The excavation campaigns
Axelle Rougeulle (CNRS, UMR8167 – Orient et Méditerranée)
The first season of the second four-year phase of the Qalhât Project took place from November 11 to December 14, 2012. This second four-year phase is run in parallel with the Qalhât Development Project, and aims to continue research on the town in addition to the zones already studied during the first four years, and those extensively excavated by the QDP. Funding is still provided by the Ministry of Heritage and Culture of the Sultanate of Oman, the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs and the CNRS, and the project is directed by Axelle Rougeulle (CNRS – UMR 8167). This first field season took place during the 2013b season of the QDP and the team consisted of three people, including one from Éveha International.
This season had two main objectives: to refine the town plan, and to identify one of the town’s souqs.
To carry out the first objective, walk-over survey was conducted over a wide area in the zone identified as the old town. Here, the remains are particularly densely packed. This work gave us a better understanding of the organisation of the structures and demonstrated the existence of predominantly large grouped habitation units, rather than large numbers of small buildings, as was previously thought.
The souq is a vital element in the organisation of an Islamic town. The identification of one of these economic focal points was therefore one of the priorities of the research at Qalhât.
Field observations previously carried out had revealed the presence of a slight depression located about 100 metres north of the mosque. At its centre, there appeared to be a number of winding streets. The piles of collapsed material in this area are numerous but low in height, and seem to correspond with small, low buildings. All of these elements suggested that this space may indeed be one of the souqs of ancient Qalhât. To test the legitimacy of this hypothesis, a number of trenches were dug.
The earliest evidence of occupation in this area is a ditch whose fill has been dated to the early 13th century. However, its function and the organisation of the surrounding structures during that period were unknown. This feature on its own does not enable us to characterise the function of this part of the town at that time.
The excavations confirmed the presence of a street at the centre of the zone, which appears to have occupied the lower part of the depression and sits partly on the bedrock. It is approximately 1.8 metres wide along the section that was uncovered. During the late 13th and early 14th centuries, a building (B141) was constructed to the north of this street. It comprised at least one room, partly uncovered on its western side. To the east lay an earlier open courtyard. Two occupation layers associated with this building were identified, which indicate that it was in use until the 16th century, probably more or less until the town was abandoned. A small hoard of coins was found under the layers of collapsed material, placed in a crevice in the northern wall. This was originally placed in a cloth purse, some elements of which were still visible.
To the south of the street the story is more complex. Firstly, in this area the bedrock is interrupted by a deep depression, which was completely filled in. On top of this was placed a rough masonry construction partly composed of large pebbles which appear to have originally lined the street. To the west, this construction rests against a partially plastered stone wall, which is slightly curved. This wall is unusual in that it runs through the middle of the street, which poses a problem for the interpretation of these structures. As excavations were quite dispersed, only hypotheses could be put forward. They may have been intended to retain a level of fill material and so would have functioned as a terrace wall, in the context of a very irregular ground surface. In this case, a sort of curved step would have cut across the street. Alternatively, these remains may have belonged to a building which encroached on the street, which would suggest that the original street was very winding.
A wall located further to the south and a partly exposed staircase can also be added to these early phases of construction. The staircase indicates that, at that time, the southern part was built on top of a sort of small terrace. The corner of a building (B142) was uncovered on the west side of this terrace. We can therefore envisage a street which occupied the bottom of a depression, lined with buildings on the higher ground above it.
In later periods, all of the space between the top of the stairs and the low wall which ran along the street was filled in. A new building (B140) was constructed on top, and this was almost entirely excavated. It was rectangular and measured 5 x 4.5 metres, and an internal partition wall containing a threshold was identified. The upper part of this partition wall was very probably made of perishable materials. It enclosed a room of about 8 metres² in the western part of the building, which did not have a direct access from outside. No entrance to this building was identified, indicating either that it lies in the area not excavated, or that the original threshold was placed very high. Inside the two rooms, the floor was comprised of layers of hard earth.
This building was lined with a passage along its eastern side, where the earlier staircase had been. To the south, rough masonry blocks the access between B140 and B142. Either this area was occupied by a small cul-de-sac, or the masonry corresponds to a step (it was approximately 50 centimetres high).
In later phases, the area was therefore characterised by several apparently modest buildings with streets running between them. Two of these seem to be aligned on either side of a reasonably wide street. The ensemble could indeed correspond to a souq. However, there is no particular structure which allows us to confirm this. The artefacts recovered are not characteristic enough to demonstrate a clearly defined activity. The hypothesis will therefore need to be confirmed by more extensive excavation.
It should be noted that the rather abundant material found in the layers of collapse in B140 was associated with a very organic sediment, characterised in particular by the presence of decomposed wood, which may be the remains of a roof.
Lastly, a large ditch whose function and date have not been determined was later cut into a part of this area.