6th archaeological campaign
at Mleiha, Sharjah (UAE)

The Royal Museums of Art and History,
Brussels.

A Belgian team works at Mleiha
since 2009. The 2014 campaign (20/11-18/12/2014) was mainly a study campaign on
the architectural remains, finds and ceramics that are kept in storage at the
site. The field activities were limited to surveying and to the continuation of
the excavation of two monumental tombs that had started the previous year. At
the same time, a drone for aerial photography was tested in various weather
conditions and environments. The 2014
expedition is supported by the Royal Museums, the FWO (Research Foundation – Flanders) and the IAP VII (Greater Mesopotamia: Reconstruction of its Environment and History) and works in
close collaboration with the Directorate of Antiquities of the Emirate of
Sharjah, headed by Dr. Sabah Jasim. The expedition is
directed by B. Overlaet (RMAH), members and collaborators of the 2014 team were
E. Haerinck (senior archaeologist), B. De Prez, P. Pincé and L. Van Goethem (archaeologists), H.
Steenbeke and M. Coppejans (architectural reconstructions) and Patrick Monsieur
(amphora identifications).

Fig. 1. The 2014 Belgian field team and local
workmen.

The excavations

During the first four years a
large surface with 7 monumental tombs and 4 more modest pit graves (zone P) was
excavated on the eastern fringes of the site (Fig. 2). In 2013 a ground
penetrating radar survey targeted its surroundings, extending the research area
eastwards up to the modern wadi. A series of tombs with monumental square
superstructures were revealed and the excavations documented the presence of
modest pit tombs between the clusters of monumental tombs (Fig. 2). The two
monumental tombs excavated in the 6th season are located on the low
mound Z. Both tombs were looted but still produced interesting finds such as
Rhodian amphora fragments, Mesopotamian glazed luxury vessels, various types of
gold beads and alabaster vessels from Yemen. All these point to a date in the
first half of the 2nd century BCE. They illustrate the importance and
the role of Mleiha on the Arabian trade routes and contribute important
elements for the chronology of the Oman peninsula.

Fig. 2. Drone photography of graveyard area
AV with the Belgian excavations.

Drones and aerial photography

Drones are ideal for
oblique overviews of excavations, vertical photography in view of mapping and
measuring and for more general surveying purposes. Drones can replace the use
of ladders and scaffolds and of kites or hot air/helium balloons on many digs. Professional drones
remain expensive and complex, however, and demand a skilled and well trained
pilot, often seconded by someone to operate the camera. In recent years, archaeologists
have therefore started to experiment with low budget recreational drones fitted
with lightweight cameras. Commonly reported problems of these early attempts were, however, a limited
flight time due to battery capacity, low quality photography and particularly
the inability to use the drone in anything but very light winds. The latest generation
of “consumer drones” have become increasingly user friendly and most of these
problems have been solved. We opted to experiment with a standard version of a
“DJI – Phantom 2” quadcopter mounted with a 12 MP camera on a damped 2D gimbal
for stability. The camera can be tilted in flight between a horizontal and
vertical position. An OSD or “On Screen Display” module streams the camera view
and technical and navigational data to a monitor on the remote controller. This
makes it ideal for low altitude aerial surveys in accordance with aeronautical
regulations (below 50 meter). The relatively small drone necessitates video
piloting (FPV, First-Person View) via the monitor when surveying larger areas
since it is impossible to keep track of it with the naked eye.

Fig. 3. The drone in
its transport case and mounted on a backpack.

The drone is kept “flight
ready” in a custom made protective transport case at the excavations and can be
made ready for flight within minutes. It can thus be used on the spot without
delaying any of the excavation activities.

During the 2014 expedition at Mleiha trials were made
in different environments and weather conditions. Flights were made above the
excavation field in the wadi plain and during surveys around the excavations
and on the nearby Jebel Fayah mountain ridge. Surveying flights above the wadi
during the early morning hours produced excellent shadow marks. Flights could
normally continue for several hours until stronger thermals started to develop
and “dust devils” started occurring. The general experience was very positive,
however. The drone could be flown in moderate to strong winds and performed
well in all conditions. With a maximum flight speed of 15m/s. (54 km/h.) it can
even counteract gusty winds.

Fig. 4. Subtle shadow
marks of very low mounds with monumental tombs in area AV. The oblique view
emphasises the effect of the shadows.

Drone surveying in the mountains demands a somewhat
different approach. The drone was mounted on a backpack and used from various
points near the top of the Jebel Fayah (see fig. 1). Flights were made early in
the morning and halted once thermals, accelerated by their path across the
mountain, reached vertical velocities of more than 1m/second. In a mountainous
environment is keeping visual track of the drone essential in view of the
effect of local winds and turbulences on the flight path close to the relief. Turbulences
and thermal activities can be strong and develop rapidly. In general, these first trials on the Jebel
Fayah were all together positive. The technical equipment was effective and
allows covering large zones in limited timespans. During these first trials,
two structures – likely to be a musallahs or prayer area – were located and
documented. A general aerial survey of the mountain area could supply important
data to identify and protect local archaeological and historical heritage.

Fig. 5. Mountain top
of the Jebel Fayah with a square structure, possibly a musallah.

Fig. 6. A Dust Devil, a strong thermal sweeping up
the sand, moves over the excavations.

Fig. 7. View from
Mleiha towards the Jebel Fayah.