Little more than a crossroads for wandering Bedouin, Shisr now has a few residents who farm an acre of land using water from its well. The Omani government recently constructed a regional center for Bedouin there, building a mosque and 12 little houses. The team was able to rent three of the houses as headquarters.
Ironically, Thomas had stopped at Shisr in his search and made note of a "rude fort" at the site. Residents told him the fort had been built by a local sheik only 300 years earlier, and Thomas's brief studies seemed to confirm that, so he abandoned the site.
But although the fort had been built recently, the team found that the sheik had built it on the rubble of Ubar. In fact, limestone blocks from Ubar were used in its construction.
As soon as they began digging, Clapp said, they knew that they were on to something. Zarins immediately brought in a full team from his university, and Clapp and Hedges recruited volunteers from a nearby military base to help with the laborious task of excavation.
"On some weekends, we had as many as 40 volunteers digging," Clapp said. "The sand was really flying from the site."
In the last two months, he said, they have removed 200 tons of sand from the site, sifting every bit of it so that they could discover "even the smallest mouse bone." He predicts they will have to remove another 2,000 tons to explore the site fully.
What they found was not a city in the conventional sense. Most Arabs in the past have lived not in traditional dwellings but in tents whose sides can be opened to allow cooling breezes. So the bulk of the "city" would have left few permanent traces, except for fire pits, which the team found in abundance.
But at the center of the tent city was a permanent fortress that served as the home of the king, as a processing and storage facility for the frankincense and as a record-keeping center. In times of trouble, the fortress served as a safe haven whose walls and towers were never breached.
The fortress, they found, was ringed by eight walls, each about two feet thick, 10 to 12 feet high and about 60 feet long. At each corner stood a tower, roughly 10 feet in diameter and 30 feet tall. The towers were the primary distinguishing feature of Ubar and are the strongest proof that this is in fact Ubar, which is described in the Koran as "the many-towered city . . . whose like has not been built in the entire land." Also convincing is the sinkhole, which confirms that the city met a cataclysmic end.
During their excavations, the team has found fragments of pottery from all of the ancient world, bones ranging from mice to camels (although no human bones so far), incense burners and coins. They hope to find much more when they begin excavating the part of the city that collapsed into the sinkhole. Residents would have removed their belongings when they abandoned the buildings that did not collapse, but those that fell into the sinkhole probably would not even have been emptied by scavengers.
But that will have to wait until they can bring in some mining engineers. For now, the sinkhole is simply too dangerous to excavate.
Funding for the expedition was provided by a consortium of American, British and Omani companies, led by the Oman National Bank.
The Lost City
Researchers believe that they have found the legendary lost city of Ubar, celebrated in "The Thousand and One Arabian Nights" and the Koran as a center of the frankincense trade in ancient Arabia. Excavations at the site indicate that the city included a fortress surrounded by the tents of the permanent residents.
* Location: On a slight rise in the barren section what is now southern Oman known as the "Empty Quarter." The fortress' large well was the only source of water for several days' journey.
* History: Artifacts indicate the city came into existence before 2800 B.C. Legend holds that it was destroyed by God because of the debauchery of its residents, but new evidence indicates it was destroyed, perhaps around AD 100 to 200, when a large limestone cavern beneath it collapsed.
* The Product: The frankincense -- a valuable substance used in cremations, in medicine and as a perfume -- was made from the sap of scraggly bushes from the Qara Mountains. It was processed in Ubar before being shipped northward across the desert on trade routes that led to ancient Sumer, as well as Damascus and Jerusalem.
Main Building (probably residence of ruler)
Central Water Well
* 8 different structures.
* 30 feet tall.
* 10 feet in diameter.
* 60 feet long.
* 10 to 12 feet high.
* About 2 feet thick.