Some 3,000 years ago, miners from somewhere called "Magan" used to dig and process tons of copper ore and export it, via Bahrain, to Sumer. And although the archeologists can't decide where Magan was, the modern miners of Oman have: they have put up a sign at the entrance of their brand new mining settlement which boldly proclaims that it is Magan.
That Magan - or Makan - was, in the third and second millennia B.C., the Sumerians' chief source of copper is beyond doubt; Sumerian inscriptions on tablets found in present-day Iraq, where Sumer once flourished between the Tigris and the Euphrates (See Aramco World, March-April 1980), clearly say so. One such tablet, for example, more than 4,000 years old, is a receipt for large amounts of garments and wool received from the temple of Nanna "for buying copper from 'Makan','and another, excavated at Ur, mentions a 20-ton shipment from "Magan" around 1800 B.C.
But though it is agreed that the Sumerians imported their copper from Magan, the archeologists are still debating whether it was located in Africa or today's Oman. Some say that because Assyrian texts place it south of lower Egypt, Magan must be Nubia or The Sudan. Other experts claim that because of the similarity between "Makan" and "Makran" - the modern name of the Baluchistan coast - Magan must have been part of today's Iran or Pakistan.
Most of the evidence though - archeological and geological - seems to suggest that Magan was part of Oman. One Sumerian tablet, for example, dating from 2300 B.C., describes "Dilmun and Magan" as "countries beyond the lower sea," and there is no longer much doubt that Dilmun, which for centuries acted as middleman in the copper trade between Sumer and Magan, is Bahrain - at least according to archeologist Geoffrey Bibby (See Aramco World, January-February 1970), who has spent 25 years studying the Gulf.
Furthermore, Bibby says, there is evidence that the island of Umm al-Nar was also an intermediary in the copper trade, and Umm al-Nar, significantly, stands at the entrance to the modern harbor of Abu Dhabi - controlling the principal overland trade route to the Buraimi oasis and the rugged Omani interior beyond.
Because Oman itself was, for many years, off limits to most outsiders, little investigative work could be done to check these theories. Nevertheless, one piece of persuasive evidence did emerge - an analysis showing a match between copper objects in Sumer and copper ore in Oman. Because Sumerian copper objects contained traces of nickel, archeologists were excited when a prospector for the Anglo-Persian Oil Company reported in 1928 that samples collected from ancient copper workings in Oman contained 0.19 per cent nickel - a close match to Sumerian copper objects.
Forty years later, a reference to these samples - in Bibby's book Looking for Dilmun - attracted the attention of a Canadian company and led, eventually, to the company's proposal that it be permitted to search for copper in Oman.
The permission was granted and between 1973 and 1974, the company, Prospection (Oman) Limited, located some 44 ancient mining sites in northern Oman, some dating from the 17th-century Portuguese occupation, others from the ninth or tenth-century Islamic period and at least three - according to a Harvard archeological survey - dating from the third millennium B.C.
During this early period, mining seems to have taken place in agricultural communities as a sort of "cottage" industry. The ore apparently was collected from the surface of the ground or from dry stream beds in the form of pebbles of secondary copper minerals - copper oxides and sulphates - that could easily be picked out by their bright green and blue colors. The ore was then smelted in earthenware crucibles, using charcoal as fuel, and the copper separated from the slag by the flotation process. As time went on, mining methods grew more sophisticated: open pits gouged from hard rock and, later, tunneling. By the Islamic period, the industry was highly organized; at one site alone - Lasail - it has been estimated the slag heaps contain some 100,000 tons of material.
Most of the larger workings were located, like Lasail, by Prospection (Oman) Limited, near Wadi al-Jizzi, which, for centuries was a trade route through the Oman mountains to the Buraimi Oasis and the Gulf sea routes beyond; along the route were found funerary objects similar to objects excavated at Ur. This, of course, suggested that some inhabitants of Oman were at least involved in trade with Sumer, and may have adopted the Sumerian view of the afterlife - and their funeral ceremonies.
Perhaps the most startling - and controversial - evidence, if it is evidence, was the discovery of the foundation of a large structure that may have been a ziggurat - the stepped, pyramid-like temple built by the Sumerians to honor their gods. Although ziggurats are relatively common in Iraq, nothing quite like it had been found on the Arabian Peninsula before, although a small one was discovered in Bahrain.
The site of the structure is in the middle of the the 'Arja plain, its corners pointing to the cardinal directions of the compass. Although it may have had three or four tiers, only two remain - their retaining walls made of massive boulders from the surrounding hills. The lower tier covers an area of about 20 meters (49 feet) square, and the remains of what appears to be a ramp lead up onto the second tier.
Several experts who have visited the structure say it resembles a ziggurat and therefore probably belongs to the third millennium B.C., but Paolo Costa, head of Oman's Department of Antiqities, disagrees. "We don't have any evidence that the site is earlier than the 10th century," says Costa. He believes the tiers and ramp are terraced foundations for a large residence - and not a temple.
On the other hand, the strange stepped structure is located only a few miles from what was once the largest mining and smelting center in all Oman - Lasail - and what, today, among enormous heaps of ancient slag, is an ambitious effort by the state-owned Oman Mining Company to develop a modern mining complex amidst the ancient workings.
Whereas earlier miners of Lasail used primitive tools to painstakingly gouge shallow pits and narrow shafts in rock, today's miners employ giant electro-hydraulic "jumbo" drills to drive tunnels, 4.5 meters high (15 feet) by 5 meters wide (16 feet), up to 300 meters underground (960 feet). And nearby, where the ore was once smelted in small earthenware crucibles and furnaces, a space-age smelter and electrolytic refinery have been built.
Lasail is one of three mines - the others are at 'Arja and Baida - that together with crushing, concentrating and pelletizing plants, and the smelter and refinery, will eventually make up the fully integrated mining complex of Sohar and produce some 20,000 tons of copper a year, mostly for export.
Both the mine and the smelter started production earlier this year and exports are due to begin in June. When they do, Oman will once more be an important supplier of copper to Middle East markets - just as it probably was 5,000 years ago.