vidt berømt for dens mange perler


  • Viggo Nielsen


trade, bahrain, handel, pearl, perle, Pearfishing, perlefiskning, Ras al-Jazayir, pottery, keramik, Shell heap, skaldynge


Famed for Its Many Pearls.

Pearls are one of the few important articles of trade which Bahrain has through the ages produced on a large scale. They are therefore one of the prime factors resulting in the rich prehistoric civilizations on the island, as well as in Bahrain's comparative prosperity in later times, before oil royalties became of decisive importance in the national economy. The importance of the pearl fisheries in this area is already to be seen in the accounts of Classical 6-8) and later of Arab 9-12) geographers. Among these descriptions those of the Arab geographers Idrishi (1154 AD) 15) and Ibn Batutta (1332 AD) 16) are of particular interest on account of their wealth of detail.

The main impression given by these descriptions of pearl-fishing -the technique described corresponding closely with that in use up to today 19-21)-is that the methods employed are of so primitive a character that they can well all have extended far back into the prehistoric period.

The descriptions deal with large-scale fishing, but parallel with this there must, then as now, have been a more casual type of pearlfishing carried on by ordinary fishermen who, in the course of fishing, have collected oysters and taken them ashore for investigation 22).

It was a natural objective for the Danish Archeological Bahrain-Expedition to try to ascertain by archeological methods how far back in time it was possible to trace pearl­fishing. The problem is difficult, as one can hardly expect to find the actual pearls. These, consisting as they do of calcium carbonate and a trace of organic matter perish comparatively easily.

A possibility of attacking the problem was provided by a site in southern Bahrain, a bank lying about 1 km. from the coast in the 5-6 kms. of flat land lying between the coast and the hill formations running up to Jabal al-Dukhan in the centre of the island. In this region, which must be a raised sea-bed, there are a few quite large sandbanks. The most prominent of them lies near Ras al-Jazayir, and it was noted in the course of the first year's reconnaissance that it contained layers of oyster-shells.

The bank, which is here called Ras al-Jazayir after the nearby point, rises to a height of about 5.5 meters over sealevel, and about 4 meters above the surrounding land surface. Like other drift-sand formations in this region it extends in the direction of the prevailing wind, the "shamal", from northwest to southeast or NNW to SSE, and it is about 200 meters long and about 100 meters broad (Fig. 1). The highest portion lies at the eastern end and includes 3 small mounds consisting almost entirely of shells (Fig. 2). The possibility cannot be excluded that this highest portion may have been somewhat disturbed by digging in recent times, and that the 3 mounds may have been formed during this digging. 30 meters to the north of the foot of the bank stands a single bush-palm, whose presence possibly marks the site of a little spring.

The investigation took the form of trenches dug in a N-S direction across the bank, 4-5 meters long, 1.5 meters wide and all excavated down to bedrock.

In the northernmost Area 1 on the edge of the bank there was only a thin layer of drift-sand above bedrock. Area 2 was laid out 14-18 meters further south, where the surface lay about 1 meter higher (niveau 2.88). The section here showed at the top a layer of drift. sand 0.3 meters thick containing scattered pearl-oyster shells and charcoal dust. Below this was a layer with a somewhat greater concentration of shells and small potsherds, as well as, just above bedrock, the site of a fire. At this point there was a rise in the bedrock of 0.4 meters from the northern to the southern end of the section. At the northernmost end of the section the bedrock was covered by a firmer sand layer, apparently waterlaid. 18-22 meters south of Area 2 Area 3 was dug at the highest point of the bank, which here lay 2 meters higher (niveau 5.04). The section in this 3 meter deep trench showed an unbroken stratification, the main features of which were that, within the quite homogeneous drift-sand with only scattered pearl-oyster shells and charcoal, there occurred both layers with a some­what higher shell content and in addition regular occupation levels with large numbers of shells, as well as fish bones, charcoal and potsherds. One of these settlement levels was a compact shell layer 0.2-0.3 meters thick. In addition to these layers there was a very large number of fire sites, either isolated in the drift-sand or associated with some of the stripes of higher shell content. Most of these fire sites were small, round, clearly defined hearths, with a diameter of 0.2-0.6 meters, lens-shaped in section, with a firm cement-like base surface on which Jay a layer of ashes and charcoal dust; others had rather the character of open bonfire sites. In the side of the trench exposed as a section alone no less than 19 of these fire sites were noted, the uppermost lying only 0.3 meters below the surface (niveau 4.60), and the lowest only 0.15 meters above bedrock (niveau 2.10). The surface in Area 4, which lay 31-35 meters further south, was 1.65 meters lower (niveau 3.35). The section here showed, at about niveau 3.00 and 2.70, layers with numerous small pointed shells (saban; Cerithium) as well as a few oyster shells. A number of these shells showed signs of beach rubbing, suggesting that here we have two inundation horizons. A charcoal coloured layer with a few fire sites and a relatively high oyster-shell content lay 0.2-0.3 meters above bedrock (niveau 2.35). Area 5 (Figs. 3-4) was laid out 36-40 meters further south in the south end of the bank at about the same height (niveau 3.21) as Area 4. A thin stripe with pearl-oyster shells and a few fish bones in the middle of the upper 0.5 meter thick sand layer showed that the stratification of the section was here also undisturbed. Below this sand layer lay a compact settlement and shell level, o.5 meters thick, through which ran four burnt layers. In addition to shells, some of which were burnt, and fish bones, this level also contained a quantity of potsherds. In the sand level below there were a few hearths and other evidence of the presence of man until a point 0.3 meters above bedrock (niveau 1.90), below which there appeared a firm sand level with numerous small pointed shells (Cerithium), which at several points were compacted into lumps or layers. This level must have been formed as a beach deposit.

In consideration of the extent of the bank the conclusions which can be reached on a basis of the 5 trenches dug are naturally limited. No connection could be traced between the various true settlement layers, and the fact that they are relatively shallow (in Area 3 ranging from 0.2 to 0.3 meters and only in Area 5 attaining a depth of 0.5 meters) and that the numerous fire sites often lie isolated in the sand layers must mean that human occupation of the site has not been of any lasting or regular character. The various portions of the bank may thus also have been occupied at different periods.

A number of facts can, however, be regarded as established by the investigation:

The excavations show that the natural bedrock below the north end of the bank is somewhat (about 0.5 meters) raised above the general level of the surrounding limestone. Fire sites and other traces of man were found all the way down to bedrock (in Areas 2 and 3). Some of the deposited strata (the lowest in Areas 2 and 5, and the saban stripes in Area 4) must be interpreted as beach deposits. It can therefore be concluded that, at the periods when the settlement remains were deposited, sea level was 1-2 meters higher than today, and the site formed a little low island, perhaps with a little spring of fresh water, lying out in the shallow waters of very broad coastal shelf below the steeper crags of the central massif. It would only have been possible for very small boats to have sought in here. Among the mollusc shells which were found both scattered in the drift sand and as compact layers in the settlement levels, the shells of pearl oysters dominated completely. The half-shells normally lay separated, but smaller specimens were sometimes noticed com­plete and shut. Many of the half-shells were whole, though the majority were in fragments.

Dr. Poul Bondesen, of the Natural History Museum in Aarhus, has been good enough to make a preliminary identification of the others mollusc types. They comprise: the mussel, Venus; the snail, Murex, in the larger specimens of which holes had sometimes been made to extract the snail 25) (for use either as food or as bait); in addition the vermicular snail, Vermetus; the rather wide pointed snail Gibbula; and the little pointed snail Cerithium, which is mentioned in the descriptions of Areas 4 and 5 as occurring in quantity in the inundation and beach layers.

The complete dominance of pearl oysters among the molluscs in the settlement levels shows that the people who formed these layers were chiefly interested in pearl-oyster fishing. It would be natural to assume that they were pearl fishers who brought their catches of oysters in here to be investigated. Theoretically the shell layers could have been formed in the same way as those of the Danish kitchen middens, whose layers of oyster and mussel shells are the remains of meals. It is, however, scarcely possible to establish with certainty whether the pearl oysters here have been eaten, though the fact that many of the shells were intact would suggest that they were allowed to lie in the sun until they opened themselves, by which time they would scarcely be suitable for human consumption. The Murex snail has, as mentioned above, apparently been extracted from its shell, but it has not necessarily served as human food. It may in addition be mentioned that the pearl oyster is in general regarded as of unpleasant taste, and is not used for human food. Nor is there any mention in the earlier accounts of pearl fishing of pearl oysters as an article of food. In normal pearl fishing the oysters are collected during the day, and the day's catch is thrown overboard again from the boats after the oysters have been searched, except in cases where the opened shells are preserved to be exported for use in the production of mother-of-pearl. It is only the ordinary fishermen, out fishing in their small boats, who occasionally bring ashore for investigation the pearl oysters which they find in their nets or traps, or obtain by other methods. The opened oyster shells are occasionally heaped up in a little pile, to be used later apparently as an addative to the cattle fodder.

If it had earlier been more usual to bring the oysters ashore, the large scale of the pearl fishing through the centuries would have resulted in numerous large heaps of shells being conspicuous features in the Bahrain landscape and being prevalent in the occupation layers both of historical and prehistoric date. In the case of the Ceylon pearl fishing all the oysters are brought ashore. A large part of this fishery is carried on from small boats, but also the larger craft land their catches (Fig. 5), as this is obligatory for the sake of division of the catch. After investigation the oysters are piled up in large midden heaps 26) (Fig. 6).

The fish-bone content in the settlement levels at the Ras al-Jazayir bank was small. All the bones appear to have belonged to small fish; but that larger fish have also been sought here is shown by the discovery on the surface of the bank of a large fishhook of bronze or copper of prehistoric type.

The pieces of charcoal found were very small and as a rule very light and friable, such as could easily be derived from burnt palm ribs. A characteristic feature of the hearths where the charcoal was concentrated is, as recorded above, that in many cases they consisted of a hard cement-like base surface with the actual remains of the fire above. Similar hearths are constructed to this day at numerous working sites in Bahrain; a little hollow is dug out in the sand by hand and a fire is lit within it. If it is intended to use the fireplace several times water is poured over it after one of the first usings. In drying out the calcareous sand stiffens into a firm cement-like layer at the bottom of the hollow, providing a good base for future fires.

The amount of pottery discovered was very limited. In Areas 2 and 3 a few insignificant sherds were found, but a closer identification of them is difficult, though one was a very little rim-sherd of hard yellowish ware. In contrast there were numerous sherds from the settlement level in Area 5, most of them belonging to one or more coarse round-bottomed vessels of red ware; a large part of the rim and body of one vessel could be assembled, of a type which is found among the pottery from the Barbar temples and the contemporary pottery from Qala'at al-Bahrain; but the most decisive evidence of connection with that culture-complex was provided by sherds of a vessel of the characteristic Barbar type, of red ware and with the surface covered with smooth horizontal ridges 27). The pottery found in this Area gives no other possibility than a dating to the period when Bahrain has apparently had its richest cultural epoch, the "Barbar Period" in. the Third Millennium BC.

No other shell heaps of this type are at present known in Bahrain, but it is by no means impossible that other of the sandbanks in the southern portion of the island may conceal shell layers of the same size as those in the midden at Ras al-Jazayir. During the Danish reconnaissance of Qatar no corresponding heaps were seen either. On the other hand the American archeologist P. B. Cornwall has identified on the Hasa coast of the Arabian mainland in the neighbourhood of Al-Khubar south of Qatif a number of large elongated shell heaps measuring up to 100 meters in length. The heaps lie--as in Bahrain-along an old shore line some hundreds of yards from the coast in the neighbourhood of old settlements containing coarse pottery, quern-stones and stone weights for use in diving. There can scarcely be any doubt that these heaps are derived from an organised pearl fishing 28).

That more and larger heaps of shells are not found in Bahrain, which has always been the headquarters of pearl fishing in these regions, must be due to the circumstance already mentioned, that the oyster shells have normally been thrown into the sea after being examined in the pearling ships. The impression which is gained on a basis of the investigation of the bank at Ras al-Jazayir is, that this must have been a place to which poor fishermen came in their small boats (for larger vessels could not come in here), to rest and perhaps to provide themselves with water, and that they have there examined for pearls the oysters which they had gathered up, perhaps in the course of their normal fishing. In addition to fish and to other provisions cooked in pottery vessels they may have eaten oysters and snails, but this cannot be proved. Of the period at which this has taken place the scanty objects discovered only permit us to say that there is no basis for dating any part of the heap to other than the "Barbar Period".

The investigation has given evidence for a probable pearling industry in Bahrain at some period within the Third Millennium BC, a small-scale pearling which should be viewed as a reflection of the large-scale pearling which from prehistoric times onward formed one of the main industries of the island and secured its position among the nations of the world as the main producing centre of one of the more important products of early world trade.

Viggo Nielsen.





Nielsen, V. (1958). vidt berømt for dens mange perler. Kuml, 8(8), 146–161. Hentet fra