Shells, Meteorites and a Kiss

By Jheri St. James

Oman is a country shaped like a Hershey’s kiss on top, located in Southwest Asia on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Bordering the United Arab Emirates in the northwest, Saudi Arabia in the west and Yemen in the southwest, its coast is formed by the Arabian Sea in the south and east, and the Gulf of Oman in the northeast. The country also contains Madha, an enclave enclosed by the United Arab Emirates, and Musandam, an exclave also separated by Emirati territory.

Oman has seldom been in the public eye other than for the use of its military bases by U.S. forces in recent years. American and British bombing raids were launched in 1991 from Oman against Iraq in the Gulf War. A decade later, U.S. forces stationed there were involved in raids against Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden. Qabus ibn Said as-Said, hereditary sultan functions as an absolute ruler. More benevolent than his father, previous sultan, he has improved the country economically and socially. Oman’s oil revenue has been consistently invested in the national infrastructure — roads, schools, hospitals, and utilities—which will aid the country in its goal of becoming more and more a tourist destination.

A vast desert covers most of central Oman, with mountain ranges along the north (Jebel Akhdar) and southeast coast, where the country’s main cities are also located: the capital city, Muscat, Matrah and Sur in the north, and Salalah in the south. Oman’s climate is hot and dry in the interior and humid along the coast. (Below: Wadi Shab)

As a conceptual art project, Common Ground 191 will use the soil of Oman as a 1/191st part of the medium to be used in the final 50’ x 50’ fresco. Oman’s soil, however, has unusual constituents—ancient oceanic rock folds, fossilized shells, meteors and stardust.

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Dr. Ian Alsop of the University of St. Andrews investigated ancient rock folds up to 70 million years old in Oman. Such folds give insights into how the plates that make up the earth’s crust form and move. Along with colleagues from Oxford University, Dr. Alsop found examples of rock folds larger and more clearly exposed than any found before. “As rocks deep underground are pressed and heated, they melt and begin to flow. This forms folds, like a rucked-up carpet,” explained Dr. Alsop, an international expert on folds. The folds in Oman show that the rocks moved many tens of kilometers while deep within the earth. They also show what Dr. Alsop calls “huge amounts of shearing,” which refers to the stresses that deform the rock. “The folds that we have been analyzing in Oman are unique in that they display some of the largest, best exposed curved geometries exposed anywhere on earth,” says Dr. Alsop, who works in the School of Geography and Geosciences at St. Andrews in Scotland. Oman has rugged mountains split by steep wadis or dry riverbeds, which expose many of these folds in great detail. Such folds may be pushed as deep as 100 kilometres underground before returning to the earth’s surface in a dramatic mountain range. Also visible are portions of crust, which were once under the ocean.

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During past millennia Oman was covered by ocean. Fossilized shells exist in great numbers in areas of the desert up to 50 miles from the modern coastline. Geoscientists and geologists think of Oman as heaven on earth for this reason. More amazing photos of Oman’s ancient fossilized shells can be seen at

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Meteorites are relatively small extraterrestrial material bodies that reach the Earth’s surface. Approximately boulder-sized or less – meteorites are fragments resulting from the collision of asteroids. Upon entering the atmosphere they heat up and form a meteor or shooting star.

This meteorite has a maximum diameter of seven centimetres (Photo: Peter Vollenweider.) Found in the Sayh al-Uhaymir desert in Oman in 2002 by Swiss scientists, the lunar rock has been on display at Bern’s Natural History Museum. The 206-gram rock, which contains high levels of radioactive elements, has revealed new information about the Moon.

The meteorite, SaU 169, which is named after the discovery site in Oman’s desert region of Sayh al Uhaymir, is unique, according to Edwin Gnos of Bern University’s Institute of Geological Sciences. Although small in size, it has high concentrations of uranium and thorium. Only lunar dust brought back by United States Apollo space missions is known to have similar properties. SaU 169 allowed scientists to gather information about the age of one of the largest lunar craters, Lalande, according to an article published in the magazine “Science”.

“We first noticed the rock when we drove through the desert in January 2002. We got out of the car to have a closer look,” said Gnos at a news conference in Bern on Thursday. “The rock appeared to be unusual. Initially we were not sure whether it was a meteorite or not,” he added. The object was later analyzed with the help of experts in Germany, Sweden, the US and Britain. Their findings made it possible to determine the age of the “Mare Imbrium” region on the Moon, commonly known as the “Sea of Showers”. Scientists now believe the sea was formed around 3.9 billion years ago. “The rock dates back to the beginning of viable conditions on Earth,” said the scientists. It was hurled into space about 340,000 years ago from the lunar surface. It is assumed that the rock finally landed in the desert less than 10,000 years ago.

So far only about 30 pieces of lunar rock have been found on Earth. But hundreds of other meteorites fall from the sky every year. A Swiss team of scientists, headed by Gnos and Beda Hofmann, has been carrying out geological research in Oman since 2001. The mission is the result of 35 years of collaboration between the two countries and is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation. In February 2001 Swiss geologists found a meteorite from Mars in Oman’s desert region. The rock weighed 223g and was named “Sayh al Uhaymir 094”. “Oman is one of the best regions [to find rocks], because the area is vast and remained untouched for a long time,” Marc Hauser, a member of the Swiss team, told swissinfo in an interview two years ago. “Meteorites are fascinating messengers from space,” he added. “They give us pointers as to when our solar system came into being.”

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Perhaps all the meteors and showers of stardust explain the excitement in Oman when its first planetarium was built as an annex to the Oil and Gas Exhibition Centre. It was created as a gift to the nation on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. The stars, planets and other heavenly bodies are projected onto the domed ceiling and realistically simulate the movements of the heavens.

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Oman’s soil was collected for the Common Ground 191 project by Derek W. Hoffman, a member of the American Embassy in Muscat, the capital city. Derek wrote: “Oman’s soil sample was collected from the shore of the Gulf of Oman, from the beach that runs behind the United States Embassy in Muscat, the Sultanate’s capital. Nearby stand other embassies, including those of the United Kingdom, India, Jordan, Iran, and France. Despite the differing policies of each government, the beach can be seen as a symbol of the hope shared by their peoples for a more peaceful world. The sample was collected on September 11, 2006, the fifth anniversary of history’s most devastating terrorist attacks. The dreams we share are the common ground on which, enhancing mutual understanding, we can work for a better future.”

Thank you, Derek, for your contributions to the project, and for your words of inspiration. We have the soil of all the other embassies you mentioned, so Oman’s will contribute to a little international neighborhood of peace in Oman, and now the US in the Common Ground 191 artwork. The soil sample of Oman is like a kiss shipped to Common Ground 191, a sweet metaphorical kiss containing past, present and future--geologically and in terms of the human experience on earth. The sand from the beach in Muscat is likely composed of miniscule particles of shells, meteorites, stardust, footprints, perspiration, and those invisible but tangible wishes for peace. It is also coincidental that this sample was taken on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, as that was the date Gary Simpson conceived of the project. The word for peace in Oman is salaam.

The Sultan's Palace in Muscat (above) and the capital city at night (below)






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