Land of Frankincense Archaeological Project

Al Baleed

Al Baleed (medieval Zafar) is a large ancient and medieval port city on the Indian Ocean coast in southern Oman.  It is now part of the “Land of Frankincense” UNESCO World Heritage listing and an archaeological park visited by more than 45,000 people a year.  An international team of experts, directed by UALR Anthropology’s Dr. Krista Lewis, conducts regular excavations at the site.  Experienced archaeology students apply to participate in the research.

Al Baleed was a mercantile, administrative, and cultural center, an international port city with a local heart. Strategically located in the midst of the western Indian Ocean trade circuits, Al Baleed is well-known for having exported the regional specialties frankincense and Arabian horses, but its value to global cultural heritage only begins with those commodities. A wide array of goods, ideas, and peoples from throughout the Indian Ocean region passed through its gates. The earliest artifacts excavated from Al Baleed are Bronze Age, but the earliest substantial evidence for structural remains and the founding of the city dates to approximately the sixth century AD. From modest pre-Islamic origins the town grew into a thriving city, experiencing a series of political and economic developments and phases of reorganization, reconstruction, and expansion over more than a thousand years. Al Baleed affords us a window into how our contemporary globalized world came into being. Its history stretches from the late antique period to the early modern, and its transformations throughout that time have much to teach us about international commercial transactions and the cultural interconnections that generated and sustained them.

Why are we excavating at Al Baleed?

Our archaeological excavations at Al-Baleed investigate the emergence of the globalized social and economic networks are world is enmeshed in today.  We are also learning more about what daily life was like at an important multi-ethnic port city during ancient and medieval times. Our excavations examine patterns of urban life as they developed uniquely in southern Arabia in the context of its far-reaching global trade connections.

Our overall goals for the UALR excavations at Al Baleed are threefold. First, we aim to expand the general understanding of the history, chronology, and activities that took place at Al Baleed. Second, our work is revealing more about the economic dimensions of this important trade city, including mercantile practices and craft production. Finally, our investigations are specifically designed to comprehensively recover artifacts, spaces, and organic remains that illustrate daily life activities of the residents and visitors to the city of Zafar.

We are particularly interested in investigating eating and commensal practices. All over the world and throughout time, sharing food and drink are essential ways that humans show their cultural identity, display their status, mark social events, enact generosity and facilitate financial transactions. Finding out what, how, and with whom the people of Zafar ate will provide us with a new level of rich detail about the vibrant past of this port city.

The area we chose to excavate first during our initial seasons at Al Baleed is perfect for addressing our research questions. Our work focuses on a very strategic part of the city which has many large buildings and a major city street and is located just inside the western city wall. This part of Al Baleed was likely one of the most important mercantile centers in all of southern Arabia, and so is a prime place to investigate the questions we have set out to answer.

The Al Baleed Team

Archaeology is always a team effort.  This project would not be possible without the hard work of many people before, during, and after the field seasons in Oman.  Our permanent team members include Ghanim al Shanfari, Land of Frankincense Director; Mohammed al-Jahfali, Al Baleed Site Manager; Ali Al Kathiri, Land of Frankincense Museum Director; Kevin Geiss, Database Architect; William Isenberger, Digital Mapping and Graphics; Brian Miller, Database, Digital Art, and Logistics; Kristy Miller, Lab Director, and all our other wonderful colleagues in the Land of Frankincense and the Office of the Advisor to the Sultan for Cultural Affairs in Oman.  Other professional staff members who have participated in one or more excavation seasons include Said Almashani, Vanessa Bunton, Dr. Sarah Graff, Dr. Elizabeth Horton, and Dr. Lamya Khalidi.

Big thanks are also due to our support team at UALR including Albert Everett of the Graduate Institute of Technology, staff members of UALR IT Services, and of course all the wonderful students and trainees who have joined us from UALR and beyond.  Funding and logistical support provided by the Omani Office of the Advisor to the Sultan for Cultural Affairs, the UALR Middle Eastern Studies Program, the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, the UALR CSSC Dean’s Office, and the UALR Department of Sociology and Anthropology.  We would like to especially acknowledge the support and vision of His Excellency Abdul-Aziz bin Mohammed al Rowas in his dedication to the preservation and promotion of Omani cultural heritage.

Want to know more? Check out some of the results of our recent fieldwork:

Winter 2016-17 field season (coming soon!)

3D Al Baleed featured on Sketchfab

Winter 2015-16 field season (coming soon!)

Summer 2015 Al Baleed Excavations

Summer 2014 excavations

Summer 2013 excavations