Boat Remains and Maritime Trade in the Persian Gulf during the Sixth and Fifth Millennia BC

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Evidence for early interaction between southern Mesopotamia and the Gulf emerged in the 1960s and 70s, with the identification of sixth/fifth millennium BC pottery from Mesopotamia at scores of sites in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar (Figure 1) (Burkholder 1972; Golding 1974; Masry 1974; Oates et al. 1977). The predominantly coastal distribution implied that the pottery was transported by sea (Oates et al. 1977: 233; Piesinger 1983: 753), though direct evidence for this was absent, and the existence of a trading relationship was explicitly doubted.

Recent research shows that advanced boat-building and sailing technologies were employed at this time, and that a true maritime exchange relationship existed between the Ubaid communities of southern Mesopotamia and the Arabian Neolithic groups of eastern Arabia. The evidence comprises boat remains and representations of boats from the site of H3, As-Sabiyah (Kuwait), and the distribution, function and imitation of Ubaid pottery in the Gulf. Together this shows that Mesopotamian ceramics were an item of trade, which were passed into the Neolithic system and incorporated into the local material culture and symbolic vocabulary. In the following discussion, 'trade' and 'exchange' are used synonymously (Renfrew 1975: 4). Neither carry market connotations, but are used neutrally to mean 'the mutual appropriative movement of goods between hands' (Polanyi 1957: 266).

Boat-related finds from H3, As-Sabiyah

The archaeological context of the boat-related finds can only briefly be described (for fuller details on excavations at H3, see Carter et al. 1999; Carter & Crawford 2001, 2002, 2003; Carter 2002, 2003). The site is located at the edge of a sheltered bay, now infilled. Its pottery is of the Ubaid 2/3 period, while radiocarbon dates indicate that occupation began between 5500 and 5000 BC (Carter & Crawford 2003: 84, Figure 4). A cellular complex of stone chambers (Figure 2) is associated with a mixed material culture, combining elements typical of the Arabian Neolithic and the southern Mesopotamian Ubaid.

Boat-related finds consist of a ceramic model of a reed-bundle boat (Figure 3); a painted disc depicting a sailing boat (Figure 4) and over 50 pieces of bituminous amalgam, mostly with reed-impressions and/or barnacle encrustations, which are interpreted as fragments of the waterproof coating of sea-going reed-bundle boats (Figure 5).

The 15cm-long model of a boat (Figure 3) was found against the wall of one chamber (Figure 2). It was carefully modelled to give a schematic but detailed three-dimensional depiction of a reed-bundle boat. Other examples are known from Al-Ubaid, Eridu, Oueili, Uruk, Tell Uqair and Mashnaqa (Hall & Woolley 1927: Plate XLVIII; Safar & Lloyd 1981: Figure 111; Breniquet 1987: Plate III; Thuesen 2000: Figure 5; Lloyd & Safar 1943: Plate XVIII: 13; Lenzen 1968 Taf. 23: h; Quails 1981: 12-13, 14-15), but none shows such detailed constructional features. The H3 model is in a coarse red ware associated with the Central Gulf. Key features include incised parallel lines and modelling which represent the shape of reed bundles. Reconstructions of Bronze Age vessels show bundle-shapes, even after coating with bitumen (Vosmer 2003a: Figures 2-3). Indentations along the tops of the sides may represent locations of cross-beams or thwarts, similar to a model from Eridu (Qualls 1981: 12). The tips of the H3 model are missing, but on other models they curve round into a loop or tight coil (Hall & Woolley 1927: Plate XLVIII; Safar & Lloyd 1981: Figure 111; Breniquet 1987: Plate III: 1). This is a feature of reed-bundle construction. The model has three piercings, two intact and one present where the tip has broken off. An unpublished model from Eridu and a published example have three and five piercings respectively (Quails 1981). They may have been used to fasten model steering oars and rigging. …