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ASU archaeologist to speak on work at ancient city

Sarah Graff
January 21, 2015

Frankincense is not just a thing mentioned in a Christmas carol about three kings visiting a newly born savior. In the ancient world, it was a valuable product, an aromatic resin from trees used for incense in religious and ceremonial practices, in perfumery, in pharmaceuticals and fumigating preparations.

The Indian Ocean, a well-known place where merchants, producers and sailors participated in international trade, is the home of the ancient port city of Al-Baleed, located in the Dhofar region of southern Oman. Al-Baleed – a city that was active during the Medieval Islamic period – was home to merchants who participated in long distance trade of valuable goods, such as frankincense, Arabian horses, spices, silver and glass. It is well-known as a key site for trees used in the production and trade of frankincense, and is part of the “Land of Frankincense.” The ancient city is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and archaeological park visited by more than 45,000 people per year.

Sarah Graff, archaeologist and Honors Faculty Fellow at Barrett, the Honors College, at Arizona State University, has been excavating at Al-Baleed for two years.

“Al-Baleed was excavated by a number of researchers in the past, but in 2013 I started a new archaeological research project with a colleague named Dr. Krista Lewis at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Our research is different from previous work because it focuses not only on the long distance, maritime trade that took place at the site, but also on the daily life of the people at this international port city,” Graff explained.

Previous to beginning her work at Al-Baleed, Graff’s research was focused exclusively on Western Syria until the Syrian Revolution in 2011.

“There, I was examining production and exchange at the end of the third millennium BCE, a time when early states were expanding and urban centers developed in many parts of Syria, and the ways in which production and exchange of goods, such as ceramic containers, may or may not have been influenced by political changes,” she said.

While she continued to work on data she collected in Syria, Graff also wanted to proceed with investigating these questions through excavation, which became impossible because of the unrest in Syria. In 2012, Lewis suggested that Graff join her in archaeological excavation work at Al-Baleed.

“My research interests intersected well with the history and location of Al-Baleed. The ability to study the same questions at a port city from the Medieval Islamic period was impossible to resist. So I began to plan to work there and learn about the architecture, history and the material culture.

“People should be interested in the site (Al-Baleed) because it is an example of a cosmopolitan city where merchants from many different countries and different religious backgrounds lived and worked together. We are focusing on the life of these merchants at Al-Baleed to learn more about how they negotiated their private and their public lives. One way that we are doing this is by examining commensal activities in a large building near one of the main city gates,” Graff said.

Graff will explain more about her work at Al-Baleed and its significance in a lecture titled “In the Land of Frankincense: Archaeological Excavations at the Ancient Port City of Al-Baleed,” set for 4 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 22, in the Cottonwood Room 101/103, at the Barrett Tempe campus. The talk, which is the 2015 Drescher Lecture presented by Barrett, is free and open to the public. To reserve a seat, visit