To the Field! Wadi Dabsa 2017

After five years of roaming across the Jizan and Asir regions carrying out broad-scale survey under the DISPERSE project, this year brings a change of gear as, on the first season of SURFACE fieldwork, we focus instead on a relatively small area of SW Saudi Arabia, a dense area of stone tools that we identified in 2015 in the headwaters of Wadi Dabsa, a wadi that drains the stunning Harrat Al Birk volcanic fields, Asir Province.

The area, a basin in the upper reaches of Wadi Dabsa (named after the coastal town at its mouth), was located by a curiosity to see ‘what that funny deposit seen on Google Earth’ was – a method with which we have employed to surprisingly successful geomorphological and archaeological effect over the years. Marked on the geological maps as “Quaternary sedimentation”, which told us it consisted of unspecified sediments deposited in the last 2.1 million years. Armed with that detailed info, we battled through  winding tracks bulldozed through the basalt fields to our goal, to discover that the sediments, covering over a square kilometre, were tufa, a carbonate deposit laid down by carbonate-rich water seeping up through the ground or running slowly through wadis. Geomorphologically and palaeoenvironmentally this was already exciting (tufa forms in wetter conditions than exist at present in the Harrat al Birk, can be dated, and can preserve environmental information temperature information in the form of oxygen isotope values), but things got even more exciting when, having left the car to start a transect across its surface, we found a lithic artefact. And another. And soon many, many more.

A small part of the vast tufa exposure at Wadi Dabsa. Photo: R. Inglis.

The intensity of the finds that we observed lying on the surface necessitated a higher-resolution strategy than our other survey localities where each lithic was widely spaced enough to warrant its own GPS location and number, so we laid a 40 x 50 m grid out over the scatter, collecting the artefacts in 5 x 5 m quadrants. >900 lithics later, and we knew we had the densest concentration of Palaeolithic artefacts thus recorded in SW of Saudi Arabia, with both Early and Middle Stone Age technologies present. But so many questions remained – how did the tufa form? What was its relationship to the artefacts? Were the artefacts deposited in a wetter environment when the area would have been attractive to animals, and therefore to past hunting populations? How far did the artefacts extend? How has the landscape changed since people were sitting at Dabsa knapping stone tools? And when did this all take place?

Basalt core on the surface of Wadi Dabsa tufa exposure. Photo: R. Inglis.

So this season, armed with generous funding from the British Academy/Leverhulme (Albert Reckitt Fund), the Gerald Averay Wainwright Fund for Near Eastern Archaeology, and the British Foundation for the Study of Arabia, we have returned to realise the potential of the Wadi Dabsa site. Using a broad set of multi-disciplinary approaches, we’ll try to understand the nature of the archaeology at the site, as well as how and why the artefacts came to be there.

We’ll be working at a number of scales, from trying to understand how the entire basin evolved. What volcanic eruptions deposited the basalt lava flows that surround the site? Why is there so much tufa – was deposited with increased rainfall or spring activity (that could be related to the volcanic eruptions)? How does the local geomorphology at the Remote-sensing work has given us a good idea of strategy across the wider landscape in terms of which units to date, and has identified questions about the development of the landscape that need answering, but no doubt the programme and objectives will shift in response to new observations (this usually happens about 5 minutes after arriving at a site…)

To carry out this work we have recruited a crack international team, some of whom will be in the field for all four weeks, others of whom will bring their expertise for shorter, but no less valuable, stints of work. In addition to the international team, we will be workig closely with the staff of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) from Riyadh and from Asir region, without whose hard work this research would not be possible.

Dr Robyn Inglis, Macquarie University/University of York – geoarchaeology.

Prof. Anthony Sinclair, University of Liverpool – lithic analysis.

Dr Harry Robson, University of York – survey and excavation.

Dr Andrew Shuttleworth, University of Durham – lithic analysis, survey and excavation.

Dr Abdullah Alsharekh, King Saud University, Riyadh – lithic analysis, survey.

Prof Geoff Bailey, University of York – survey and excavation.

Dr Trish Fanning, Macquarie University – geomorpology.

Dr Abi Stone, University of Manchester – tufa recording and U-series sampling.

Dr Dan Barfod, SUERC – basalt survey and Ar/Ar sampling.

Stay tuned for updates!



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