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Ancient Frankincense Trail Discovered

Archeology: Team that earlier found city of Ubar says forts, roadside markers in Yemen show route to Middle East.

January 28, 1997|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A three-week reconnaissance mission through an unexplored region of gullies and goat paths in eastern Yemen has yielded an unprecedented wealth of archeological finds, according to the Los Angeles-based team of archeologists that made the discovery.

The team reports that it has proved the existence of an ancient frankincense trail from the recently discovered city of Ubar in Oman to the Middle East. Frankincense is believed by many to be the first substance to be traded worldwide and was a key part of the Middle East economy 2,500 years ago. The identification of an overland trade route for frankincense, experts say, is on a par with the discovery of the more recent and much better known silk route to the Orient.

Proof of the route's existence was found during the discovery of a treasure-trove of more than 65 separate archeological sites. Two of the most important findings are a pair of ancient fortresses virtually identical to one the team had previously uncovered at Ubar. These stone caravansaries guarded portions of the route used by camel caravans to transport the valuable spice from the forbidding land of its origin to the centers of civilization.

They also found more than 30 "triliths," complex stone roadside markers that guided the frankincense merchants through the uncharted wastes of this arid land--solid proof that an overland trail existed.

They uncovered a broad variety of other artifacts, including a Stonehenge-like circle of massive stones, Bronze Age tombs and, extending much further back into prehistory, evidence of habitation by the earliest human beings.

"To think that, in 1997, there is a place that is unexplored, that we could find 65 major sites in three weeks without lifting a shovel, is astonishing," said amateur archeologist and lawyer George R. Hedges, who organized the expedition. "I can't imagine that no one has explored this area before. The richness is just extraordinary."

"Boy, was it spectacular!" said archeologist Juris Zarins of Southwest Missouri State University, who was part of the team. Following up on the discoveries, he said, could keep him and a dozen other archeologists busy for the rest of their lives.

Frankincense is the dried resin of a scraggly shrub that grows well only in the Qara Mountains of Oman on the edge of the desolate Ruba'al Khali or Empty Quarter. It was more valuable than gold to early civilizations because of its use in religious ceremonies, the consecration of temples, the manufacture of cosmetics and the treatment of illnesses. Frankincense was a fabulous source of wealth for its growers from at least 1000 B.C. until about A.D. 700.

Even in ancient times, Hedges said, the place frankincense came from was said to have "an aura of forbidding mystery, where frightening things happened to travelers. It has remained shrouded since then. We are only now unraveling a mystery that was compelling 2,500 years ago."

The researchers began the unraveling process five years ago when, using Landsat satellite imagery processed by geologist Ronald G. Blom of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, they discovered the fabled lost city of Ubar, the center of the frankincense trade.

The question then became how the frankincense got to the Middle East. It was clear that some was shipped by boat, but the team has always believed that the Ubarites used an overland route as well. "If you put all your cargo on a ship and it goes down, you are out of business," Zarins said. "You have to diversify your portfolio."

Common sense and Blom's satellite images gave them a good idea where to look for an overland route. So they set out at the beginning of 1997 in four pre-1985 Land Cruisers. "They break down a lot but, unlike the newer ones, they can be fixed by anybody anywhere," Blom said.

Their trek, he said, was the equivalent of driving across the United States on single-lane roads, dirt roads and no roads. Maps of the region proved worthless, so they tracked their progress with satellite imagery and the Global Positioning System.

"When we started off in the morning, we had no idea how far we would be able to get by nightfall, where we would be camping, whether there would be water. . . . It was a rough trip," through terrain much like the Grand Canyon area of Arizona, Blom said.

Many of the sites they found were known to locals, but not to the outside world. A police colonel in Sayhut, where they first ventured into uncharted territory, told them about an "old fort" up a wadi outside town. The fort, Ghaydah al Kabir, was "a spitting image" of the fortress at Ubar, Zarins said, and pottery fragments there were identical to those found earlier. The team spent only a few hours there "because the identification was so immediate," Hedges said.

"Here, 400 to 500 kilometers [240 to 300 miles] from Ubar were the identical people," he said. "It immediately proved our thesis" that there was a land route and that the Ubarites controlled a large section of eastern Yemen.

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