The Site of Saar: Dilmun Reconsidered

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Geoffrey Bibby went to the Arabian Gulf 'looking for Dilmun' in the 1950s and '60s as part of a Danish team led initially by Professor Glob. For 20 years after this little archaeological research took place. In the 1980s the picture changed again; much of the work undertaken was driven either by the need for rescue work, or by the accident of discovery. A major conference in 1983, followed in 1986 by the publication of an important book Bahrain through the ages (al Khalifa & Rice 1986), gave fresh impetus to work in the area and, for almost the first time, some problem-oriented research was undertaken to answer specific questions.

In summary, the state of knowledge prior to 1986 was as follows: thanks to the cuneiform texts, the earliest examples of which date back to the Uruk period of south Mesopotamia in the late 4th millennium, Dilmun's identification with Bahrain and its position as a vital entrepot in the trade route linking south Mesopotamia with the copper mines of Oman was already well known (Potts 1990: 85ff). The texts and the archaeology together showed that by the early 2nd millennium Dilmun was centred on the island of Bahrain, but the archaeological evidence for this period was still limited. The first extensive modern archaeological investigations of Bahrain were undertaken by Danish teams under Professor Glob, Peder Mortensen and Geoffrey Bibby at the Qala'at al Bahrain, a large stratified tell site on the north coast of the main Bahrain island. The site apparently covered almost 50 ha in the so-called Early Dilmun period, usually dated to the first quarter of the 2nd millennium. Much of the early material at this site is deeply stratified under later material; the Danish expedition was only able to establish a stratified sequence of pottery from the pre Early Dilmun, conventionally dated to about 2400 BC, to the Hellenistic periods, and to identify, among other buildings, a short length of the early 2nd-millennium city wall and the fragmentary plans of half a dozen houses (Hojlund 1994).

Mortensen also uncovered a temple at the village of Barbar 3 km to the southwest, which dated to the Early Dilmun period and gave further indications of its prosperity and the technical skills of its builders (Mortensen 1986). Finds from the temple reinforced the image of Dilmun as an important trading entrepot. There was lapis from Afghanistan, copper from Oman and artefacts such as the cylindrical vessels, mirror handle and copper bull's head which pointed to contacts with eastern Iran or even with Central Asia (Lombard & Kervran 1989: 30). The wide-ranging contacts of the people of Dilmun were already well known because of the finds of their seals in a distinctive local style in excavations at Ur in south Mesopotamia (Gadd 1932), at Susa (Harper 1992) and, more recently, from the island of Failaka (Kjaerum 1983). Rare examples are even known from the Indus valley (Rao 1986).

Finds from the burial mounds which were for centuries the most notable archaeological feature of Bahrain, and which as a result have been extensively robbed, painted the same picture. The so-called Royal Graves at Aali (Reade & Burleigh 1978) in particular demonstrated engineering and building skills of a high order as well as yielding the remains of a sophisticated material culture. These included fragments of ivory figurines and scraps from furniture as well as imported Iranian pottery and a quadruple - spiral gold bead which can be parallelled as far away as Troy (Lombard & Kervran 1989: 32). Rescue work on many other less imposing and less well-furnished types of graves provided additional useful information on the artefacts of the period and underlined the special nature of the Aali burials. Unfortunately, the skeletal remains were frequently too badly preserved to allow demographic studies to take place.

What was missing from the picture of Dilmun was detailed information on the domestic economy and social structure of Bahrain in the Early Dilmun period, information on how local people actually lived and on how their society was organized. …