A New Bactrian Find from Southeastern Arabia

By Potts, D. T. | Antiquity, September 1993 | Go to article overview

A New Bactrian Find from Southeastern Arabia


Potts, D. T., Antiquity


A new and handsome find, a decorated bone comb from Tell Abraq in the United Arab Emirates dated about 2100--2000 BC, provides another link between eastern Arabia and the distant Bactrian lands.

The site and context

The purpose of this short note is to report the discovery, on 11 February 1993, of a decorated bone comb (TA 1649) in a context datable to c. 2100--2000 BC at the site of Tell Abraq, emirate of Umm al-Qaiwain, United Arab Emirates. Tell Abraq (FIGURE 1), the largest prehistoric site on the southern coast of the Arabian Gulf, is the only multi-period site in southeastern Arabia with a continuous sequence of occupation extending from the middle of the 3rd to the middle of the 1st millennium BC (Potts 1990; 1991; 1993). The early settlement at the site was dominated by a fortification tower made of stone and mudbrick, 40 m in diameter and 8 m high. Fortifications of this sort, of which the Tell Abraq exemplar is the largest found to date, are well-known features at sites in the Oman peninsula dating to the so-called Umm an-Nar period (c. 2500--2000 BC).

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Ten metres west of the fortress is a contemporary tomb. Like the fortresses of this period, the tombs were circular. The Tell Abraq tomb, diameter c. 6 m, is divided into two chambers by an internal crosswall. A passage at the southern end of the wall links the eastern and western chambers. This year, under the supervision of J.N. Benton (University of Sydney), and with the assistance of Prof. A. Goodman (Hampshire College, USA), Prof. D. Martin (Hampshire College, USA), and Prof. and Mrs R.V.S. Wright (University of Sydney), the western chamber was excavated completely. The internal deposit, which was preserved to a height of c. 1.30 m, contained a minimum number of 155 individuals representing all age groups (adult MNI 121). Here, in addition to a variety of ceramic and stone vessels, copper/bronze rings and spearheads, ostrichegg shell fragments (presumably from once complete vessels), beads and 'feeding shells' (Ficus subintermedia d'Orbiny 1852, so-called because of the ethnographic evidence for their use by the local population for feeding liquids to infants), a decorated bone comb was discovered.

The comb and its date

The comb (FIGURE 2a & b) is 11 cm long, 8.2 cm wide (max.), and 0.4 cm thick. Roughly one third of its teeth were missing or so fragile that they broke upon first contact with a small brush during cleaning. Otherwise, it is completely intact. The upper part of the comb is crescentic. The body extends down each side in the form of a 1-cm wide strip flanking the teeth. Both sides of the body of the comb are decorated identically with a set of three double-dotted circles arranged in a triangle. On either side of the dotted circles is a stylized flower with two upward-curving, dentate or crenate leaves, a long stem and three lotus- or tulip-like petals.

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While we hope soon to acquire [.sup.14]C dates from burnt bone discovered in the tomb, several indications already narrow down its date to the very end of the Umm an-Nar period. A burnt deposit excavated in 1989 and 1993, which ran just under the surface linking the base of the tomb with the base of the fortress, yielded two dates of 2130 BC (K-5574) and 2190 BC (K-5575) (calibrated after Pearson & Stuiver 1986), thus providing a secure terminus post quem for the tomb. A date between c. 2100 and 2000 BC is suggested by the pottery, with treatment (e.g., string-cut bases) and temper characteristic of the following Wadi Suq period (c. 2000--1300 BC), whereas the shapes appear to be in the Umm an-Nar tradition. The painted decoration is clearly transitional, for it represents a stylized, simplified version of 'classical' Umm an-Nar decoration. Thus, I would refer the tomb to the terminal Umm an-Nar period, at the end of the known sequence of excavated Umm an-Nar tombs, beginning with the tombs on Umm an-Nar island itself (c. …

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A New Bactrian Find from Southeastern Arabia
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