Bahrain - Island of the Hundred Thousand Burial-Mounds
Where the Persian Gulf extends an arm into the northeast coast of Arabia between the peninsula of Qatar and the mainland lies the archipelago which forms the Arab state of Bahrain, the main island of which has given the state its name (Fig. 2). Here the world's largest tumulus cemetery is found, 100,000 prehistoric barrows, which cover wide stretches of the island's desert surface. They lie in such close groups that one would think that the billowing surface of the ground was a phenomenon of nature and not the work of man, that a boiling and bubbling desert had been frozen at the dawn of time. (Fig. 1).
The presence of this enormous number of burial-mounds on an island which measures no more than thirty miles from north to south and only a third of this from east to west is one of the riddles of history, a riddle which was made more mysterious by the fact that not the slightest sign of prehistoric habitation had been found on the island. The solution had therefore been given that the numerous burial-mounds showed that Bahrain had been used as a prehistoric burial island by the inhabitants of the Arabian mainland 1).
The archeological expeditions which have previously operated in Bahrain have confined themselves to excavation in the tumuli. Thus in 1878-79 Captain E. L. Durand investigated one of the largest mounds on the island, which lies in a group south of the inland village of 'Ali, as well as several smaller mounds in the same area 2). In the same group of large mounds others were opened in 1889 by Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent 3) and in 1903 by M. Jouannin 4). In the years 1906-08 Colonel F. B. Prideaux investigated 67 mounds on behalf of the Archaeological Survey of India 5), and in 1925-26, at the instigation of the British School of Archaeology in Egypt, Ernest Mackay excavated 34 tumuli, still in the neighbourhood of 'Ali 1). In the early years of the 1920s one of a group of large mounds near the north coast, which had already been reported by Captain Durand, was excavated by Major Daly 6). Other burial-mounds in the northern coastal area have since been dug through on various occasions, and the objects found therein are now in the possession of the Bahrain Government 7). A large number of tumuli near the southwest coast of the island, a group which had not previously been investigated, was excavated in 1940 by P. B. Cornwall 8).
As the interpretation of Bahrain as a sepulchral island seemed improbabIe, the Prehistoric Museum in Aarhus despatched in 1953, under the present writer's leadership, the Danish Archeological Bahrain-Expedition, with the main purpose of looking for traces of settlements on the island of prehistoric date. Contact with the Bahrain Government was established by T. G. Bibby, of the Prehistoric Museum, who had previously spent some years on the island in another capacity. The Adviser to the Government of Bahrain, Sir Charles Belgrave, obtained for the expedition the permission of the Ruler, His Highness Sheik Sulman hin Hamad Al-Kalifah, to undertake archeological investigations on the island, and at the same time a generous sum of money was placed at our disposal, a sum which provided the first economic basis for the mounting of the expedition. Its existence was finally secured by a large grant from the Danish State Scientific Foundation. In addition support was received, through the agency of Mr. Skinner and Mr. Barkhurst, from the Bahrain Petroleum Company Ltd., which enabled important investigations to be carried out and the expedition to remain longer in the field. The expedition also received support from the Aarhus Oilworks and Tuborg Breweries. Of inestimable importance to the success of the expedition was the kindness and assistance which we met with in many forms at the bands of the Ruler of Bahrain; His Highness Sheikh Sulman bin Hamad Al-Khalifah, and of the members of his Government, in particular of Sir Charles Belgrave. Sheikh Rashid hin Khalifah Al-Khalifah and James H. D. Belgrave very frequently placed their considerable knowledge of the island at our disposal, while Temple Hillyard, who has many years' experience of the Middle East and who is himself an archeologist, was often of assistance to us. Under the greater part of our stay on Bahrain the manager of the Qatar Petroleum Company, G. Heseldin, gave us accommodation in the P. C. L. Guest House, where our pleasant host was D. Brown.
After three days' flight the first members of the expedition, T. G. Bibby and the writer, arrived 5.12.1953 at the capital of Bahrain, Manama, which was our headquarters during the whole period of the campaign, which terminated 2.5.1954. In the last phase of the expedition, from 18.3.1954, Kristian Jeppesen, M. A., an architect, also took part. The first month was occupied by a thorough reconnaissance of the whole island. During this survey we had the good fortune to find the first traces of settlement on Bahrain, the flint sites on Jabal AlDukhan, the mountain which dominates the desert area of the island, and in the southwestern coastal areas. Besides a mosque on the northern outskirts of Diraz a stone block was found, 60 x 65 x 97 ems. in size, on the upper side of which a score of cup-carvings had been hollowed out (Fig. 3). These cupcarvings, of which 7 were 8-10 cms. in diameter and 5-6 cms. in depth, while the remainder were 5-6 cms. in diameter and 1-3 cms. deep, are sacred signs of prehistoric date, and are known throughout the Old World from India to Scandinavia.
To supplement the reconnaissance use was made of air photographs covering the northern half of the island, which had been taken by Hunting Aerosurveys Ltd. of London, and which were placed at our disposal by BAPCO. In order to obtain comparative material and measurements of the tumuli of the island investigations were commenced 9.1.1954 of two burial mounds in the northwestern group, where no previous excavations had taken place (cf. p. 132). At the same time an excavation was carried out at the village of Sar to the east of this mound-group. This village is built on a mound, the south end of which lies about 6 meters above the level of the village palmgroves. Here a building level of Early Islamic date was demonstrated about 1 meter under the surface and covered by occupation debris. At a depth of about 5.32 meters under the surface and resting on the original ground surface a shallow occupation layer with remains of cooking fires was found, but no dateable artifacts were discovered.
On 2.2.1954 the centre of investigation was moved to the village of Diraz, where excavation continued until 10.3.1954. Here Ain Sujur, one of the most famous springs on the island, was investigated (cf. p. 160). While at the same time sondages were made in the nearby mounds, east of Diraz and about one kilometer south of the village of Barbar. In the course of these investigations a mound of unusual character was discovered near Barbar, a mound which had already been noted by Durand 8). Excavation was carried on here from 18.2 to 28.4.1954 and considerable portions of a temple complex were uncovered (cf. p. 150). At the same time three Iron Age gravemounds south of the Budeiya Road were investigated (cf. p. 137), and a trial excavation was made at Ras al Qala'a, where considerable remains of buildings, undoubtedly belonging to the prehistoric capital of Bahrain, were demonstrated (cf. p. 167). All non-working days were devoted to continued reconnaissance, and several new Stone Age sites were discovered, as well as a large "kitchen-midden" consisting of yardthick deposits of shells of pearl oysters mixed with occupation debris, principally pottery, between Ras Noma and Ras al Jazayir in the western part of the island about one kilometer from the present coastline. This is undoubtedly a prehistoric site, and probably demonstrates a considerable pearl-fishing industry at an early date. Similar kitchen-middens were discovered in 1941 by Cornwall on the Arabian mainland immediately to the west of Bahrain near Al Khubar 10). The expedition terminated its work with an exhibition of its discoveries in the Government Buildings in Manama. The exhibition was opened by His Highness Sheikh Sulman, and was viewed with absorbed interest by a wide cross-section of the inhabitants of Bahrain.
This outline of the results of the Danish Archeological Bahrain-Expedition is amplified in the following reports. These show that the successful results of the first campaign have given at a stroke a broad prehistoric background to the island. The fact that Bahrain is frequently mentioned in archeological, historical, geographical and philological literature is not so much due to the enormous numbers of burial-mounds as to the belief that this island is to be identified with the myth-surrounded site of Dilmun, with which the earliest story of the Flood is connected, where the Noah of the Sumerians and Babylonians, Ziusudra and Utu-Nipishtim, was granted immortality and took up his abode, where the hero of the early Mesopotamian epic, Gilgamesh, came in search of immortality, and which is repeatedly mentioned in Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian inscriptions. Since the problem was first raised in 1880-81 discussions of the location of Dilmun have occupied the attention of a large number of writers. Many locations have been proposed, but attention is now restricted to two localities: the northeast coast of the Persian Gulf from Elam to the Straits of Ormuz, and Bahrain 11): Recently P. B. Cornwall has in particular championed the identification of Dilmun with Bahrain 12), and in the opinion of many authorities the question is now considered as resolved in favour of this island 13): Cornwall considers in addition that the portion of the Arabian mainland lying west of Bahrain, the Hasa Coast, where he continued his investigations in 1940-41 after his excavations on Bahrain, at least at times belonged to the area included under the term Dilmun. In Hasa he was able to discover extensive tumulus cemeteries closely resembling those of Bahrain, and to locate several large town-ruins, in addition to flint sites and kitchen-middens, all of which further associate the two areas 14). The view has often been put forward that Bahrain must in the past have been the most important station in the sea-trade between India and Mesopotamia, on account of its abundant freshwater springs. These springs come to the surface at many points on the island, and they are also found in the shallows at a considerable distance from the coast. A local tradition relates that they are due to an underground stream from the broad waters of the Euphrates. Bahrain possesses in addition sheltered anchorages against the northwest wind so dreaded by mariners, the Shamal.
The only previous discovery on Bahrain showing a connection with the neighbouring civilisations was a stone with a cuneiform inscription which Durand found in the wall of a mosque, and which has now been lost (Fig. 4) 15). The inscription on this stone, written in the Babylonian style current over a considerable period but possibly attributable to the middle of the first half of the second millennium 16), reads: "Palace of Rimun, the servant of Inzak, of the tribe of Agarum", and proves a connection between Bahrain and Mesopotamia, where the god Inzak was worshipped under the name Nabu 17). To this can now be added the objects discovered by the "Danish Archeological BahrainExpedition" in the temples of Barbar, which show a direct connection both with Mesopotamia and with India (cf. p. 148 og 151). These connections are further strengthened by two stray finds. In the possessions of the Bahrain Government is a stone vessel ornamented with circles, of a type known from discoveries in Ur dated to the latter half of the third millennium 18), the same period as that in which the objects from Barbar find their closest parallels. This stone vessel was found during diggings in a tumulus about a kilometer south of Ras al Qala'a (Fig. 2, no. 35). In the same area an American engineer working with BAPCO, V. Kelly, found in the spring of 1954 a stamp-seal in the neigbourhood of the remains of a tumulus.
This seal, which is of greyish white steatite, is 2.6 cms. in diameter. It shows the figure of a bull with, above it, the figure of a quadruped with a head resembling a cock (perhaps a cow or a goat) together with three other figures, among them a scorpion. The reverse is dome-shaped, pierced by a cord-hole which runs at right angles to three parallel grooves, and ornamented in addition with four circular patterns (Fig. 5). It belongs to the group of stamp-seals which is connected by C. J. Gadd with the Indus culture 19), and of which 30 or 31 specimens are now known, the majority being found at Ur in southern Mesopotamia 20). The figures on the Bahrain stamp-seal are most closely parallelled by a seal from Ur 21) which can be dated to the close of the third millennium 22), while the characteristic form of the reverse is known from several other seals 23). The discoveries here mentioned, together with the other results of the expedition, give a valuable archeological background to our knowledge of the trade connections of Ur at the end of the third millenium, which is very fully recorded in a series of clay tablets in cuneiform from the Larsa period, recently published in a comprehensive survey by A. L. Oppenheim 24).
From the description given by these tablets it is clear that the Dilmun-trade at about 2000 B. C. was in the bands of a group of merchant seamen, the Alik Dilmun, who were financed by capitalists in Ur. The goods -which they brought to the ancient Mesopotamian city are listed in connection with offerings and tithes presented to the goddess Ningal in gratitude for her protection during their dangerous voyages. They consisted of copper in ingots and manufactured articles of copper, beads and precious stones, lumps of lapis-lazuli, ivory and ivory-inlaid objects, ivory combs and breastplates, eye-paint and rare woods, as well as "fish-eyes", which are probably pearls. At a later period dales are mentioned among the objects imported. The merchants carried in exchange to Dilmun articles of clothing, oil and silver. But as only few of the objects traded in are native to Dilmun Bahrain must have been a trading station, to which goods were brought from more distant countries, which are named in the tablets as Makkan and Melubba. These places, which cannot be more precisely located, probably lay on the northeast coast of Arabia (possibly in Oman) and in India (the lndus valley). Precisely the objects mentioned in the lists of imports reappear in the objects found in Bahrain. In the large tumuli near Ali have been found ivory figurines, and other objects of ivory, in addition to small fragments of ivory and objects decayed beyond identification 26). There is every probability that the ivory originated in India, where in this period the great cities of the lndus-valley civilization flourished and with which at least one object from the Barbar temple, the little lingashaped counter of lapis-lazuli, demonstrates direct contact. To this can be added the stamp-seal described above, as well as a particular type of head which shows a connection between the Indus culture and Mesopotamia 26), but which has not yet been discovered on Bahrain. Among the other objects of import mentioned in the Ur tablets a large number of fragments of bronze vessels have been found in the Barbar temple, where in addition a considerable quantity of small copper bars have come to light, which perhaps imitated copper ingots. Pearls have not yet been found in prehistoric contexts on Bahrain, which is perhaps due to the circumstances of preservation, but in this connection the kitchen-midden described above is of very considerable interest.
This extensive trade lies mainly in the centuries on either side of the year 2000, but it can be traced back to the middle of the third millenium, when it may have been in the bands of merchant houses on Bahrain 27). It is precisely to these centuries that the majority of the Bronze Age tumuli of Bahrain probably belong, and the huge tumuli of Ali may well be the last resting place of the merchant princes of Bahrain. Thereafter comes a break in the trade connections with the East, which is perhaps reflected in the vacuum between the Bronze Age tumuli of Bahrain and the barrows which in the Iron Age were heaped up along the north coast of the island and outside the extensive cemeteries of the Bronze Age. The collapse of the eastern trade may signify that the great city-culture of the lndus valley, best known from the excavations at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, fell in the middle of the first half of the second millenium.
As will appear from the following articles, the discoveries made by the "Danish Archeological Bahrain-Expedition" appear to show that there existed in Bahrain an independent culture with connections to both Mesopotamia and India. Bahrain therefore occupies a central position in the prehistory of the Middle East. As yet only a beginning has been made, but the completion of the projects which have already been commenced will undoubtedly bring new and decisive facts to light. The best possibilities exist on Bahrain for finding more extensive evidence of the contact known to exist between the culture of the Sumerians in Mesopotamia and the culture of the Indus valley. Moreover it is here that the best chances exist for finding the key to the decipherment of the still unread hieroglyphic script of the lndus culture; for the merchant houses which ruled Bahrain must have known and used both that script and the cuneiform of the Sumerians.
P. V. Glob.
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