When time disappears

Time. It’s a funny thing. We are aware of time. We watch time. Sat on a long train journey, or in a very tedious meeting, and time seems to last for ever: the seconds tick by slowly. There are other moments when time just seems to vanish. An afternoon with your little ones can be over in an instant. Hours spent with the one you love can seem like minutes. That’s the strange thing about time. It can warp. It can appear longer or shorter even though the same amount of time has passed. I guess you can measure your enjoyment of something through the passing of time.

For me there are a couple of things that make time just vanish. One is being out in nature. Away from emails, away from people. Watching the insects trundle or hover is like being transported to a different world. Sitting watching little blue tits or goldcrests dart back and forth is exhilarating. And I could sit and watch a heron on a river bank all day long. Here, nothing else exists, not even time. It is just myself and the beautiful world.

The gorgeous Grey Heron (Ardea cinera). (Photo Andreas Trepte. Public Domain)

Herons are gorgeous birds, and so wonderful to see. Their long stilt-like legs moving ever so slowly to get in the best position. And once in position, it waits. Not a sound. Not a movement. The legs don’t even twitch. And then you see it’s body slowly move forwards and down. The long neck arched back and poised. Ready. And you sit up and watch intensely. The heron strikes so fast it makes you gasp. It lifts its head with a fish, or a frog. It’s quite something to witness. Watching these birds is just mesmerizingly beautiful.

The heron that hypnotises me, is the Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea), a common sighting along rivers, estuaries and lakes in the UK. They are fairly big birds too, up to a meter tall. But they are not the tallest. The Goliath Heron (great name!), is over a meter and a half tall, as tall as many adults. Even this giant wasn’t the largest heron to have stalked the shallows. The enormous Bennu Heron (Ardea bennuides) reached over two meters tall, and would have been able to look a human in the eye.

The huge Bennu Heron next to a 1.8m tall human.

The Bennu Heron is an enigmatic bird. Fossils are only known from the Umm Al-Nar excavations, near Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. This site dates to the Bronze Age (around 4,500 years ago) and excavations revealed human remains and artefacts, along with several animals species, including the first evidence of domesticated camels, and the giant Bennu Heron. It’s an important archaeological site, and was the first site to be excavated in the United Arab Emirates, just 50 years ago. Several new sites discovered over the following decades showed that the Umm Al-Nar culture was fairly widespread along the coast and inland around 4,500 years ago.

Umm Al-Nar was a well established settlement for several hundred years, with a large number of houses, some of which were big enough for congregations of people inside. The site also has around 49 cairns, or tombs; stones stacked into dome-like shapes. Human remains and animal bones have been found inside these tombs, as well as well-preserved fragile pottery vessels, still with the painted decorations on them. This wasn’t just a little village. The people here were trading with other settlements around the United Arab Emirates, and even further afield.

How does our giant heron fit in to this amazing site? Large numbers of animal bones were excavated near the houses, including camels, dugongs, turtles, and several bird species, including the Bennu Heron. There is no evidence that the heron was eaten by the villagers: no cut marks, no burns on the bones. It is more than likely that they are the remains of birds which died naturally, and accumulated with other species.

Today Umm Al-Nar is connected to the mainland due to dredging and land reclamation. 4,500 years ago, however, it was a small island, surrounded by shallow waters and marshlands. This was the environment for the Bennu Heron. Those long legs perfect for silently wading through the shallows. Herons today will eat anything including fish, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. They are not picky. The Bennu Heron was probably similar, a large predator, still, motionless, waiting and grabbing any unfortunate animal it could.

The Bennu Heron may have been more widespread than just Arabia. Bennu was god in Ancient Egypt linked to the sun and rebirth. This god was a giant heron. Ancient Egyptian writings show this god to be the same size as the Bennu Heron found at Umm Al-Nar. And we do know that the Ancient Egyptians based their gods on animals they saw around them. Some archaeologists and historians think that the Bennu Heron was the inspiration of Bennu the god (the name Bennu Heron was given to it because of it’s similarity with the Bennu deity).

Ancient Egyptian drawing on papyrus of the Bunnu God. (Image Public Domain)

More fossils will help us to understand this animal much better. We don’t currently know how long this gigantic bird was on Earth for, or when it became extinct, or even why. We don’t know whether they nested in trees (like some heron species do today). There’s an awful lot we don’t know. But we do that humans did see it. Perhaps they too sat and watched the Bennu Heron. Maybe they lost all track of time as they watched this colossal beauty in the marshlands hunting for food.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Further reading:

Al Tikriti, W. Y. Umm An-nar, an ancient capital of Abu Dhabi: distribution of a culture and the current state of the site. In Fifty Years of Emirates Archaeology. Chapter 8. Motivate Publishing. [Full article]

Hellyer, P. 1998. The relevance to Archaeology to coastal zone management. Tribulus. 8 (1). pp.26-28. [Full article]

Hoch, E. 1977. Reflections on prehistoric life at Umm An-Nar (Trucial Oman) based on faunal remains from the third millennium BC. In M. Taddei (Ed). South Asian Archaeology 1977. Fourth International Conference of the Association of South Asian Archaeologists in Western Europe. pp.589-638.

Krienitz, L. 2018. The firebird Phoenix. In Lesser Flamingos. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. [Abstract ony]

Potts, D. T. 2001. Before the Emirates: and archaeological and historical account of developments in the region c. 5000BC to 676 AD. In Al Abed, I., & Hellyer, P. (Eds). The United Arab Emirates: A new Perspective. London, Trident Press. [Full article]

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