The Archaeology Fund

MSAL: Who Are These People




South Arabia

Myths and Legends

Research Questions

Incense Country Map

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   In 1834, a young man stepped aboard a British ship anchored off Jedda speaking in an unrecognizable language, and so began the western investigation into what became known as the Modern South Arabic languages. By the turn of the twentieth century, scholars had realized that a distinctive set of languages and cultures were present in south central Arabia which were Semitic, but classed as non-Arabic. These languages were identified with tribal groups and labelled as Mahra, Shahra/Jibbali, Hobyot, Harsusi and Socotri DH1-112]. All except the Harsusi are to be found within the present distribution of Incense country.

   The ethnographic features of their languages and cultures are just beginning to be detailed DH1-044, DH2-037, DH1-118, DH1-119], but it appears that one of the "mysteries" of research involves the relationship between these Modern South Arabic Language (MSAL) speakers and the archaeological-historic past [DH2-026]. By the late 1950's, both ethnographers and linguists had suggested that from at least eleventh century AD, period, their past range as tribal groups was much larger than at present DH1-116].

   Furthermore, the famous Khor Rohri gate inscription, which mentions the land of SKHLN, has been identified as the Sachalites [IC-055, PS-020, IC-056] described in the Pliny classical period text. B. Thomas by 1929 was one of the first to note that several of the local Shahra groups in the Salalah region referred to themselves as the Hakalai which modern linguists equate with the South Arabic term Sakalan. Thus, this term may have been one of the tribal groups of the ancient MSAL in the Salalah region at the time of Pliny and Ptolemy.

   Similarly, the term Mahra has been projected into the early Islamic period (seventh-eighth centuries AD) by historians such as al-Tabari. Several authorities have also suggested that the term Mahra can be found in ancient South Arabic texts of the late centuries B.C. We have also noted that the early alphabetic script was used in the South Arabian region by the Late Iron Age [DH1-060, DH1-110, DH1-124] and translations of these undeciphered texts may shed light on the contemporary peoples of the area Such texts may also help us understand the meaning of the mysterious and contemporary triliths (see above). Finally, in this regard, if we take the early Islamic distribution of the MSAL speakers and overlay our knowledge concerning the trilith distribution [DH2-042], we could be tempted to suggest that the Iron Age peoples [DH1-049, DH1-046, DH1-082, DH1-111] of the region were the ancestors of the distinctive modern MSAL groups.

A linguistic interpretation of the current MSAL groups places the six sub-groups in eastern Yemen, western Oman and a small portion of the Saudi Arabian Rub al Khali.

Janzen's study of the Shahra suggested that a transhumant pattern was followed in the region based on the presence/absence of the Southwest Monsoon. Winter sites tended to be more permanent with substantial circular house foundations. Summer settlements were more ephemeral. Bertram Thomas in 1929 photographed such a Shahra summer encampment on the Taqa coastal plain. A similar pattern was observed among the Nuer in the Sudan by Evans-Pritchard.

The Taqa 60 site proved to be pivotal in our understanding of both the Bronze and Iron Ages of Dhofar. The Iron Age foundations sit on top of the Bronze Age megalithic houses. Here we have begun to excavate an Iron Age house (House 2) directly in front of the Bronze Age houses.

Walter Dostal proposed in 1967 that the earlier distribution of the MSAL populations was much larger than the current range. He based this idea on work by Mathews and others that geogrpahical names with -ot and -it endings found throughout southern Oman were remnant markers of a greater MSAL distribution.

We have used Sprenger's Ptolemy map to add features based on archaeological reconnaisance in Southern Arabia.

By early Iron Age times (ca. 1000 B.C.), literacy had spread into South Arabia via the revolutionary new alphabetic script. Originating in the South Sinai by 1500 B.C., its ease of use made vast inroads in both areas previously illiterate as well as established writing centers (Egypt, Levant, Mesopotamia). Such was the case in MSAL areas. This alphabetic script (in a format sometimes called Thamudic), came into use by the late first millennium B.C. It was not replaced until the early Arabic Kufic script arrived ca. 650 A.D.

In addition to the very distinctive microliths characteristic of the Iron Age repertoire, scrapers, blades, flakes, and notches with secondary retouch have been at numerous sites. Such lithics have been largely overlooked in describing the Iron Age populations of South Arabia.