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Conservation Work During the 2013–2014 Work Season at Qalhât

The ancient city of Qalhât lies between the reddish Hajjar mountain range and the Gulf of Oman, near the modern city of Sur. Dominated by the famous mausoleum of Bibi Maryam, the only standing remain of the city's richness, the archaeological site looks like a huge stone field. But after looking carefully one can see aligned coral stonewalls, and even streets and squares. French archaeologists directed by Dr. Axelle Rougeulle have worked at the site since 2008, and in partnership with the Omani Ministry of Culture and Heritage, they built a comprehensive program of excavation, conservation, and enhancement of the ancient city—the Qalhât Development Project.

In the northwestern area of the town a whole neighborhood has been unearthed with its mosque, private houses, and a small graveyard. As site supervisor of the project's conservation component, I spent five months in the field, from October 2013 to March 2014, focusing on the conservation works of the building remains in this area.

To better understand the medieval masonry of Qalhât, the team chose to start with a wide funerary mosque preserved above ground in only a few layers of stones. This was a good experience of archaeological conservation because new information not previously discovered confirmed theories only partially attested. Each day was like a new challenge, the staff being better trained and our team being exposed to new data. It took us nearly one month to consolidate the 500-square-meters of the building and clean the surroundings.

In December, we started to work on the most important building of the area, a big house divided in two units known as the "twin-house." The structure was in a very bad condition due to lack of mortar and post-excavation erosion. The specificity here was the height of the preserved walls, from .7 to 4 meters. Our team had acquired a good knowledge of the ancient techniques and of the best conservation practices for the site but we faced security problems. The task assignment and the management of the workers were fundamental to avoid concentration of people in a small room, under scaffolding, or on damaged wall. After securing the walls by mortar consolidation, another challenge was the preservation of the floors to prevent water stagnation. We managed to create slopes to keep rainwater away from the walls and, when it was possible, evacuations on the outside the building.

We applied the same methodology on the platform mosque of this neighborhood. Some of the original plaster decorating the mosque was still in situ. It was very specific because it was made of a local gypsum rich in impurities that gave it a reddish color. It was consolidated to give an idea of the building's past splendor.

The work experience at this famous medieval Omani coastal town was very instructive. The highlights were the continuous, in-depth analysis done with the conservation team members and the archaeologists (through multidisciplinary views about data interpretations) and the regular dialog with the ministry's authorities. All worked closely together to consolidate the archaeological remains as traditionally as possible, keeping in mind the scientific perspectives and the people who may soon be visiting the site. Our next challenge will be continuing the preservation works in other areas of the site, and of the Great Friday Mosque described by Marco Polo during his famous voyage.