Bronze Age Archaeological Sites in the Western Arabian Gulf: Synthesis and Comparisons

The following paper presents to the English readers a synthesis of our Arabic book:

المواقع الحضارية على الساحل الغربي للخليج العربي حتى القرن الثالث قبل الميلاد, دراسة آثارية مقارنة

Introduction. An Overview: the Geographical Location of the Arabian Gulf and the Importance of its West Coast’s Cultural Centers

Archaeological discoveries have confirmed the existence of several settlements in the Arabian Gulf and its strategically located west coast during the Palaeolithic, the Bronze Age, and the third century BC. Several factors have contributed to the high importance of this region, particularly its location on the main commercial roads, acting as a hub for the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, and the Mediterranean area (Masri 1987). The inhabitants were culturally influenced by each other, and made cultural exchanges with more remote neighbours as well. The effect of these exchanges and influences is the aim of our study, focusing on the recent archaeological evidences uncovered in Kuwait and the Arabian Gulf area more generally.

Chapter I. The Cultural Centers of the Arabian Gulf’s West Coast Before the Third Century BC

A chronological synthesis is presented in this chapter. Part I is dedicated to the Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlements during the Ubaid period (5000-3800 BC) and the Hafeet period (3200-2900 BC), which is equivalent to the Jemdet Nasr period. Part II is dedicated to the Early Bronze Age settlements (2900-2500 BC) such as Umm an-Nar and Hili (UAE), Tarut Island (KSA), and As-Sabiya (Kuwait) and part III covers the Dilmun and Magan civilizations (2500-2000 BC). While part IV focuses on the civilizations of the second half of the second millennium, part V concentrates on the civilizations of the Iron Age (1200-500 BC).

Fig. 1: Cultural Sites in the Werstern Arabian Gulf until the Third Century BC: Comparative Archaeological study, by S. Al-Duweesh
Fig. 1: Cultural Sites in the Werstern Arabian Gulf until the Third Century BC: Comparative Archaeological study, by S. Al-Duweesh

Chapter II. Religious and Funerary Relics

This chapter, divided into three parts, covers the religious and funerary rites of the west coast’s urban centres.

Part I is dedicated to the ancient gods and myths, places of worship and rock engravings. Ancient worship of the astral elements such as stars and planets was very common in the ancient Near East, whereas archaeological excavations have uncovered rocks engraved with suns in the north of Kuwait, dating from the Ubaid period, as well as names of some newly discovered gods that, although specific to the Gulf, were nevertheless associated with Mesopotamian gods. The most famous gods were Anzak and Nabu of Dilmun, which names were written in cuneiform on several unearthed lapidary items and seals from Failaka Island (Kuwait) and Bahrain.

Part II concentrates on the temples of the Arabian Gulf from the Ubaid and Dilmun periods as well as houses. The plans of the temples from the Dilmun period were very similar in all major cities of Bahrain and Failaka Island (Kuwait); they shared the same plan for internal room division, storage rooms, drainage channels and pottery kilns. The houses were built on a plan similar to the tripartite plan characteristic of the Mesopotamian and Syrian houses of the Ubaid period. The best example of the latter is the house no 1 unearthed on the site SBH38 in Bahra (Kuwait). Houses found in Tell Madhur (Iraq) were built following plans typical of the religious architecture of Uruk and Eridu (Iraq) and date to the Ubaid period as well.

Fig. 2: SRG1 grave, in the site of As-Sabiya, Kuwait (after Al-Duweesh 2010)
Fig. 2: SRG1 grave, in the site of As-Sabiya, Kuwait (after Al-Duweesh 2010)

Part III is dedicated to burials from the fifth millennium B.C. until the middle of the first millennium BC. It was believed that the earliest cemetery in the Gulf was discovered on Jebel al-Buhais (UAE); it is a burial pit with numerous skeletons piled up in squatting positions. Although thousands of beads were found around their necks and chests, no pottery belonging to the fifth millennium was found in order to prove the dating. However, a recent discovery in a grave from As-Sabiya (Kuwait) was in fact dated to the fifth millennium BC. and contained twelve skeletons in squatting positions, in addition to two others, side by side, apparently belonging to a woman and an infant (Bielińsky 2010). Within the several items discovered, one white flint arrowhead is similar to others found in Qatar and Aldosria site (KSA). Burials from the fourth and the third millennia B.C. in Abqaiq (KSA), As-Sabiya (Kuwait), and Hafeet (UAE) are characterized by a fenced-in circular plan and oval-shaped burial chambers. People of Dilmun showed great interest and respect for their burial rites, therefore Dilmun graves are particularly interesting and a large number of graves was unearthed in the area; more than 150,000 graves were unearthed in Bahrain to this day, while on the other bank and towards the main land in Dhahran (KSA) –southwest of the airport–, more than 10,000 graves built either in T-shape or L-shape plan were unearthed.

Chapter III. Archaeological Finds

The following chapter concentrates on the impact made by the cultural influences on the small finds such as lithic tools, pottery, beads, jewels, seals, figurines, and metal tools.

Part I focuses on lithic tools from the Ubaid period, as they are divided into local flint and obsidian, which was imported from the Anatolian mountains and Yemen. Some of the lithic tools discovered in As-Sabiya (Kuwait) were analysed and proved their origins from the south of the Arabian Peninsula, while six lapis lazuli beads proved to be from Afghanistan.

Part II deals with types of pottery. The first typevery common and mostly found in As-Sabiya (Kuwait) and other centres of the Gulf, is also very similar to a type found in southern Mesopotamia, dating to the second and third phases of the Ubaid period. Another type is the so-called slanted-edge vase, which was made of local red clay mixed with straw, hand-made and which decoration was moulded. It was introduced during the fourth millennium BC, and was found in several cemeteries of the Gulf, such as Abqaiq, site SBHG17 in As-Sabiya (Kuwait), Tawi Silaim and Tawi Sa’id (Oman), and Hafeet (UAE). This type of vase was widely manufactured in the Jemdet Nasr civilization in Mesopotamia during the Bronze Age. Moreover, this coloured pottery might evidence relations with other civilizations such as the Harappan in the Indus Valley.

Part III concentrates on ancient jewellery as several types were discovered so far: shell jewellery, gem beads, bronze rings, and tubular beads, which are a newly found type. A large quantity of shell jewellery was found in As-Sabiya and Bahra (Kuwait), Aldosria, Abu Khamis, and Ain Qannas (KSA). The gem beads were unearthed on Failaka Island (Kuwait), Bahrain, and the Dhahran graves, while in Rumaila and Qidfa (UAE), a number of bronze rings was found with simple and distinctive carvings decorating their open edges. Lastly, tubular beads dating to the fourth millennium B.C. were found in the Abqaiq graves, As-Sabiya (Kuwait), Hafeet (UAE), and Oman.

Fig 3: map of steatite objects from the third to the first millennium B.C. in the Gulf (after Al-Duweesh 2015)
Fig 3: map of steatite objects from the third to the first millennium B.C. in the Gulf (after Al-Duweesh 2015)

Part IV sheds light on the seals and their importance in the Dilmun civilization and specifically in trading. One type is the locally made Dilmun circular seals often found in Bahrain and Dhahran. However, on Failaka Island alone (Kuwait), more than seven hundreds were found to this day. Another type, very common in the Gulf region, is the cylinder seal typical of Mesopotamia, the square seals found in Meluhha, typical of the Indus civilizations and the scarab seals typical of Egypt. It was believed that the shape and content of a seal could point to a specific lifestyle, religion, or any other aspect of the owner. New theories are pointing to a much simpler explanation: they were highly used in trading, whilst the large amount of seals on small sites could indicate the number of items (i.e. packages, jars, etc.) sold by the merchant.

Part V focuses on human and animal figurines highly influenced by Mesopotamian art. Examples of such finds were located on Tarut Island (KSA), as one lapidary statue is highly comparable to the Bronze Age Sumerian art, and another statue found on Failaka Island (Kuwait) of a man’s head wearing a hat and a curly beard seems to be influenced by Assyrian art. These are perfect examples of the cultural exchanges that happened between the different settlers of the ancient Near East.

Part VI corresponds to a study of the metal artefacts found mostly in fourth millennium burials and varying between copper, iron, and bronze. These items include arrowheads, rings, swords, needles, pins, nails, and tools. They were frequently discovered in Hafeet and Qarn Bint Saud (UAE), As-Sabiya (Kuwait), Tawi Silaim and Ras Al-Jinz 6 (Oman). Further analysis of Bronze Age tools will shed new light on the study, especially if a comparative approach is to be established on knives unearthed between the Gulf area, Ur (Iraq), and Central Asia.

Conclusion

Early civilizations of the Gulf gave birth to many developments in pottery and bead making, trading, exporting, fishing, and sailing especially since reed boats were made in this area since the fifth millennium B.C. All these and more helped the Gulf gain a greater level of importance in the ancient Near East.

Today, scholars are hoping that further studies will lead to more valuable information regarding the cultural role of this area, especially that it was highly influenced via cultural exchanges with civilizations of Iran, Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Al-Sham region (Syria), southern Arabian Peninsula, and Nile Valley. The goal is also to enrich the field of archaeology in the Near East, and particularly the Arabian Gulf.

Bibliographie

Bibby G., Looking for Dilmun, New York, 1969.

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Carter R. & Crawford H., Maritime Interactions in the Arabian Neolithic, The Evidence from H3, As-Sabiyah, an Ubaid-related site in Kuwait, Leiden, 2010.

Masry A.H., Prehistory in the Northeastern Arabia: the Problem of Inter-regional Interaction, Coconut Grove, 1974.

Potts D., The Arabian Gulf in Antiquity. Vol. 1: From Prehistory to the Fall of the Achaemenid Empire, Oxford, 1990.

Rise M., The Archaeology of the Gulf: c. 5000-323 BC, London & New York, 1994.

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شاهين ع., العقائد في مراكز حضارات الساحل الغربي للخليج العربي وشبه الجزيرة العربية الى القرن الثالث قبل الميلاد, القاهرة,  2007م..

Pour citer ce billet

Sultan Duwish, « Bronze Age Archaeological Sites in the Western Arabian Gulf: Synthesis and Comparisons », Le carnet de la MAFKF. Recherches archéologiques franco-koweïtiennes de l’île de Faïlaka (Koweït), 13 février 2016. [En ligne] http://mafkf.hypotheses.org/1311


Sultan Duwish

Sultan Duwish est docteur en archéologie et directeur du Département des antiquités et des musées du NCCAL du Koweït. Il est également responsable scientifique de la partie koweïtienne de la Mission archéologique franco-koweïtienne de Faïlaka (MAFKF) depuis 2013. Après avoir rédigé un mémoire portant sur les tombes du site de Sabiya, il a travaillé sur ce même site, dont il assure la co-direction de la mission koweïto-polonaise. Il a également travaillé sur le site néolithique de la région d’Alquareen. Il est membre de la fédération des archéologues arabes et membre de la société d’histoire de l’université du Koweït.

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