en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 21, Number 1January/February 1970

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Looking For Dilmun

Written by Geoffrey Bibby

The Danish Archeological Expedition had been in the Arabian Gulf for 15 years. It had explored and dug in almost all the tiny independent shaikhdoms that line the southern shore of the Gulf, the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

Our results had been—very satisfactory. In Bahrain we had discovered the capital city of the ancient realm of Dilmun, which had risen to power about 2800 B.C. and for 2,000 years dominated the trade and sea routes between Mesopotamia and the cities of the Indus Valley. During this period, until Dilmun was incorporated in the Assyrian Empire about 600 B.C., four successive cities were built, each on the ruins of its predecessor. And above them all lay the ruins of no less a city, built in the third century B.C., when Bahrain had regained and kept its independence during the reigns of Alexander the Great and his successors.

In Kuwait we had found and dug the northernmost outpost of the Dilmun Kingdom, and, a stone's throw away, the southernmost outpost toward Arabia of Alexander's empire, a fortified Greek town, with Greek temples, Greek inscriptions, Greek wine jars and works of art.

In Qatar we had evidence of a rich Stone Age, taking the story of man in Arabia perhaps a hundred thousand years into the past.

And in Abu Dhabi we had found another civilization, contemporary with the founding of Dilmun, which might well be the lost land of Makan, which in the third and second millennia B.C. supplied Bronze Age Mesopotamia with the copper on which its civilization was based.

They were results rich enough in all conscience. Yet, looking at the map, we knew that we were only nibbling on the fringes of things. Behind and between our diggings on the coast and the islands lay the colossal bulk of Great Arabia, virtually unexplored.

We had visited Saudi Arabia three times, hardly more than weekend visits, as the guests of the Arabian American Oil Company. And we had been shown something of what the archeological enthusiasts of the oil company had gathered up from the surface during their explorations. We had twice applied for permission to explore and dig. But at that time there was no one to whom one could properly apply. We had lectured on our findings from the Gulf states to the staff and students of Riyadh University, and—perhaps as a result of our applications and lectures—a Directorate of Antiquities was constituted under the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education.

Then in the beginning of 1967 a letter reached us from the Directorate of Antiquities. They noted that we had previously applied for permission to explore in the Eastern Province, and they would be pleased if we would renew our application, as there was now a strong possibility that it could be granted. Our bluff was called. Now we had to decide, and decide fast, whether we dared tackle an area of a hundred thousand square miles, 20 times the total area we had worked over during the last 13 years, and how, if we dared, we should set about it.

The problem was essentially one of what Sir Mortimer Wheeler has called "strategic archeology." It would be no use dissipating our strength trying to cover the whole area. But at the other extreme there was the danger of getting bogged down on a single site, however important. What we needed, it seemed to me, was a mobile force of specialists, capable of making swift probes at selected points, and extracting the maximum of information in the minimum of time. There would have to be a ruthless timetable, moving the party from site to site whatever the temptation to remain. And yet, in such a reconnaissance in unknown territory, there would have to be sufficient flexibility to allow unexpected discoveries to be exploited. It would not be easy.

We started with one inestimable advantage. The "pot-pickers" of Dhahran had already been over the whole area with a fine-tooth comb. The preliminary reconnaissance of surface indications had been done for us. No useful purpose would be served by our trying to duplicate their work. What we could do, and must do, was dig, and dig at points where the surface indications suggested that digging would supply new information. I picked out four areas where digging might be expected to give specific answers to specific questions.

There was Thaj, a hundred miles north of Dhahran and 60 miles inland, where we had twice collected shards of Greek pottery from a tell covering the ruins of a huge walled city. There was the island of Tarut, in Qatif Bay north of Dhahran, where we had found Dilmun shards on a tell in the center of the island, a tell which was difficult of access because a ladies' washing place occupied the only accessible site; and since we were last in Tarut some interesting objects of Classical date, mixed with earlier objects, had been found by sand-quarriers. And then there was 'Uqair, traditionally the site of the lost Classical emporium of Gerrha (but we had our doubts), and an area north of 'Uqair where the sand dunes did not quite cover a huge extent of abandoned irrigation. And, finally, I picked Yabrin, over three hundred miles away in the deep south, as a "wildcat" project. It tied up with nothing we had previously tackled, but we knew that there were thousands of burial mounds at Yabrin, which had never been investigated...

While the government of Saudi Arabia was considering our application to dig, our application for assistance, financial and logistical, was sent to the oil company at Dhahran. And at the same time as the government approved our plans, Aramco replied that their Exploration Department had been authorized to organize the practical side of our expedition.

When it comes to making a ground survey of the moon, or of Mars, the Space Administration might do worse than to put the matter in the hands of the Exploration Department of Aramco. It is accustomed to making everyday routine out of desert journeys which 30 years ago would have earned their performers an F.R.G.S., a knighthood and undying fame. It establishes, and keeps supplied with all comforts, camps in the middle of that most inaccessible of all deserts, the Rub' al-Khali, the Empty Quarter of Arabia.

Our intrepid venture deep into archeologically unknown territory was to them, we found, a jaunt within the normal picnicking area around Dhahran, for the most part well within commuting range. It could be organized in odd moments of relaxation from arranging really serious expeditions.

Yet our preparations were put afoot with the same light-hearted attention to detail as the bigger projects received. For Exploration works on a very simple principle. The man in the field is always right. He knows what he wants; the man in the depot only has to see that he gets it. Order 10,000 gallons of diesel oil, or ask them to change a library book or send a birthday telegram. It will be done. Radio in a requisition for six cans of asparagus tips by special truck; and a truck will arrive with six cans of asparagus tips. If you ask for special delivery you have a reason, and that is enough for Exploration.

So when in January of 1968 we set off for Thaj, we were equipped to a standard to which archeologists are not accustomed. Ahead went what Exploration called a "bobtail," an immense ten-tired, six-wheel-drive, stake-bodied truck, with a cab like the bridge of a steamboat (including a lanyard above the driver's head to sound the siren) and with a smokestack puffing out a white plume of exhaust. It towed a 2,000-gallon tank of water and carried a dozen or so drums of gasoline, oil and kerosene, as well as our six tents and the greater part of our camp equipment. Bobtails are the new ships of the desert, and their drivers are a special breed of men, akin to—probably the sons of—the great Bedouin guides of 30 years ago. They travel immense distances across Arabia, often alone and guided only by God, the stars, and their instinct for direction and distance. They are the sinews of Exploration's communication system.

Behind followed our two Land-Rovers, each with its radio-transmission aerial nodding to the movement, and our two-ton truck. We had never had a truck at our disposal anywhere before, but the Fargo was scarcely large enough to hold our stock of provisions, beds, mattresses, chairs, and cook-stoves. Our personnel rode the Land-Rovers. Our party was 13 strong, a mechanic and two drivers, three cooks, and seven "scientists." Christian Fischer and I were the only "dirt archeologists."

I had, for better or worse, my party of specialists. Holger Kapel, who had tramped the length and breadth of Qatar and had just published, on his 71st birthday, the first of our definitive reports, on the Stone Age cultures of Qatar, was to range the desert within a day's drive of our camp, and work out the Stone Age cultures of Arabia. Erling Bondensen, our geologist, was to answer, we hoped, a lot of our questions about climate: why was Thaj built on the shore of a salt flat, a sabkha? Where had the coastline been at the time of Gerrha—and of Early Dilmun? What had happened to the irrigated area north of 'Uqair? Where had the sand come from, and when? Ole Brande, our surveyor, who had mapped our city tell on Bahrain as a student and was now a professor, was cradling his theodolite on his knees. His biggest job would be to make the town plan of Thaj, his most difficult job making sense of the wide scattering of irrigation channels north of 'Uqair. Bente Hojholt was our draftswoman, who up to now had been drawing pottery in the museum in Denmark. This time everything we found must be drawn on the spot, for nothing would come back to the museum in Denmark. The infant department of antiquities in Riyadh was playing it safe. They did not wish to jeopardize a hard-won position by risking charges that they were giving national treasures to foreign museums. Everything we found was to be handed over to them. In this we were in full agreement. We had been too long the Cinderella of our own museum not to appreciate the difficulties faced by a department trying to do what had not previously been done; and we felt rather like godfathers to the antiquities department. We had watched its advent and teething troubles with solicitude, and we were prepared to go to a lot of trouble to strengthen its position.

Abdul-Rahman al-Ibrahim was the representative of the department on our party, a specialist in Islamic architecture and archeology, but as anxious as we to get his teeth into the pre-Islamic past of his country. Christian and I would have to do any digging that was to be done.

The immediate archeological problem with Thaj was straightforward, and could be answered by a single carefully-placed sondage. Did the city of the time of Alexander, which surface indications showed to exist, overlie a city or several cities of earlier date? The longer-term historical problem was immensely more complex. What was this city? What part did it play in the history of Arabia, or the history of the world? Who had lived in it? Why was it where it was? These questions we could not hope to answer in a single season. But because they were important questions, we would look at Thaj, and survey Thaj, with a view to full-scale excavation. For that was what would be needed if the historical questions were to be answered. And in our preoccupation with our realm of Dilmun we should not lose sight of the fact that in Thaj we had a site of historical importance, architectural promise, and even potential tourist attraction which many an archeologist would regard as the crown of a lifetime's work.

The weather was wet and bitterly cold. The tents were snug, but the beds were difficult to leave on a chill blustering morning. I reminded myself that by April in Yabrin we should look back in sheer disbelief to a time when we wished that the weather were warmer. But that did not help. What did help was to go and shovel soil and sand up the three-meter high wall of our sondage. Sited just inside the south wall of the city, it measured only two by two meters, and was already deeper than it was wide. I had promised the department to dig no holes larger than two meters square, and to fill them in when we left. For the department was afraid that superstitious local inhabitants might object to any excavation which could disturb djinns and malignant spirits. I had told them that I did not believe their people to be more prejudiced than those we knew so well in the Gulf states. And when, digging down along the inner side of the squared-stone city wall, we had found the first bowl, lidded by another bowl, just like the "snake-offering" bowls we had found in the "Assyrian palace" in Bahrain, I lifted it up and showed it to the group of young Bedouins squatting on the edge of the excavation. "What, think you," I asked, "is under the lid here, a djinni?" One of them grinned. "If God wills," he said, "there will be gold." "There will be nothing," said another. "If God wills," said I, "there will be a snake." They laughed. Foreigners are so full of superstition. And they were right. There was nothing but sand. We found four more pairs of bowls like the first, but none of them contained anything but sand. There may be a connection of some sort between the snake bowls of Bahrain and the empty bowls of Thaj—though the Thaj bowls are three or four hundred years later in date—but the snake, at least, had by then ceased to figure in the offerings.

There was no earlier city at Thaj. Three meters down, we were below the foundations of the city wall, in a pit that had been dug before the wall was built into the sterile sand which at that time covered the site. Five meters down we came to the bottom of the pit. And the pottery was identical from first to last. Thaj had had but one period of occupation, and that had not lasted more than perhaps 400 years. We have carbon samples from the lowest and the uppermost levels which may give us the life-span of the city. The ash layers in the upper levels are indeed so thick that it is likely that Thaj died by fire and the sword.

The city proved even more imposing on examination than at first acquaintance. The city wall is 15 feet thick, faced with stone both out and in, and with towers at regular intervals jutting out from the line of the wall. On excavation the walls would still stand seven feet high, and would be an imposing ancient monument. It must have been even more imposing to the caravans from the Hadhramaut 2,000 years ago which, after 40 days in the desert, saw the crenellated walls rising to their full height above the palms and gardens south of the city, with the blue waters of the lake beyond.

We were sorely tempted to clear a section of the outer wall, to show what could be done. But we radioed for the bobtail instead, and moved down to the coast.

We encamped on the fringe of the Qatif oasis, opposite the island of Tarut, which was our real aim. The tell in the center of the town at Tarut was still the only settlement of Dilmun date, and of the Dilmun cultures, in Saudi Arabia, still Saudi Arabia's oldest town. And we had hopes that—now that we were "official" and accompanied by a government representative—we could somehow circumvent the tabu on approaching the harem side of the tell.

We had an interview with the Amir, where Abdul-Rahman pleaded our case; and the retired mayor of Qatif, a local antiquary of unimpeachable respectability, was summoned to accompany us to Tarut. After protracted negotiations with the elders there it was agreed that our examination of the tell in the presence of the ex-mayor could be permitted, and, after suitable warnings had been issued, we were permitted to wander at will over the tell—for the space of two hours.

Rarely have we worked so fast. Ole set up his theodolite, and in the two hours produced an accurate sketch-map of the tell. Bente was instructed to take photographs—on the assumption that the ladies of the town, who showed no inclination to flee our presence, would be reassured by a lady photographer. And Christian and Erling and I worked on the exposed southern face of the tell. The sun-baked soil was iron-hard, and only Erling's geological pick-hammer was capable of making much impression on it. But we could work out at least four levels of occupation, each with exposed stumps of squared-stone walling, and we started digging into the lowest exposed layer.

In the middle of our work we were called by the ex-mayor to see the innermost holy of holies, the women's bathing-pool. Leaving Erling to dig, we passed through a maze of walls to find, hard up against the steepest side of the tell, a large natural rock basin full of clear bubbling water. It was one of the natural springs such as we knew from Bahrain. The water was over 12 feet deep, and eight feet below the surface could be seen the footings of a mighty wall of immense squared stones. This pool was clearly the reason for the existence of the settlement on this spot, and must have supplied the town with water for over 4,000 years.

When we returned to our digging, Erling could prove to us that the occupation of the town stretched even further into the past. From the bottom stratum on which he was working he had recovered a nondescript shard of yellowish pottery and three pieces of worked flint, including an undoubted flint knife-blade. We were back to the Neolithic.

It was slender evidence on which to push the history of Dilmun this further step backward in time. But it was ineluctable. On all our previous "Dilmun" sites, at Barbar, on Failaka, at Qala'at al-Bahrain, we had found no worked flint. A large number of flint nodules, yes, and a few flakes of flint, and even one flint core from which blades had been struck, but not a single piece of flint with the secondary chipping, the retouche, which shows that it was formed for use. That three retouched fragments had appeared in a hurried, almost casual, burrowing into an exposed stratum could only mean that worked flint was in very common use at the time of that stratum.

We had no date for the level. The Neolithic is a long period, and off the main stream of progress tends to persist. We knew too little about Tarut to say whether it had been a backwater, but it was unlikely. In fact one of our main tenets of faith was that Early Dilmun had not been a backwater, that on the contrary it had ridden the main stream of progress precisely during the time when Mesopotamia was equipping itself with bronze. If any country might have been expected to have left the Stone Age for the Copper Age earlier than Mesopotamia it would be the country which supplied Mesopotamia with copper.

During the following weeks, while we looked at Seleucid-period cemeteries on Tarut and on the coast, and later when we moved camp to the puzzling area of abandoned irrigation channels north of 'Uqair, I speculated vainly on the problem of digging the Tarut tell. At a stroke it had become not merely the oldest town in Saudi Arabia, but the oldest town-site in the Gulf. And it could not be dug.

It was brought home to me how lucky we had hitherto been. Elsewhere in the Middle East the important ancient site which is still inhabited is a common problem. Sondages dictated by property rights, trenches governed by chance-free areas, compensation to land owners and the actual purchase of excavation areas belong to the ordinary headaches of the expedition leader. In all our work in the Gulf we had never before met these problems. We had met them now, and in an extreme form. We had never commanded the sort of money which would be needed to buy up the center of Tarut town. In any case, the women's bathing pool, the communal washing-place and the main water supply of Tarut was not for sale.

I thought of putting in an all-woman team. We had women archeologists enough. In a week or so I was going east to visit Karen, who this year was running our dig in Buraimi. She could well dig Tarut. But it would not work. We could not use a feminine labor force. Only government decree could open Tarut to us, and a government decree would be highly unpopular locally; not among the women, who had watched out reconnaissance with interest and with no trace of shyness, but among the men.

The problem was incapable of solution. And it was to become of even greater importance in a few week's time.

In the meantime we were now encamped in a hollow among white sand dunes and flowering desert bushes, 20 miles north of 'Uqair. Our third problem was to determine whether the area of abandoned irrigation channels could have any connection with the lost city of Gerrha—or whether alternatively Gerrha lay beneath the ruined Islamic city at 'Uqair.

We did not find Gerrha (unless indeed, as Professor Peter Glob and Christian think, the walled city at Thaj may be Gerrha). At 'Uqair three sondages showed the Islamic occupation extending down to the footings of the ruined city wall, which must therefore itself be Islamic. And there was nothing below. Further north, we quartered the area for five miles around our camp, mainly on foot. All this area had been harshly eroded by the sand and the wind (which blew down our tents one savage night). We found village sites where the walls and even the floors of the houses had been scoured completely away. Nothing would have remained to show that houses had once stood there had it not been that, where the hearths had stood, the clay floors had been baked to a hardness which had resisted the sandstorms of two millennia. Among the hearths, now standing a good two feet above the general ground level, were the beads and coins and half-eroded potsherds of the settlements. The pattern of the fields, too, could be worked out, even the palm gardens where rings of darker earth marked the irrigation pools around each vanished tree. We found and dug two small forts. And everywhere the date was right, the potsherds were of the Classical period, but nowhere was there a city.

As we worked it became obvious that we were exploring a coastland. We were almost 10 miles from the sea here, with the wide and treacherous sabkha—salt flat—stretching to the east, as far as the narrow strip of sand hills that divided the sabkha from the sea. But the characteristics of a coastland were unmistakable. Our village sites lay at the head of arms of sabkha running into rocky coves. The forts stood on low headlands. The largest stretch of irrigation channels could even be identified as reclaimed land, and Erling could show from his section trenches how the dikes had finally broken, and the sea taken back the polder.

Erling's researches were beginning to pay off, and to tie up with earlier geological investigations of the coastal sabkhas of Qatar and the Trucial Coast, which had shown that the sabkhas there were only about 2,000 years old. It began to look as though the coastal area of east Arabia had been slowly rising throughout the last many thousands of years. It was not unlikely. Some millions of years ago, in the late Miocene, during the last great mountain-building period of the world, the Persian massif had lunged southward, tipping the whole slab of Arabia. In the east, Arabia had been pressed down below sea level, forming the Arabian Gulf. And in the west the slab had been cracked off from Africa, forming the deep chasm of the Red Sea, the Rift Valley of East Africa, and the crack which is now the Gulf of Aqaba and the Jordan Valley. It was not unlikely that a recovery had been going on ever since, that Arabia was gradually returning to the horizontal.

It would explain many things in the historical record. Such a rise of east Arabia would reduce the flow of underground water from the high land to the west, would in extreme cases, as perhaps here north of 'Uqair, cut off the flow altogether. The exposed sea bottom would dry out and blow away as sand and dust, which would choke the vegetation on the land, already threatened by the diminishing water supply. Dust-bowl conditions would result, adding more sand to the dunes. The supply of pasture for grazing animals would diminish, and what there was would be overgrazed, giving more denuded areas, and more sand. Perhaps the whole of the sand of Arabia could not be accounted for by this one single cause, but everything would contribute to the same end. And the process had been culminating during the time when man was trying to establish his civilizations along the coast. Dilmun and Gerrha had been fighting a losing battle.

Now the fight is being taken up again, with oil to hold the dunes in check, with deep borings to tap new water supplies, with organized establishment of vegetation coverage to hold down the surface and retain the air humidity for which the Gulf is notorious. It is a slow process to reverse the judgments of nature, but it had only been a very slight change in environment which had originally tipped the balance fractionally against man; if the efforts of man could reverse the tip, then all the processes would build up the other way. Archeological research began to have an unsuspected relevance ...

By chance we did a lot of traveling from that camp. Holger and Abdul-Rahman and I drove the long desert road to Qatar, a trip we had dreamed for years of making the other way, and presented Holger's Stone Age book to the Ruler. And Holger and Ole joined a Dhahran party making a five-day trip to Qaryat al-Fau, a region of rock-inscriptions 600 miles to the southwest and less than a hundred miles from the borders of Yemen. It was twice as far as our investigations had been planned to range, but then we were only archeologists— the Dhahran party were members of Exploration Department on holiday.

And I was in Buraimi for a week.

I got back to Dhahran to find the party returned from 'Uqair, and prepared to move out next day to the south, to Yabrin. And it was then, 12 hours before we were to move off, that the completely unexpected discovery broke, the discovery which—without knowing what it was to be—we nevertheless had to be flexible enough to meet. A note was awaiting me from one of the most enthusiastic of the pot-pickers. Was I interested in a site with flint arrowheads and painted pottery?

The finds were spread out on the table when I arrived 10 minutes later. A score of barbed and tanged arrowheads and as many other flint implements, knives and scrapers and awls. Half a dozen obsidian blades. And about 200 potsherds, of a thin, greenish-yellow ware decorated with geometric patterns in dark-brown paint. I was speechless, for this was beyond our dreams, and I suddenly knew what the lowest level at Tarut was, with its nondescript yellowish shard and its three pieces of worked flint. The discoverer was looking anxiously at me, afraid that I would shrug my shoulders and say "Islamic." I stammered out, "But ... but this is Ubaid."

Somewhere round about 5000 B.C. the first agricultural settlers moved into the waste of swamps along the lower valley of the Tigris and the Euphrates, the region which was to be Sumer, and later still Babylonia. And these first Stone Age settlers made pottery of a greenish-yellow clay decorated with geometric designs in dark-brown paint. Where they came from no one knows, perhaps from the south, perhaps from the east. During a thousand years or so they gradually tamed lower Mesopotamia and their pottery spread to the already settled regions of north Mesopotamia and even into Syria. Their culture is called Al-Ubaid, and the nearest settlement of the Ubaid culture to Dhahran, and the earliest of them all at that, was at Eridu, 400 miles away to the north. And now it lay here, in Arabia.

I sat down to think it all out, and to hear about the site. It was a surface site, I learned, a low hill among the sand dunes a quarter of a mile from the coast, about 60 miles north of Dhahran. I knew that stretch of coast. Here, as to the south, whence we had just come, there was a large area of sabkha between the land and the sea, and a strip of low sandy hills fencing the sabkha off from the sea. It must have been a string of islands, I thought, six and seven thousand years ago, when the sabkha was sea. There were no traces of buildings, my informant went on, but there were pieces of plaster showing a smooth face on one side and the impress of bound bundles of reeds on the other. I was shown half a dozen pieces, clear proof of the type of houses of these Stone Age Arabians, and akin to the clay plastering with impress of reeds which had been found on other Ubaid sites. But the largest piece had more to tell. Its smooth side was encrusted with barnacles. "Yes," said the finder, "I found that on the lowest edge of the site."

A fortnight later, when we visited the site, Ole surveyed the height of the spot where the plaster was found. It lay four meters above high-water mark. It was positive proof that the land had risen in relation to the sea.

All this was of paramount importance. It was the biggest new thing that had come out of Arabia since we had found the Copper Age culture of Abu Dhabi. It cried aloud for immediate investigation. But we were after all not flexible enough. We could not break our schedule. We were packed and provisioned for Yabrin. The bobtails, two of them this time, had set off the day before, and they had no radios. They could not be recalled.

We set off the following morning—a hundred miles by road to the oasis of Hofuf, and then 250 miles on a compass course through the dunes and across the endless gravel plains; a night rolled in blankets beside the trucks, and then on for another 50 miles through steep, eroded hills. This was a journey which even Exploration took somewhat seriously, though Yabrin was to them but a way-halt on the route to the Rub' al-Khali.

Yabrin was our shot-in-the-dark. It is a large oasis, uninhabited except for occasional summer visits by the Murrah tribe, and air photographs showed a large number of tumuli on the hills around. This far inland—for Yabrin is over 300 miles from the coast—the tumuli could hardly be of our Early Dilmun culture, unless Dilmun was something very different from the coastal civilization which we believed it to be. So they might be anything.

We had planned to spend a fortnight at Yabrin, but we cut it down to 10 days, days of fierce heat, with a dust-storm which blew up regularly at noon each day, scourging our faces, clogging our nostrils, and threatening to tear the tents out of the ground. We learned to start work at six, as soon as it was light, and to begin the long drive back to camp as soon as the yellow clouds appeared on the southern horizon soon after 11.

The tumuli were there all right, in their thousands on every hilltop. And down in the scrub of the oasis we found a string of larger mounds, with long chambers of immense stones, the largest chamber 46 feet in length. These mounds were too large for our little party to tackle, with the nearest available workmen 200 miles away. But we opened a half-dozen of the smaller hilltop cairns. They were elaborately built of unshaped stones, conical with a rectangular slab-lined chamber in the center.

And they had been thoroughly plundered. Five were completely empty, and the sixth contained only a scatter of bones and one overlooked bronze spearhead. There was not a single potsherd, a circumstance so odd that one is tempted to believe that the moundbuilders, like indeed the Bedouins of today, used little or no pottery. The spearhead was our only indication of date, and its form, with socket and square shoulders, suggested the middle of the Second Millennium B.C.

In the mornings, then, we dug our mounds, or collected flint arrowheads on the rich Late Palaeolithic site a stone's throw from the large mounds in the valley. In the afternoons, as the canvas of our tents buffeted in the sand-driving wind, our thoughts were, as often as not, 6,000 years in the past. The Fifth Millennium B.C. must, with due reservation, be the date of the Ubaid site on the coast. And it changed all our conceptions of the history of the Gulf. Had civilization reached the Gulf from the north after all, and not from the east? Or had the Ubaid culture originated in east Arabia and spread from there to Mesopotamia? Was there some basis for the old Sumerian legend of the fish-man who had brought agriculture to Mesopotamia from the Arabian Gulf? Whatever the answer, one thing was clear. Civilization was over a thousand years older in the Gulf lands than we had believed, and somehow that thousand years of history had to be filled.

It was tantalizing to know that there was one place, and one place only, where the missing centuries could be investigated. The tell of Tarut had Ubaid ware in its lowest, and Dilmun ware in its uppermost strata. In between would lie the tale of how the one developed into the other. And Tarut was still as impossible to dig as ever.

Geoffrey Bibby has been associated with the Prehistoric Museum in Aarhus, Denmark, since 1950. Other books, also published by Knopf, are Testimony of the Spade and Four Thousand Years

This article appeared on pages 24-29 of the January/February 1970 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1970 images.