Saudi Aramco NewsAntiquities Homecoming Project sees Artifacts
Returned, Donors Honored

Elinor Nichols could never have guessed nearly half a century ago that a visit with her late husband Roger to a remote sand buffeted fort in the eastern desert of Saudi Arabia would spark a journey that would see her return earlier this month as a guest of royalty. On that day in 1963, the Nichols were on one of the couple’s regular excursions into the desert, one that took them to an aged fortification on the isolated al-Sarrar Escarpment. Roger Nichols had arrived in Dhahran in 1956 as the lead investigator with the Aramco/Harvard School of Public Health Trachoma Research Project. Elinor followed a year later with their two daughters. “We spent a lot of time in the desert because Roger was scraping the eyes and studying the Bedouin eye health situations in connection with the research. On one of his trips, he heard about some fortresses on top of high jebels in the Sarrar Escarpment,” Elinor Nichols recalled. Exploring one of the fortresses on that trip and later visits, they happened upon ancient pottery remains and two bulky stone grinders. “They so interested us that we brought them home.” And at the Nichol’s home on Bailey’s Island, Mass., they would stay – some 10,000 km away over land and sea and more than four decades from that day in the dusty fort. Down the years that passed, the archaeological treasure trove was stored and brought out occasionally for display before the intrigued eyes of interested visitors. There they remained until a call went out from the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA). Keen to reconnect and reunite with the objects of Saudi Arabia’s past, the SCTA, in tandem with the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, set upon a quest to find the country’s worldwide diaspora of archaeological treasures and antiquities. Their task is like assembling the jigsaw of a lost history, and many of the repatriated exhibits are now on display in the National Museum in Riyadh. Aramco Services Company (ASC), supported by Overseas Co.’s London office, mobilized to assist in the mission, and last December launched the Antiquities Homecoming Project at the request of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture. It marked the beginning of a determined bid to trace former Aramcons or family members who might be in possession of the treasures of the Kingdom’s ancient past. More than 20 company retirees or family members responded to ASC’s campaign, with Arthur Clark and Dick Doughty of ASC Public Affairs playing key roles in piecing together a window to the Kingdom’s distant past. Elinor Nichols was just one of the former Aramcons who answered the call of the Antiquities Homecoming Project. What followed was a return to Saudi Arabia of ancient clay pots, Stone Age tools and an array of colorful and intricately decorated shards of pottery that had been rescued from shifting sands across the Kingdom decades before. Add to that treasure haul Elinor Nichols’ weighty grinders. Each of those who discovered the secrets of Saudi Arabia’s past on innocent desert day trips down the years have had their respective life-journeys in the intervening decades. Since the Nichols departed Saudi Arabia in 1970, the Kingdom, too, has journeyed from humble beginnings, transforming into the forward-looking, evolving society it is today and eager to rejoin with its objects of history. In the end, 13 donors were honored by Prince Sultan ibn Salman, SCTA president, at a ceremony in Riyadh on Feb. 12. Clark, editor of Al-Ayyam Al-Jamilah, Saudi Aramco’s magazine for retirees and their children, also was singled out for recognition of his efforts. Another 80 Saudis and individuals were honored at the event for donating artifacts they had found. The expat group was given the opportunity to retrace their own personal histories with a visit to Dhahran, where some of them had lived as far back as the 1950s. The group shared stories and memories over a special lunch on Feb. 15 hosted by Khalid I. Abubshait, executive director, Saudi Aramco Affairs. “Not only did some two dozen individuals and families get in touch with images and information about artifacts they wished to donate to the Kingdom ― with a number of those who responded invited to visit Saudi Arabia — but goodwill was created to continue the program to repatriate antiquities to the Kingdom,” Clark said. “Those who visited Saudi Arabia at the invitation of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities were nearly overwhelmed by the warm welcome they received, both officially and unofficially, in Riyadh, Dhahran and elsewhere in the Kingdom. And all expressed a deep appreciation for Saudi Arabia’s efforts to bring home its heritage for study and display in modern facilities such as the National Museum in Riyadh. They took with them the understanding that they were being thanked by the country for conserving important pieces of its heritage that might otherwise have been lost.” Elinor Nichols considered a remark made by a Saudi princess as perhaps best summing up the spirit of the project when she apologized to the royal for taking the artifacts from Saudi Arabia in the first place. She said, “I was apologizing to a princess for taking them (artifacts), and she said, ‘No, no – you saved them for us; you have been a keeper of our heritage. If you had not taken them, then maybe they would have been lost forever.’”