Slangeofre i Bahrains oldtidshovedstad


  • P.V. Glob


Qala’at al-Bahrain, prehistoric capital, forhistorisk hovedstad, fourth campaign of excavation, fjerde udgravnings ekspedition, bahrain, snake sacrifices, slange ofringer, Barbar, temple, tempel


Snake Sacrifices in Bahrain's Ancient Capital

The Danish Archeological Bahrain Expedition's Fourth Campaign of Excavation.

The excavation of the prehistoric capital at Qala'at al-Bahrain continues to produce new and unexpected discoveries. The latest consists of snake sacrifices within the large building which was discovered by the Danish Archeological Bahrain Expedition during its first campaign in the spring of 1954 and in which further excavations have taken place in each subsequent year. Since its erection some time in the latter half of the Third Millennium BC this building was used for a variety of purposes during more than fifteen hundred years and was repeatedly altered and adapted 1). In early lslamic times one of its main walls collapsed, and after that time it was only used as a foundation for various dwelling houses, until the Portuguese about 400 years ago constructed their fort on the ancient mound covering the prehistoric city.

In the eastern side of the building, underneath the collapsed wall, a foundation consisting of two massive limestone blocks on a plinth was uncovered in the spring of 1957. It was square in plan, measuring 95 X 95 cms., and was 60 cms. high, while the plinth, consisting of stone and plaster, was a little over 20 cms. high and projected 20-25 cms. on three sides, the fourth side having been cut away at some later period (figs. 1-2). "This foundation had undoubtedly originally been the lower part of a square column bearing the roof of the building, but it had perhaps later been used secondarily as an altar. For to the south and west of the "altar", and extending right up to its foot, 14 sacrificial deposits were found, all except one consisting of pottery vessels (fig. 2, 1-14), laid down in pits in a floor layer 30 cms. in thickness. Four of these vessels (nos. 3, 4, 8, and 11) were covered by a downturned bowl or saucer fitting closely to the vessel beneath (fig. 3), while four others were covered by a large sherd of coarse ware from a storage vessel (nos. 2, 6, 13, and 14). Vessel no. 8 was covered both by a thick sherd and by half of a shallow bowl. It is possible that the vessels which were now apparently uncovered had originally been covered by a lid of other material, for example a turned wooden platter, as the impress of such a platter was found above vessel no. 5, preserved as an impression in the layer of plaster with which it had in addition been covered (fig. 5). As lids were used both broken vessels as in the case of no. 8 and vessels which were unservicable on account of too fierce firing (fig. 4). Under one of the lids, a bowl (no. 7), nothing was found except a hole 'in the ground, without any apparent contents.

No less than seven of the vessels contained the coiled skeleton of a snake, some of them quite small while others have had a length of about 1.5 meters (figs. 4--5). Three more of the vessels contained some few vertebrae of reptiles, perhaps of snakes, but the zoological investigation is not yet complete. One small pit, covered by a thick potsherd, contained a necklace consisting of 26 beads of agate, amethyst, blue glass and porcelain 2), as well as a little silver ring. Similar beads, singly or in pairs, were moreover found in five of the vessels (nos. 10-14), while three vessels with particularly well-preserved snake skeletons (nos. 3-5) have still not been completely investigated and may therefore well contain beads, which in some cases are quite small.

The main characteristics of these discoveries form a clear pattern: a combination of beads and snakes, deposited in vessels or in pits around an "altar". This would suggest that they were deposited as sacrifices to a snake goddess. The circumstances in which they were found make it clear that the whole discovery is approximately contemporary. In the layer of building debris besides the altar and beneath the collapsed wall an oval earthenware coffin was found containing a contracted skeleton of a woman, with funerary furnishings consisting of a little pottery vase (figs. 2 B and 7), while in the same layer were also found four child burials in identical pottery bowls (fig. 8). These graves belong to the middle of the First Millennium BC, so that the snake sacrifices must be of earlier date. Shortage of comparative material from the surrounding area, and the still incompletely systematised discoveries from the sections in the tell (for the dating of which a large number of specimens of carbon has already been obtained), prevents a close dating of the snake sacrifices at this point, but they must in general be attributed to the middle of the Second Millennium BC.

Which snake goddess it was that at this period was worshipped here cannot yet be determined, but there is no doubt that just such a goddess of fertility was in fact worshipped over considerable areas at just this period, and thereafter up to our own day 3). In Crete, for example, a snake goddess is known contemporary with the discoveries from Qala'a 4), and at a somewhat later date in Danmark in the Late Bronze Age. Both have probably a common origin in the East. In a number of religions the snake appears later as the soul of the dead, and is known as such among the Greeks and Romans 5), and in our own day among primitive peoples 6). As a consequence of the connections between the prehistoric cultures of Bahrain and the Indus civilization these snake sacrifices will be of importance in identifying the older layers in Hinduism, which precede the Rig-Veda and the Indo-European contribution to the religions of India.

In addition to the excavation within this large building investigations were also carried out within the Portuguese Fort and around the city wall to the north. A separate report on this excavation will be found p. 152. In the desert areas of Bahrain the investigation of flint sites continued, and several new sites of Palæolithic and Neolithic date were discovered by the old beach level north of Mattala where the expedition has previously made many similar discoveries 8). Here the kitchen-midden previously found at Ras al-Jazayir was investigated, a site which in prehistoric times was an island lying 4-5 kms. from the coastline along which the prehistoric flint sites in the main lie. In the same area smaller trial excavations were carried out in a garden north of Zellaq belonging to Sheikh Ahmed bin Hamad Al-Khalifah. In the course of ground-levelling there two slender stone columns had been found, probably phallos symbols, similar in shape to the ornaments of lapis lazuli found among the offerings in the upper temple at Barbar. These phallic sculptures, which are broken off at the base, are 130 and 73 cms. tall respectively and very well carved in Jida limestone (fig. 9). The shafts are finely rounded, 18 cms. in diameter at the half-way mark and thereafter increasing evenly in diameter towards the head, which in the case of the larger and better preserved of the specimens is slightly oval, 27 x 30 cms. and possesses a domed top. The trial excavation produced at their place of discovery ridged pottery of the same type as that from Barbar 9), making it probable that these two sculptures should be attributed to the Third Millennium BC.

At the site of the ancient temples near Barbar excavations were carried on throughout the campaign, in particular on the southern and western sides, where new and interesting sections of the complex came to light. Among them was a well, in the southwestern corner, together with several systems of staircases (fig. 10), which were in use from the time of the first temple but which had later been repeatedly altered and cleaned out; the last period of use of the well, which produced a large amount of pottery (fig. 11), was Islamic. A section trench in a north-south direction was driven through the innermost portion of the temple complex and down to undisturbed levels. In this trench several interesting discoveries were made, including two remarkable copper objects, which had been deposited in the clay foundations belonging to the middle temple (fig. 12). One of these had the shape of a crescent-shaped axehead with socket; and is thus reminiscent of a type well-known in the Middle East from many discoveries dating to the Third Millennium and Iater, without, however, resembling any of these in detail (fig. 12a) 10). The specimen is 18.5 cms. long and 5.5 cms. wide at the centre. It is made of a sheet of copper which at one side is folded together to form a socket about 1.7 cms. thick. This socket, however, is very irregularly shaped, hammered flat at the upper end, where it follows the curve of the blade, and without a hole at the lower end where the helve would normally be inserted. This absence of an opening at the lower end, however, is probably due to the fact that the axe had been subjected to fire before being deposited, as the surface bears signs of contact with heat and melted fragments of metal adhere to its edges. It is, however, clear that this object was never designed for use but rather as a votive offering, a fact which probably also explains its unusual shape; for no cutting edge has ever been ground or forged to the axe, and the outer edge of the blade is uneven, rounded and about 2 mms. thick. The other object deposited with the axe (fig. 12b), which resembles a spearhead or a dagger, has the same remarkable characteristics as the first specimen. It too is made of a copper sheet, folded over at one end to form a socket without a hole. It bears similar signs of fire, and the blade, too, shows no great signs of fashioning, though it is hammered out to a thickness of about 1 mm., somewhat thinner than the axe blade. Both objects were therefore in all probability manufactured specially in order to be deposited as votive offerings in the temple foundation.

The fourth campaign of the Danish Archeological Bahrain Expedition commenced on 16th January 1957 and continued until 9th April 1957. It was led by the undersigned, the remaining participants being T. G. Bibby, M. A., P. Kjærum, M. A., M. Krustrup, M. A., V. Nielsen, M. A. et cand. jur., Hellmuth Andersen, M. A., P. Mortensen and B. Stürup, together with K. R. de Fine Licht, architect, and F. Wisti, conservator. In addition an artist, Karl Bovin joined the expedition at his own expense. The expedition was carried out with grants from the Government af Bahrain, from the Bahrain Petroleum Company and from the Carlsberg Foundation.

As usual our work was followed with the closest interest by the Ruler of Bahrain, His Highness Sheikh Sulman bin Hamad Al-Khalifah, the Adviser to the Government, Sir Charles Belgrave, and the Resident Vice President of the Bahrain Petroleum Company, C. R. Bark­hurst. We owe a debt of gratitude for material help to the director of the Public Works Department of Bahrain, M. Lees, and for assistance on many occasions to the commercial superintendant of Petroleum Concessions Limited in Manama, L. P. D. E. M. Brown-Greaves. The principal British authorities, the Political Resident, Sir Bernard Burrows, and the Political Agent, C. A. Gault, often helped us within their particular spheres and followed our excavations with great interest.

An enjoyable interlude was provided by an exhibition of many of the objects discovered, held in the Directorate of Education and opened by His Highness Sheikh Sulman accompanied by a colourful escort of the principal sheikhs of Bahrain. Both on that occasion and in connection with discoveries of particular importance Bahrain Radio broadcast reports produced by an old friend of the expedition, the director of public relations and broadcasting, James Belgrave, and by his assistant, Ibrahim Kanoo. During the preparation of the exhibition the director of education, Ahmed al-Umran, and the assistant director, Yusuf Sharawi, gave indispensible assistance, while the manager of BAPCO's public relations department, Copp Collins, and his chief photographer, Ron Startup, supplied us with pictorial material. The very large attendance at the exhibition of our many friends and of several thousands of the inhabitants of the island gave us a clear indication of the widespread interest which our work has aroused in Bahrain.

P. V. Glob





Glob, P. (1957). Slangeofre i Bahrains oldtidshovedstad. Kuml, 7(7), 114–127. Hentet fra