Italians in Oman: 40 years of research and dreams

A 40 years long cooperation

The cooperation between the Italian Republic and the Sultanate of Oman in archaeology and ancient history investigations, and in preservation and management of cultural heritage have a diverse and varied 40 years long history. Since the mid-seventies Italian archaeological missions and researchers operate in different regions of Oman with the patronage of the local Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities (today being the Ministry of Heritage and Tourism), with the support of several Departments of major Italian Universities (Bologna, Rome, Naples, Pisa, Milan), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the International Association of Studies on the Mediterranean and the East (ISMEO).

Prof. Paolo Costa during an istitutional visit.
AL AIN (Al Dhahira, Sultanate of Oman) Beehive tombs Hafit period 3100-2700 BC - photo by Francesco Genchi
RH-5, Ras Al-Hamra (Qurum, Muscat) Aerial photo from the 1984 excavation season - Joint Hadd Project Archives

Besides the scientific results of sensational archaeological discoveries, this collaboration enabled the strengthening of local institutions dedicated to cultural heritage management, the preservation of the Omani archaeological sites listed in the UNESCO World Heritage, and the development of rescue and preventive archaeological interventions within infrastructure expansion programs. The tangible result was a raising awareness on the issues of protection, conservation and restoration of historical buildings and collections, embodied by the promotion and establishment of national museums.

Pioneers and first surveys

The pioneers of Italian archaeology in the Sultanate of Oman were Prof. Maurizio Tosi and Prof. Paolo Costa. The first, after a long research experience in Central Asia and Middle East, went to Oman for the first time in 1975, while the country was opening at the dawn of the reign of Sultan Qaboos bin Said. The unexplored areas between sea, mountains and desert immediately lead Tosi to understand the enormous archaeological potential of Oman where he deepened his interest in tribal alliances, around which the early communities in Arabia formed and developed, considering it as an alternative to the hierarchy and kingship that distinguished the evolution of ancient complex societies. In the same years Prof. Costa, following his collaborations with the Directorate General of Antiquities in Iraq and then Yemen, in 1976 was appointed consultant for archaeology by the Sultanate of Oman, where he remained until 1986. The main result of his efforts in the country was the organization of the Department of Archaeology of the Ministry of Heritage and Culture, along with the creation of the first regional inventories of the most interesting sites and the archaeological exploration of the regions of Muscat, Ibra, Bahla and Jebel Akhdar.

Model of Magan Boat
Model of Magan Boat Cherry wood and straw bundles Length: 0.8 m (Scale 1:15). From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository
RJ-2 (Ras Al-Jinz, Jal'an), general view and detail of the archaeological site - Joint Hadd Project Archives

Long lasting investigations and discoveries

The first long term research on the most compelling sites, promoted by the ISMEO and the various Italian university departments, focused in the area around the capital, where Tosi identified the wide promontory of Ras al-Hamra as home to numerous communities mainly dedicated to fishing but with well-defined ritualistic and funerary features between the VI and the IV millennium BC. The latter exploration of the most remote coastal and inland areas led Maurizio Tosi’s team to establish the Joint Hadd Project, drawing in Prof. Serge Cleuziou and the Sorbonne University in Paris. In the framework of the Joint Hadd Project, dozens of specialists and students engaged for more than twenty years between the bay of Ras al-Jinz and the lagoon of Ras al-Hadd, to discover the first traces of thought-out coastal settlements, inhabited by groups with a strong seafaring and commercial vocation, and yet again, well-defined rituals and funerary customs. The extraordinary picture that emerged from this research, put ancient Oman, the land of Magan, at the centre of a dense network of exchanges with both Indus Valley and Mesopotamia, effectively introducing the eastern Arabian Peninsula within the dynamics of trade and relations between the great civilizations of the ancient world. In more recent times, but rooted in the experience gained on the coast of the Arabian Sea, the Magan Boat project was born: focusing the study on the Arabian maritime technology of the third millennium, the construction of three reed boats prototypes was envisioned.

Prof. Maurizio-Tosi-and-Serge-Cleuziou
Maurizio Tosi and Serge Cleuziou standing at the Ministry’s signpost indicating site RJ-2 - Joint Hadd Project Archives

After the engagement of the Oriental University of Naples first, and then the Alma Mater University of Bologna, where Tosi moved in the mid-90s, it was the time of the University of Pisa that under the direction of Prof. Avanzini began research in the southern region of the Sultanate, the Dhofar. These new activities led to the identification of the great fortified settlement of Sumhuram, an important crossroads on the Incense Road, and later to the discovery of the imposing Bronze Age tower of Salut, in central Oman. From the earliest phases of the exploration, geoarchaeological researches were integrated, conducted by Prof. Cremaschi of the University of Milan, analysing the areas where environmental conditions influenced the development of the settlements.

Promptly, both Italian and international research groups chose to undertake archaeological explorations in the most promising areas of the country, often invited by Prof. Tosi to engage this vast ecosystem that characterizes the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula. 

HD-6 (Ras Al-Hadd, Jal'an), detail of a stone and mudbrick structure - Joint Hadd Project Archives Project
National Museum of the Sultanate of Oman. By Mohammedkhamisnasserkhamis - Own work. From Commons Wikimedia

Rescue archaeology, heritage protection and museums

The last years of this long research itinerary coincide with the appointment of Tosi as Councillor for Archaeology by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage of Oman during which a strong impulse was given to preventive and rescue archaeology, promoting excavation projects to minimize the impact of modern infrastructure on archaeological evidence disseminated for example along modern roads. The amount of data produced is invaluable, just consider that the large funeral site of Daba, in the Musandam peninsula, or the metallurgical production site of Uqdat al-Bakra, on the threshold of the great Rub al-Khali desert, were first identified during these operations. Many of which have seen dozens of Italian archaeologists engaged in the field, putting the experience gained in Europe on preventive archaeology at the service of the Sultanate.

Yet another element to consider concerns the musealisation and fruition of the sites, through the planning of archaeological parks and visitor centres, as well as scientific advice in the realization of the National Museum of Muscat. In this scenario as well, Italian architects and restorers provided their expertise in restoration of finds and artefacts, and the consolidation of archaeological evidence.

This long exciting journey, which today exceeds 40 years of history, was celebrated in Muscat in 2019 with an exhibition conceived and strongly desired by the Omani and Italian Ministries of Cultural Heritage, with the collaboration of ISMEO and all the scholars involved. The initiative was then collected in a volume with a rather evocative title “SOGNATORI/DREAMERS, 40 Years of Italian Archaeological Research in Oman”

Iron age long collective graves of Daba Al Bayah-LGC1. Photogrammetry Dr Francesco Genchi