The QMA and UCL teams are still digging down through layers of buildings, heading downwards towards the oldest levels of the town. Less than two weeks to go now. Right now the UCL diggers are excavating what we think is a family kitchen – a small room tucked into the corner of a walled enclosure with a series of clay-lined ovens dug into its floor.
This is providing exactly the kind of information we are looking for in the Origins of Doha project – how the ordinary people of the town lived. It’s not just the architecture, fixtures and fittings of a traditional dwelling that we’re interested in, but also the items that its inhabitants lost or discarded, so we’re collecting just about everything that has been used, altered or produced by the people who once lived on the site. Basically, we’re picking through old rubbish, but none of it is worthless – some of this rubbish will later appear in museum displays, and all of it will be studied.
The finds are registered before making their way to the specialists. A whole range items of things relating to everyday life passes through the hands of the registrar – keys and padlocks, beads and bangles, perfume and medicine bottles, pots and pans, forgotten stashes of coins buried for safe-keeping in the corners of rooms, coffee cups and pieces of smokers’ water-pipes.
Soon we will be able to tell exactly when smoking the gidu became popular in Doha! We also find evidence for more abrupt threats to the health – bullet cartridges. Doha’s people had to be able to defend themselves, and we know that the town was walled in the 1860s and 1880s.
Many finds relate to Doha’s maritime past – a large triangular pierced stone is a kind of traditional anchor (known as a sin), while huge rusty iron nails come from boat timbers. We’ve even found some items relating directly to pearl fishing – most of the families in Doha relied on the pearl fishery to make a living. As well as abundant pearl oyster shells we found fragments of a pearl diver’s weight, which he would have used to drag him to the sea floor each he dived down to gather oysters, and a much smaller kind of weight – a small brass merchant’s weight used for weighing the precious pearls found by the divers of Doha.
This particular one is green with age and is a traditional Arab mithqal weight, a rare object. I spent years studying the history of the pearl fishery, studying such objects in museum and private collections, so to dig one up on an archaeological site is tremendously exciting.
Animal remains will be studied by an expert who has devoted a lifetime of study to identifying fish, birds and animals from their fragmentary bones (eating dinner with an archaeological bone specialist can be an interesting experience). This will tell us about the diet of the people of Doha, and how it changed through time. We’re also collecting sacks and sacks of the darkest, dirtiest deposits that we can find – these will contain burnt remains of fruits, grains and plant foods (which do not survive long in the soil unless they are burnt).
Things will get even dirtier when the specialist starts work – the soil is passed through a circulating water tank known as a flotation machine (custom-made for the excavation) while the operator swirls the mud and water with her arms. The burnt organic material floats to the surface and is collected for study, while the heavier sediments and finds sink. We dry these, sieve them and pull out all the tiny fish bones and small artefacts which otherwise would be missed during excavation.
Meanwhile, the Oral History members of the Origins team visited the site last week, Tammi Moe and Fahad Al-Obaidly. We will understand Old Doha and its inhabitants so much better if we talk to the people who actually lived there. Fahad will therefore add an essential Qatari component to our work, and help us connect with the people of Doha past and present. Memory, history and archaeology are inseparable in this project, and the work of the oral historians will be as important as that of the archaeologists.
Robert Carter, Director of the Origins of Doha Project, with thanks to Faisal Al-Naimi, Head of the Department of Antiquities at QMA, and to Ferhan Sakal, director of the QMA team at the excavation site