Home Excavations at H3  Site Location Sponsors Staff Pages Introduction Bibliography

Archaeological Background


H3 was occupied at a pivotal point in the history of humankind. Agriculture had long been mastered in the Middle East, and some of the settlements which eventually grew into the great cities of the Sumerian civilization were now founded in Southern Mesopotamia. Urban, literate societies did not emerge until well over a millennium later, but the foundations were laid during this time, known as the Ubaid Period. Although people were settled in villages along the great rivers of Mesopotamia, the Tigris and Euphrates, members of these communities travelled far in search of new lands and natural resources. Some went north, ultimately following the river systems into modern Syria. Others went downstream, towards the south, where they encountered the Neolithic herders of the Arabian Peninsula. Along the shores of the Arabian Gulf, the two societies met.

Two societies were therefore involved at the site: the Mesopotamian Ubaid and the Arabian Neolithic. Both had very different life-styles, economies and material cultures.

Mesopotamia in the Ubaid Period

Map by R. CarterThe Ubaid Period occurred in Mesopotamia between about 6000 BC or earlier, and 3800 BC. It is now subdivided into six different chronological phases, which can be distinguished by differences in the pottery. The pottery of H3 resembles that of the Ubaid 2 and 3 periods and dates to the Early Ubaid 3.

Farming was an important activity in Mesopotamia, though stock-keeping of sheep/goat and cattle was also significant. The people lived in villages and built temples and houses out of mud-brick, with square rooms and courtyards. They made distinctive and delicate plain and painted pottery. Their tools were made of stone, fashioned from blades of flint or obsidian.

Because of the Tigris and Euphrates, South Mesopotamia possessed abundant fresh water. It was not rich in other essential resources, however, such as stone and wood. These deficiencies may be one of the factors that encouraged its inhabitants to explore beyond their original boundaries.

The Arabian Neolithic

In the Arabian Peninsula, the contemporary cultural horizon is known as the Arabian Neolithic. There is no evidence that farming was practised in the Arabian Gulf region at this time, and a herding way of life had developed to suit the harsh conditions (Uerpmann and Uerpmann 1996). The people were probably nomadic or semi-nomadic, and the lifestyle may have been similar to that of the bedouin of recent times. Important differences are that cattle as well as sheep/goat were herded, and that the camel had not yet been domesticated. Fishing was also very important, as was gathering shellfish for eating. Hunting supplemented the diet. Building remains of this period are scarce, probably because tents and other temporary structures are more suited to a mobile lifestyle. In this respect H3, with its stone buildings, is an unusual site. Arabian Neolithic sites frequently survive only as scatters of flint, or as extensive shell mounds on the coast.

Painted pottery was not made by the Arabian Neolithic people, though coarse red ware may have been manufactured by them in the Central Gulf region. The stone tools of the Arabian Neolithic are different from the Ubaid material, tending to be made from shorter flakes which have been chipped on both sides. This local tool-kit is called the Arabian Bifacial Tradition.

The Arabian-Ubaid Interaction

Map adapted by R. Carter. Original by Joan OatesDuring the 6th and 5th millennium BC the peoples of Ubaid Mesopotamia and the Arabian Neolithic met and interacted. This was first realised during the 1960's and 1970's, when numerous sites were identified in the Central Gulf region which contained pottery in the Ubaid style.

These were mostly coastal, and were mainly found in the northeastern province of Saudi Arabia, though sites were also identified in Bahrain and Qatar. The majority were small and ephemeral, but a handful were large, with deep deposits and abundant pottery.

Abdullah Masry studied these sites (Masry 1974), and excavated three of the most promising ones (Abu Khamis, Dosariyah and Ain Qannas). Excavations also occurred at smaller Ubaid sites in Bahrain and Qatar (Roaf 1976; de Cardi 1978).

Masry concluded that this part of Arabia had enjoyed a close and integral relationship with Southern Mesopotamia. More controversially, he suggested that the Mesopotamian and Ubaid-related Arabian sites should be regarded as part of the same social and economic system, and that the origins of Mesopotamian civilization lie as much in the Arabian Peninsula as in Mesopotamia. Meanwhile, Joan Oates and her collaborators proved through petrographic and compositional analysis that the Ubaid-style painted pottery from the Gulf states originated in Southern Mesopotamia (Oates et al. 1977). She had a simpler explanation than Masry, suggesting that Ubaid visitors travelled down the Gulf in search of fish and perhaps pearls, trading their pottery with local communities along the way.

Much of the traded material may not show up in the archaeological record, such as perishable goods (textiles, leather, certain foodstuffs), or indeed water. Some intangible elements may also have been exchanged, such as fishing rights and the right to pass through a territory.

Although finished goods, raw materials and foodstuffs were certainly exchanged to mutual benefit, it is not known whether the exchange of goods formed a significant part of the material economy of our site, or the economy of the broader sphere of interaction. Some of the exchange may have been of a symbolic nature, rather than being motivated by need or profit. Such mechanisms might have included ritual gift exchange between groups, or marriage alliances. Much remains to be learned about the motives behind the process.

Current Research

Since the 1970's, sites with small amounts of Ubaid pottery have been found further and further east, along the coast of the United Arab Emirates as far as Ra's al-Khaimah, and on certain islands in the Gulf. Recent excavations at Dalma have revealed postholes showing circular house structures, Ubaid pottery, plentiful fish remains and ancient date stones (Beech et al. 2000). There is evidence that the inhabitants of Dalma attempted to imitate Ubaid pottery using local materials, in this case, painted plaster.

At H3, the isolation of the site is such that a considerable depth of deposits and structures survive and are well preserved. Through specialist studies of the structures, faunal remains, lithics, shell, bitumen and pottery, we are beginning to understand the complexities of the Arabian-Ubaid interaction. We hope to learn whether the site was seasonally occupied, and if so, at what time of year it was visited, by whom, and for what reasons. For detailed information, see our preliminary reports and other publications (Carter et al. 1999; Carter and Crawford 2001; Carter and Crawford 2002; Carter and Crawford 2003; Carter 2002).


Home Excavations at H3 Site Location Sponsors Staff Pages Introduction Bibliography