In 2017, the world’s oldest known pearl was found on Marawah island in the Persian Gulf, off the coast of Abu Dhabi. At about 8,000 years old, the artifact represents a history of pearl trading in the region stretching back to the Neolithic era.
Now, archaeologists have discovered the Persian Gulf’s first known year-round pearling settlement in the Umm Al Quwain emirate, around 30 miles northeast of Dubai. Villages like this one were mentioned in ancient literature, but their existence had never been confirmed by archaeological evidence.
“This is a discovery of major significance for the history of Umm Al Quwain, the United Arab Emirates and the Arabian Gulf,” says the Umm Al Quwain Department of Tourism and Archaeology, per Sophia Dyer of Time Out Dubai.
The settlement dates to the late sixth century C.E., before Islam came to the area. Siniyah Island, where the town is located, also played host to an ancient Christian monastery unearthed last year, leading archaeologists to conclude that the residents of this town were likely Christians.
Timothy Power, an archaeologist at the United Arab Emirates University, tells Jon Gambrell of the Associated Press (AP) that the ancient settlement is the oldest example of a particular kind of Khaleeji (Arabic for “Gulf”) pearling town, once a mainstay of the area. The community likely had a population in the thousands.
“This is a different order of settlements; this is a proper town,” Power tells CNN’s Nadeen Ebrahim.
The varying layouts of the homes suggest social stratification, adds Power, who is one of the researchers involved in the find. In some areas, tight and cramped living quarters may have housed the poorer divers; meanwhile, the airy courtyards of the wealthier homes perhaps belonged to merchants selling the pearls throughout the region.
Artifacts found at the site include not only loose pearls but diving weights, reports the AP. These tools helped divers descend to the seafloor quickly and avoid unnecessary swimming, since they had to hold their breath throughout their dives.
The site was also littered with countless discarded oyster shells, a testament to the difficulty of finding one of the gems through pearl diving.
“You only find one pearl in every 10,000 oyster shells. You have to find and discard thousands and thousands of oyster shells to find one,” Power tells the AP. “The waste, the industrial waste of the pearling industry, was colossal. You’re dealing with millions, millions of oyster shells discarded.”
The pearl diving industry is central to the region’s history of trade and cultural exchange, and towns like this once dotted its balmy coastline.
The practice of pearling in the Persian Gulf goes back thousands of years, according to the Western Australian Museum. The Persian conquest of Egypt in the sixth century B.C.E. brought pearls to the attention of the Mediterranean world. More recently, at pearling’s height in the 19th century, nearly two-thirds of the men living in nearby Abu Dhabi were involved in pearling, per CNN.