengal for 1834, and Wellsted was himself aware of inscriptions earlier recorded in the North Yemen by U. Seetzen. Ulrich Seetzen was a German who arrived in the Yemen in 1810 and sought to locate the inscriptions mentioned by Niebuhr. He was successful in finding inscriptions at and around Zafar, and in 1811, shortly before he was unfortunately assassinated, was able to send copies of five inscriptions to Europe. However, the inscriptions sent by Seetzen were small, especially when compared with the lengthy inscription recorded at Husn al-Ghurab. It was this longer text, which, as Wellsted had hoped, enabled the German theologian and philologist, F. H. W Gesenius, to propose in 1841 a first decipherment of South Arabian. In the same year, Emil Rodiger, a student of Gesenius, was able to expand upon the work of his teacher, by recognising the value of additional letters and thus improving the interpretation of a number of texts. Finally, towards the end of the century, as an ever increasing number of inscriptions was recorded, the value of all the signs of the South Arabian alphabet was eventually established.

The advances made towards the end of the nineteenth century are due largely to the efforts of J. T. Arnaud, J. Halevy and E. Glaser and their respective explorations of some of Yemen’s most renowned archaeological sites.

Arnaud arrived in Sana’a in 1843 and was most likely the first European to go on to visit the early Sabaean centre of Marib and Sirwah. He produced a plan and description of the town of Marib and also visited both the Awwam and Barran temples. At the Awwam temple, alternatively known as the Mahram Bilqis, he prepared a plan and recorded a number of inscriptions. Likewise, he visited the Marib dam where he prepared a plan of both the dam and irrigation canals and recorded further inscriptions. On his return to Sana’a he visited Sirwah and recorded yet more inscriptions.

In 1869-70 Halevy visited the Yemen on behalf of the Academie des Inscriptions de Paris, specifically to record pre-Islamic inscriptions. He was able to travel extensively throughout the north of Yemen and visited numerous sites where he observed both inscriptions and other artifacts. Unfortunately, although he recorded the inscriptions he appears not to have made plans or illustrations of the other antiquities which he had seen. Like Arnaud, he spent time at both Marib and Sirwah and the other sites he visited include that of Baraqish.

Glaser, a most renowned Austrian orientalist, made a number of journeys in the Yemen between 1883 and 1892. During his first two visits he was unable to travel to Marib, but did visit a number of sites between Aden and Sana’a, including the site of Zafar. On his third visit he was able to visit Marib where he surveyed and described the dam and provided important details about the location of the inscriptions at the Awwam temple. Glaser was also responsible for bringing a wide range of South Arabian antiquities back to Europe where they were subsequently lodged in a number of museums.

At the same time that the number of inscriptions collected in North Yemen was rapidly accumulating, further exploration was also taking place in the south. However, it proved more difficult to obtain archaeological information from the Hadhramaut, and whilst not insignificant, the efforts of Wrede, Hirsch and the Bents, received little reward when compared with the quantity of information which had by then been obtained at sites in the north.

In 1928 the ever increasing volume of inscriptions and the description of sites was significantly added to by the results of the first archaeological excavation conducted at the site of al-Huqqa by C. Rathjens and H. von Wissman. At this site, located north of Sana’a they were able to excavate, for the first time, a Sabaean temple, which provided abundant architectural details. In the course of the excavations they also recovered other aspects of Sabaean culture, such as pottery, stone objects, a variety of metal items and jewellery. News of Rathjens’ and von Wissman’s discoveries was given popular coverage in the Illustrated London News under the title "In the Realm of the Queen of Sheba".

Not long afterwards, the first excavations were also conducted in South Yemen. A small excavation was initiated by Lord Belhaven at the site of Shabwa, the results of which were recounted in the Geographical Journal in 1942. But more significant was the excavation conducted by Gertrude Caton-Thompson at the site of Hureidha in the Wadi ‘Amd. Caton-Thompson was a professional archaeologist who had already conducted important excavations in the Fayum of Egypt, and who came to the Yemen with specific aims in mind. These included the search for evidence of the earliest human occupation in the Hadhramaut and significant results elucidating evidence of Palaeolithic remains were found at a number of locations. At the site of Hureidha itself, she completed the excavation of a small temple dedicated to the deity Sin and brought to light many aspects of the ancient culture of Hadhramaut. The results were promptly published in 1944 under the auspices of the Society of Antiquaries and is the first report of a truly scientific excavation in the Yemen.

The 1950s saw the arrival on the scene of the colourful, but ultimately ill-fated, expeditions of the American Foundation for the Study of Man, led into the field by Wendell Phillips. A popular rendition of their adventures is given by Phillips in his book "Qataban and Sheba". But of far greater importance are the subsequent publications that document the results of their work at a number of major sites. The sites at which they excavated include the Awwam temple at Marib and the former Qatabanian capital at Timna. A cemetery close to Timna was also excavated. As a whole, the excavations produced a wealth of material illustrating aspects of South Arabian culture throughout the pre-Islamic period of the first millennium BC and the first centuries AD. This includes some of the most well-known archaeological finds from the Yemen, such as the bronze statue of a warrior, found in the enclosure of the Awwam temple, and the bronze statues of two lions, each mounted by an infant rider, found in the excavation at Timna. The expeditions also made important observations on the irrigation practices at Marib and the Wadi Beihan and conducted a further important excavation at the site of Hajar bin Humeid. The results from the excavation at the latter site have had profound implications on our understanding of the development and dating of South Arabian civilisation. The excavations at Hajar bin Humeid comprised a large stratigraphic section cut into the side of the mound which had been formed by the accumulated debris of subsequent periods of occupation. From amongst the earliest occupation levels of the site, the excavators recovered remains of ancient timbers, from which it was possible to obtain a number of radio-carbon dates. The dates thereby acquired can be used to suggest that the earliest occupation of the site dates from as the very end of the second millennium BC. What was yet more significant was the discovery amongst some of these earliest levels, of a number of pot sherds exhibiting inscribed letters written in the typical South Arabian script. The implication therefore, was that the South Arabian alphabet might have been in use from the early first millennium BC. Such a dating was contrary to the opinion then widely advocated, and most vehemently upheld by J. Pirenne, which was that the South Arabian alphabet developed at some time towards the middle of the first millennium BC. In other words, the American excavations offered the possibility of showing that the pre-Islamic civilisation of the Yemen was of far greater antiquity then previously thought, and such an early date for its existence would of course be more in line with the probable dating of biblical episodes.such as the visit made to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba. This is not to suggest the historical integrity of the Queen of Sheba as an actual person, but rather the integrity of the Sabaeans, and other kingdoms of the Yemen, as being important and advanced trading states from as early as the beginning of the first millennium BC.

It is largely upon the legacy left by the American excavations that more recent archaeological research has been based. Archaeologists are eager, not only to document the characteristics of South Arabian civilisation, but also to try to explain its genesis. The origin of South Arabian civilisation was, and undoubtedly still is to some extent, rather problematic. Caton-Thompson had successfully shown evidence of Palaeolithic occupation in the Yemen and, since the nineteen forties, the presence was known of Neolithic sites along the fringes of the Rub al-Khali. But there was no evidence from the intervening period, something in the order of 3,000 years, to show that the development of South Arabian civilisation was a result of localised development. An explanation for its development was therefore sought from outside, and usually seen as resulting from the arrival of new people from the areas of the Fertile Crescent to the north, and bringing with them their advanced culture. Such notions of invasion or mass diffusion are no longer in vogue with archaeologists, The roots of South Arabian civilisation are most likely to be found locally and as having developed as part of a long-term adaptation to local environments and in concert with the developments taking place in neighbouring regions, such as the Fertile Crescent to the north and areas of east Africa to the west.

Excavations and surveys being conducted since the mid-1970s have already gone some way in providing evidence to fit this new picture and explanation for the development of the pre-Islamic cultures of South Arabia. Unfortunately, there is not sufficient space to document even the most sensational of these recent discoveries. To try do so in an abbreviated form would inevitably result in unjustifiable omission, a crime which I am no doubt already guilty of in the brief account given above. This account clearly relates to the archaeological exploration of Yemen’s pre-Islamic past. This does not mean that Yemen’s subsequent Islamic heritage is neither important or not currently being explored. It is. Also, the account given above is unmistakably Euro-centric. One only has to think of al-Hamdani writing in the tenth century about the ‘Antiquities of South Arabia" to realise that this isn’t only a European passion. Indeed, none of the important and exciting work being done today (and waiting to be told, given a future opportunity) could be done without the active and friendly cooperation of our Yemeni colleagues.

November 1996