DOHA—In the Qatari coastal village of Fuwairit, an hour’s drive north of Doha, a team of archaeologists is carrying out surface mapping and excavation and collecting data about regional trade and household activities.
The work is part of a bigger project that aims to understand how the peninsula now known as the state of Qatar developed during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Origins of Doha and Qatar Project combines excavation work at the heart of Doha and beyond with surveys of buildings and the collection of oral histories in an attempt to paint a picture of the daily lives of Qataris at those times.
“What we are trying to do here is to put people back into archaeology,” said Robert Carter, a professor of Arabian and Middle Eastern archaeology at UCL Qatar, an institution founded by University College London and the Qatar Foundation for the study of cultural heritage. “We want to find out how people lived, why they made the choices they made and how they survived,” he said.
Pearl fishing was the main economic activity in Qatar until the 1940s. The natural-pearl trade declined when Japan started producing cultured pearls. That, coupled with the Great Depression, made pearl diving unprofitable.
The project covers the peak of the pearl-fishing industry, the Great Depression, the emergence of a petroleum-based economy, and how these changes affected the lives of people in Qatar.
By talking to people who lived during those times, Carter tries to give life to the artifacts his team dis out, like pottery, food remains, metalwork, coins and other objects, to understand what traditional life was like.
The project’s first season of fieldwork started in Doha in November 2012. But recovering the history of a rapidly developing city like Doha was not an easy task. The fast urban expansion meant that whole neighborhoods vanished to give way to modern residential compounds to house the country’s growing population. However, a lot of Qatar’s archaeological heritage did survive in and outside of Doha, where remains of several abandoned villages from the 1890s still exist.
Carter thinks this provides a unique opportunity for the countries of the Arabian Gulf in general, and Qatar in particular, to understand the last three centuries in the Middle East in terms of economic history and global trade.
Colleen Morgan, a lecturer in digital archaeology and heritage, believes the findings of the Origins of Doha and Qatar Project not only help in understanding the past, but hold lessons for the future as well.
“There are interesting things to learn from the Qatari archaeology in terms of the environment and survivability without good sources of water and agriculture,” she said. “We can bring some of these lessons from the past forward as we are being faced with more environmental challenges.”
A breakthrough for the project came when Carter and his team succeeded in analyzing the kinds of ceramics and pottery found on different sites, gaining new understanding of when and where the objects were produced.
This analysis revealed that the quantity of expensive imported material went up and dropped along a curve that mirrored a graph of the quantity of money pearl divers earned between the 1870s and the 1930s.
For Carter, these findings meant that, contrary to common belief, Qataris were completely integrated with the global economy, even though they lived in an area considered to be remote.
“One of the things that interests me about Qataris is that things change around them very fast. But they are certainly very stable and clear in the way their society is holding together,” he said.
Carter thinks that this is partially because Qatari people were already adapted to rapid changes and economic booms during periods of expansion and growth that happened in Doha in the 19th century.
By communicating these findings and past lessons with the public, Carter hopes the project will help younger generations of Qataris gain a better understanding of themselves and their societies and relate to their past.
Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud, a Qatari historical novelist, shares the same view.
“The younger generations in the Gulf region believe they are safe from invasion, wars and conflict,” he said. “The ignorance of history gives them a false sense of security. This will only produce youth who live in luxury and don’t think about the future.”
The history of Qatar was only recently introduced to school curricula in Qatar.
Mariam Al-Thani, community outreach officer for the Origins project, said this was always a source of disappointment for her as a child.
“I always wondered, Why do I learn about the history of other countries and not Qatar?” she said. “Doesn’t my country have a history? Does it not have an identity?”
Al Thani welcomes the project as a positive step toward preserving Qatar’s history and national identity.
“This project says: Yes, Qatar is a new state, but it has history that is there to be discovered and we need to start preserving it for our future generations.”