=START= XMT: 10:05 Mon Aug 13 EXP: 10:00 Mon Aug 20
IMAGES FROM SPACE POINT TO LOST ARABIAN SOCIETY UNDER DESERT SAND IN OMAN
LOS ANGELES (AUG. 13) UPI - On the fringe of the windswept Arabian Desert, a
high-tech archeological effort has pierced cascading sand dunes to reveal what
may be the remnants of a lost civilization.
Using computer-enhanced radar images transmitted from space, scientists have
uncovered clues in Oman's Rub al Khali desert to the burial place of a
legendary society believed to be the bustling hub of the world's frankincense
trade 5,000 years ago.
Known as Ad, the civilization is chronicled in the Koran and mentioned in the
tales of ''The Arabian Nights,'' among others. There are indirect references to
the region in the Bible. It is likely that the wise men who bore gifts to the
infant Jesus carried frankincense traded there.
Members of a California-based scientific expedition claim this summer to have
discovered links to Ad literally buried in the sands of time.
''The clues are tantalizing,'' said George Hedges, a Los Angeles attorney and
part-time explorer who is a member of the expedition sponsored by oil magnate
Armand Hammer and backed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The
expedition included an archaeologist, a geologist, a computer scientist, a
documentary filmmaker and renowned British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a
co-leader of the project.
Hedges said his crew surveyed geological evidence of a buried trail that was
likely one of the routes used by camel-riding frankincense traders. He said
they also stumbled upon what may be artifacts from Ad.
Hedges said he hopes the now-barren land of high-rise sand dunes eventually
will yield the once-thriving city of Ubar, a main frankincense shipping center
operated by the people of Ad and described by adventurer T.E. Lawrence as ''the
Atlantis of the sands.''
''This was an initial shipping point for frankincense, which was an extremely
important trade commodity in the ancient world and found markets as far away as
China and Rome,'' Hedges said.
Frankincense, an aromatic resin produced from the sap of trees indigenous to
East Africa and the Middle East, was once a coveted incense. It was used by
emperors and common folk alike in ceremonies and religious rituals
including imperial processions and cremations.
The Ads' lucrative trading society lasted roughly from 3000 B.C. to the 1st
century A.D. It died a victim of economic, political and climatic forces that
coincided with a drop in demand for the fragrance and the rise of Christianity,
which preached burying bodies instead of burning them.
Eventually the villages of Ad were buried by encroaching tides of sand, which
now rise like mountains 200 to 600 feet high.
Although historical or scholarly writings on the subject are scarce and many -
because of the lack of ruins - thought the Ad civilization was mythical,
members of the expedition had always believed the Ads lived somewhere in the
sprawling Rub al Khali desert.
Space-age technology made it possible to try to pinpoint the Ad city and trade
Unlike British explorer Bertram Thomas, who had tried in the 1930s to map the
area but gave up after finding himself isolated amid the sand dunes with no
water in sight, the team was able to use sophisticated computers and radar
images generated by satellites as their compass.
''We applied new techniques to help define where we should begin looking ''
said Ronald Blom, a senior scientist at JPL who joined the expedition. ''It's
impossible to search the whole desert, so we helped to target the approximate
location for the archaeologists to start looking.''
Studying satellite topography images generated by computer, Blom and JPL
assistant director Charles Elachi were able to distinguish at least one
100-yard-wide hoof-trodden path lying under tons of sand, which they believe
was one in a network of roads that cut across the desert.
''It's very subtle. The ground has been worn away ever so slightly into the
desert floor,'' Blom said. ''We found modern tracks and ancient ones. The new
ones go around the dunes, the old ones go under them.''
Although the Ad team had been planning for six years to explore the region
they had not intended to start excavating until January 1991. But they stumbled
upon 900 pottery shards and flint pieces and the trade route during a
three-week ''reconnaissance'' in July.
Because of high-powered desert winds, the team could not stay longer and left
the artifacts with the Oman Department of National Heritage until the
''We hope during the main expedition that we can definitely prove these
legendary people existed,'' Hedges said.