Incense Production in Ancient Southern Arabia

Incense Production in Ancient Southern Arabia: Developing an Archaeological Project

by Joy McCorriston, 1995-96 Fellow
Professor of Anthropology, The Ohio State University

Impatience.

I sensed it in ethnographer Ietha’s scowl, in S_____’s interruptions. How could I translate for her, while I struggled with even basic comprehension of what Letha tried to convey? It was all so foreign to me—the stone scatters on rocky surfaces seemed like nothing I could dig; the crumbling heaps of ancient towns were too recent to conceal the homes of prehistoric farmers. Where did producers of Yemen’s fabled frankincense live, and what were the networks that brought incense into trade caravans headed toward the Classical world?

Left to right: Ietha al-Amary, ‘AbdalKarim Barkani, and Ghufran Ahmad relax on the back of “Flower,” a trusty rented SUV.

All the research on Incense Kingdoms or Caravan Kingdoms had ignored this basic problem: the kingdoms and their caravan departures were not where the frankincense trees grew. CAORC’s Multi-Country Research Fellowship had given me an opportunity to tackle that question, and out of it grew two decades of archaeological team research, my own and others’ scholarly careers, and the training several generations of American students. With CAORC support through the American Institute of Yemeni Studies, I spent three critical months in Yemen and Oman, hiking and driving through unpaved terrain, building collaborations through sharing resources and hardships, and learning the landscape and research logistics. In the end, Ietha and I worked and camped together, argued, and acquiesced for a decade. Early scowls and struggles became smiles and semantics.

I selected a region for study and returned the next year with coveted funds from the US National Science Foundation, the first of nine more major grants I would obtain for the Roots of Agriculture in Southern Arabia (RASA) Project, a multi-disciplinary study of the landscape of southern Yemen’s highland pastoralists in Wadi Sana, a remote valley in the mountains of Hadramawt. We camped in the desert for months, we sweated by day, shivered by night, and told time by the stars. We excavated the earliest herder’s camp in Arabia. We found a ring of skulls from a cattle sacrifice that happened more than six millennia ago. In all, the team spent six more seasons collecting field data in Yemen, and we published 25 articles and books, including two doctoral dissertations, two masters’ theses, and my book-length answer to the question I’d started with (Pilgrimage and Household in the Ancient Near East, Cambridge University Press 2011).

The RASA team at our Wadi Sana camp, 2004.

Terrorism finally caught up with us, and with regrets at leaving colleagues in Yemen, we shifted our emphasis to nearby Dhofar, Oman, a region I’d first studied as a CAORC fellow. We received three more major grants, including a 1.6 million dollar award from The National Science Foundation. We were still studying ancient pastoralists, the people who collected and transported frankincense, still teasing questions that grew out of our foundational CAORC study.

Good research raises more questions than it answers, and even as I today understand what Ietha was saying, I am driven by new questions and a conscience that in these decades we have been not only researches and scholars but American science ambassadors, bringing together people who would otherwise never meet and shaping positive perceptions of each other through working together.