NOVA: Have you been back to Shisur since the time of our filming?
JZ: Yeah, we put in two-and-a-half more years of excavation at the site.
NOVA: Are you still confident that you found Ubar?
JZ: There's a lot of confusion about that word. If you look at the classical
texts and the Arab historical sources, Ubar refers to a region and a group of
people, not to a specific town. People always overlook that. It's very clear
on Ptolomy's second century map of the area. It says in big letters
"Iobaritae" And in his text that accompanied the maps, he's very clear about
that. It was only the late Medieval version of The One Thousand and One
Nights, in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, that romanticized Ubar and
turned it into a city, rather than a region or a people.
NOVA: Then what did you find?
JZ: Well, there was a tribal group of people, the Iobaritae or the Ubarites,
who lived in the area, and the Shisur site is one of probably three or four
major centers from that period. It was a key site with regard to the trade
that was coming and going along the edge of the great Empty Quarter. And it's
one of those major sites with water. So, there was a lost city of Ubar and we
did find it!
NOVA: What were the most interesting artifacts that you found at the Shisur
JZ: I think the most interesting artifacts were the "red polish" pottery
wares. My previous work had been in northern and central Arabia, so we
weren't familiar with this style of pottery. When we first found it, we
thought it was kind of Roman-like, but we soon got our bearings and realized
that the pottery showed a clear Parthian influence.
NOVA: Does this means the Ubarites were Parthian?
JZ: No, it just mean that the Parthians were one of their clients. The
Parthians were contemporaries of the Ubarites and dominated what is today
northern Oman from across Mesopotamia and Iran—and they also exerted some
influence on northwest India, as well. We were surprised to find this Parthian
pottery at the Shisur site because, originally, we thought that the Ubarites
would be allied with the West. But upon excavation, it looks like most of the
pottery wares have an eastern orientation.
NOVA: What's the significance of this?
JZ: Traditionally speaking, most people think of the Roman and Greek influence
as coming from the south Arabian city states. And this western influence is
what's been assumed to have controlled the incense trade, because the west is
where most of our historical sources come from. But when we got down to the
nitty gritty and actually excavated and surveyed, we discovered that assumption
was erroneous. You kind of have to see Arabia as a buffer zone—half of
Arabia belongs to the west and half of Arabia belongs to the east. And, in
fact, Mesopotamia goes right down the middle. The Romans never conquered the
Parthians, and so the dividing line between the Roman empire was right there.