The Musandam Peninsula (Oman) Expedition


Dr. Richard Rothaus (Sauk Rapids, MN), Jim Mandelli, P.E. and Dr. Simon Donato musandam_mapcompleted an expedition to investigate a largely unexplored area in the Musandam peninsula of Oman in March 2011. The expedition was led by Dr. Simon Donato, founder of Adventure Science ( an organization focused on scientific investigation of extreme environments unreachable by standard field teams. The group also carried flag #71 of the New York based Explorers Club. The mountains of the Musandam create the bottleneck known as the Strait of Hormuz, and the rugged area has only a handful of inhabitants, clustered in small seasonal camps and villages along the coastline. The upland areas are roadless and unmapped. The last geological research party to document the region was a Royal Geographic Society of London expedition in 1971. Of the interior, this team wrote “the terrain was far too mountainous to explore, therefore we did not visit it.” This ruggedness, combined with the military tensions in the region, has kept visitors at bay.


According to local fishermen, the team was the first group of Westerners in the area in over 20 years, and the only group they knew of attempting to reach the interior. The idea for the expedition was formed by Donato and Rothaus during three previous field seasons in southern Oman studying paleotsunami deposits. The Musandam expedition was focused on scouting for tsunami deposits and an overview survey of the inland archaeological sites. The logistical challenges of the expedition were substantial. As the region is roadless and prior knowledge of trails was sketchy, the team opted to place water caches at multiple small inlets and to backpack the rest of the supplies. The team arrived just at the beginning of the 2011 “Arab Spring” and the increased tensions made it difficult to hire a boat to shuttle the supplies and the team members.


The team worked from a series of basecamps. Donato and Mandelli, both accomplished endurance athletes and climbers, worked the highlands, and Rothaus working the lowlands and archaeological sites. Donato and Mandelli were able to travel at a high speed that allowed them to document numerous upland sites that would be unreachable by most individuals in the short time allotted. The initial plans to travel overland from cache to cache proved problematic in the rugged terrain, and the team encountered numerous cliffs, scree fields and other hazards not marked on existing topographic maps (which are Russian Cold War relics). Some areas were so difficult that even Donato and Mandelli could not traverse them. Rerouting using satellite images and judicious flagging down of fishing boats proved successful.


No tsunami deposits were located. While disappointing, the result was not unexpected as the researchers knew this was a long-shot. Archaeological sites, however, were numerous, including the very large site visible on satellite images and dubbed “the Machu Picchu of Oman” by the team. The team identified over 20 sites, including several agricultural settlements. These settlements were marked by awab, which are enclosed agricultural fields. These awab are curiously clustered in the upland areas, where access to fresh water, trade routes and other food sources are limited, and in such positions they are a testament to the willingness of humans to bend the environment to meet their needs.

While awab often are terraces used as catchments for sediment and moisture, these awab were simply walled-off plateau areas where the rocks had been meticulously (and at great effort) removed. While some of the structures had cisterns and rain catchment elements, the team rarely found evidence of irrigation in the awab, and it seems that many were watered by hand.


Associated with the awab were small settlements, probably housing no more than four or five families. Most of the structures were partially intact, a result of rock being the only available building material as well as the arid environment. Several of the structures evidenced under-floor storage areas; a necessity to protect perishable items from the heat and sun. The date of these awab and structures is uncertain. For obvious reasons, the team was on each site for only a short amount of time. Some of the remains seem to be 18th and 19th century structures associated with the Shihuh, the main inhabitants of the region. While the Shihuh are now mostly town dwellers, in the past they would used upland areas for growing barley, and favored a boiled barley dish (harees) that was sjulfar_jugtored under the floor. The team found several old Bait al Qufl (locked store houses), many of which still contained the large ceramic storage jars used for oil, grain and water. These storage jars are a type of Julfar Ware, manufactured in a village south of the expedition area. While the Julfar ware provides a date for the structures, it is not a very good date: Julfar Ware was manufactured from the 14th century until 1970, with few stylistic variations. More precise dates may be possible, but that will have to wait some other expedition focused on the issue.


The team suspects that some of the awab and structures are earlier than the 18th and 19th century. One problem of historic archaeology in the area is the very slow pace of change. Houses built in the 14th century looked pretty much like the houses of the 19th century. The ceramics, as already noted, are similar as well. Noticeably lacking in the project area are the Chinese and southeast Asian fine wares that dominate sites on the Portuguese and western trade routes. The team found only a few such pieces, and none of those were particularly diagnostics. Donato, in a particularly sharp-eyed moment also spotted a single carnelian bead. The lack of other goods is part of the interesting story of the extreme area. The Portuguese aggressively moved into the Strait of Hormuz in the 16th century in an attempt to control trade routes, and into the 17th century they took over and created towns along the eastern Arabian cost. This period looms large in the archaeological record, as huge amounts of trade goods moved through the region. The uplands of Musandam, however, seem largely untouched by these events.

Accounts of the expedition appear on the Adventure Science website, the Explorers Club website (, and the Feb 2012 issue of AAPG Explorer (



Evernote in the Archive—Lightning Round

My earlier posting on Evernote in the Archives received some interest, so I’ll explain the tasks and workflow in a bit more detail.

I’m currently conducting some research in the Northwest Architectural Archives (NWA) at the University of Minnesota.  The project is interesting (more on it soon); the simple version is I am writing a National Register of Historic Places nomination for a cabin and associated property for the U.S. Forest Service.  The cabin was built by John Jager, close friend of Prairie School architect William Gray Purcell.  The Northwest Architectural Archives holds the papers of Jager and Purcell.  The Purcell collection is, by the way, so wonderfully detailed, complete and organized you should change your research projects and study it.

The joy and pain of research in large archival collections is finding the information and documenting what you need in a reasonable amount of time.  I’ve looked at hundreds of documents in the Jager and Purcell collections (and I’m going back for more).  While my focus is the cabin, the cabin looms large in both their lives, and references weave in and out of decades of correspondence.  When I was a younger researcher, I frequently fell into the trap of trying to get all the information in the limited time available for archival research.  This never worked well.  I spent all my time making copies, taking notes and snapping photos, planning for some mythical day in the future where I would read through it all.  This left no time for actually reading or thinking.

So here is how I deal with the archival data collection now. 

[Remember, this post is about technology, not archives.  The cataloging and organization of the papers in NWA is spectacular, and better than you will find at most archives. I’m going to oversimplify a bit so that my description fits a typical day in some archive. Don’t use this post as a guide to the organization of the NWA.]

We’ll just say that the Jager and Purcell documents are organized into collections, boxes and folders.  Boxes are topical (e.g. reports, letters) and chronological.  Folders are topical (e.g. reports edited, letters received) and chronological.  The pattern will depend on the collection.  For our example, we will say that within the Purcell collection, a box might be Purcell’s correspondence with Jager, 1920-1930.  Within the box are folders, e.g. 1920-1922.  Each folder has multiple documents, but these generally do not have unique identifiers.

On my laptop I am running Evernote, which is a simple but robust organizational and notetaking system.  Evernote operates in the cloud; I can add and access data from any device.  This is critical to the workflow; I’m in a rush (so many papers, so little time), so I’m running two devices simultaneously.  In Evernote I create a notebook for each collection, box and folder.  So for example, there is a notebook N3_B101_a5. Those numbers let me know that materials are in the Purcell Papers, Box 101, Folder 5.

I then review the contents of the folder.  When I find something interesting, I make a note in Evernote; this note lives within the notebook N3_B101_a5.  Since I am working mostly with correspondence, I name my notes by author_recipient_date.  So, my note “WP_JJ_30_Sept_37” is a letter from Purcell to Jager dated 30 September 1937.  In that letter there is a reference to architect James Van Evera Bailey, who was involved in some work at the cabin.  The passage is short, so I just typed the relevant part of the letter into my note and moved on.

Sometimes I find something in a folder that contains critical or voluminous information.  In those cases, trying to type a copy of the letter can be a mistake.  It takes too long, and the risk of making a critical error are high.  Fortunately, at the NWA, they allow researchers to take the occasional digital photos of documents.  This is a generous policy, and one not to be abused.  No flashes, no scanners.  Do not distribute or share the images.*   At other archives, I would request a copy of the document [or sit down and start typing].

In my Evernote notebook N3_B101_a5 there is a note “WP_JJ_5_Sept_37.”  This is an important letter for me.  Purcell (who was in a TB sanitarium) detailed what he imagined was happening at the cabin on that day.  He also reveals how much he wishes he was there.  To get the image, I don’t use my laptop or a camera.  I use my Android Tablet, which is running Evernote.  This is a big deal in terms of effort and accuracy.  No copies to organize and label, no camera shots to download and confuse. Evernote uses the camera directly.  I take the shot and place it in my note WP_JJ_5_Sept_37.  The image is of mediocre quality, but I can read the letter.  I wait a few minutes for Evernote to sync the tablet, laptop and cloud, and type in some additional notes so I remember why I thought this letter was so important.  Done.

There is one slightly more complicated step I added about halfway into this project.  Evernote takes images and saves them as jpegs.  If I photograph a two-page letter, I have two jpegs. That’s a bit too messy for me.  I know I’ll never get around to converting those jpegs to pdfs, and I don’t want to have to figure out things like page order at some later date when my memory is fuzzy.  So instead of taking the photos directly with Evernote, I use a simple android program called CamScanner.  CamScanner allows me to take several images,and then it stitches them together into a PDF.  Android lets me put that PDF directly into Evernote (this only adds two button pushes to the routine).  While irrelevant for this project, there is another reason to use PDFs.  PDFs can be read and indexed—even (some) handwritten letters. 

I’m pretty happy about this workflow. This has, for sure, made me a faster and better researcher. The speed is great, but equally important is the level of organization and documentation. I will not miss messy notes,  cryptic labels,  forgotten archive numbers.  failed transcriptions, and lost copies. I’m also glad that this isn’t any entry about something that holds promise to improve our work in the future. These tools already work, and in the high-stakes world of contract research, I’m going to eat your lunch if you don’t start using them. 

You can find the software I use here (I paid for mine, just so you know): Evernote and CamScanner


*Archives have serious and important rules about these things.  In a world become digital, these issues are [archive] life and death.  Talk to your archivist.

J. Jager writes to W.G. Purcell on Slovenian Beehives

10 Jan 1935

“It is amusing to remember how I started to smoke.  It was at my Grandfathers.  He must have been way over his nineties. He attended the bees, sitting on the wooden bench near his beehouse, full of beehives with painted hive front.  Three of such over hundred years old are still in my possession.  Each front had an original peasant painting.  By the paintings the hives were named.  He said “the witch-hive will swarm to-day.  While he watched, I took his pipe . . . ”


John Jager, savant, architect and friend of W.G. Purcell, was born in Carniola, Austria, on May 16, 1871.

Evernote in the Archives

A 45 second update on how Evernote is helping me breeze through volumes of correspondence.

On my laptop, Evernote is running.  I create a folder for each box of materials I examine.  In that folder I create a folder for each archival folder within the box.  In that folder I create a note where I type, of course, my notes.

Simultaneously on my tablet, I use Evernote to take photo notes.  If I want a copy of a letter or a detail, I shot the photo and it goes to the corresponding folder for the box and archival folder.

Both laptop and tablet are syncing that material over the internet as I work.

Super fast, keeps documents organized, and perhaps best of all, no mass of scans and photocopies to deal with later.

This Weeks Reading February 23, 2012

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The Tulare (Spink County, SD) Petroglyph Rock

In the small town of Tulare (SD)IMG_2215, in front of the Municipal Building, there is a large rock with carvings.  The carvings probably date somewhere in 1000-1900 A.D.  I don’t know much about the rock, but I have stopped by to visit.  I think the rock is on the National Register of Historic Places (#05000590), but I’m not sure.

The rock was original on a hilltop overlooking the Turtle River.  EuroAmerican settlers moved it to town after their arrival.  The white paint (now faded) in the figures was added at about that time also. 

The boulder has carvings on both side, made with a pecking technique; small chips were removed with a blunt rock hammer to create the figures. Pecked boulder art like this is typical of the eastern Dakotas and Lake Traverse area (although most examples have been moved into private collections).

Symbols on the stone include a variety of tracks (bison, deer, turkey), a bear paw, an arrow, hands, an arm and a design that looks like a horseshoe (this may be an animal track, or an eye). 

The symbols on this rock have multiple meanings; I’ve seen some around, but this Wasicu is real careful about not offering public interpretations of his neighbors culture. I’m pretty sure, however, that this boulder marked a sacred place.  A collection of tracks can indicate a connection between worlds, a place where spirits can move from one realm to the next.  When the settlers moved this rock, they committed an irreversible act of desecration.  The rock needs to be in a very specific place. 

Some literature:

Mallery, G. “Picture Writing of the American Indians.” Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC (1888). [Get both volumes].

Sundstrom, L. Storied Stone: Indian Rock Art in the Black Hills Country. Univ of Oklahoma Press, 2004.

For professional archaeologists, here is a reference you want:  Sundstrom, Linea. Fragile Heritage: Prehistoric Rock Art of South Dakota. Vermillion: South Dakota Historical Society, 1993.  There is a copy at the South Dakota Archaeological Research Center.

Mining, mining, mining

The problem with actually getting out of the truck, is one tends to find lots of stuff.  The fall survey in MT yielded way too many mining features.  Fortunately the fieldwork was spectacular, and more than balanced out the report writing.  Here is this evening’s last feature write-up.  (Unedited and unproofed—just throwing it up on a whim).  Sketch courtesy Google Sketch-Up.

Field Number: W21

Name: Two Room Log Structure

Description: Remnants of a log structure. A graded platform is evident, and several corners of the building are partially intact. The structure appears to have had two rooms. A stone terrace was built at the northeast corner. The logs are saddle-notched.



Figure 49: W21, Two-Room Log Structure, Sketch


Figure 50: W21, Two-Room Log Structure, looking northeast (IMG_2683)


Figure 51: W21, Two-Room Log Structure, looking southwest (IMG_2685)


Figure 52: W21, Two-Room Log Structure, Southwest Corner (IMG_2682)


Figure 53: W21, Two-Room Log Structure, Stone Terrace, looking east (IMG_2686)


Figure 54: W21, Two-Room Log Structure, Southwest Corner Detail (IMG_2679)