Our goal is to investigate the now flooded Persian Gulf Valley as the prior homeland of the Ubaid who pioneered southern Mesopotamia. This week, we check 9 more boxes, adding Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar to our list of Ubaid excavation sites in the Persian Gulf littoral. Below, we reveal what we learned to support these additions, and how you can confirm it in two documents we searched.
Map showing Ubaid excavations on Persian Gulf Littoral. Source.
Topical search of Beyond the Ubaid (Stein et al, Oriental Institute). The following is a summary regarding today’s topic and is constructed by patching together snippets and paraphrases from diverse articles in the free PDF book Beyond the Ubaid which we have been consulting a lot lately.
There are sufficient quantities of Ubaid ceramic shard sites along the west side of the Persian Gulf littoral that conventional wisdom hypothesizes the ceramics were shipped there, either overland or by sea. The use of this black-on-buff Ubaid ceramics among the pastoral nomadic communities of the Gulf littoral might be very different from that in the sedentary farming societies in southern Mesopotamia i.e. might be considered prestige goods by nomads whereas not in southern Mesopotamia. But, such pottery might be displayed by Ubaid as a marker of their membership in a group that shares an ideology. In this latter case, it would be noticeable to others more by its absence than presence. The extent of such hypothesized long-distance ceramic exchange is difficult to assess, and some think that black-on-buff ceramics were not likely to be traded at all (not fine ware such as from Arpachiyah), except perhaps for their contents e.g. pots containing seed or wine.
Recently at site H3 in Kuwait, bitumen-painted reed hull fragments and a model of a boat were found, along with Ubaid artifacts. Some of the hull fragments are impressed with reeds on one side and barnacles attached to the other side. The barnacles substantiate the idea that the fragments are from a seagoing boat, which might be a coastal fishing boat or coastal freighter.
The Ubaid sites around the western Gulf littoral, in the maps above and below, are identified primarily by Ubaid ceramic shards. The long-standing hypothesis is that this crockery was manufactured in Mesopotamia and transported by sea to the places where it was found. The boats used were constructed from bundles of bound reeds and waterproofed by hot bitumen on the exterior. Sailors with experience in boating would find long-range, routine shipping over open water in such craft to be doubtful, at best. Some archaeologists now agree. Who in their right mind would do this? If I knew there was a market, I could move more and probably faster overland with wagons.
Across the Ubaid “interaction sphere,” the array of pottery and other artifacts is generally uniform from Syria to the Arabian littoral, and thins out to solely crockery at the periphery. Where more than crockery is present, some suggest there is little chance of these being trade goods, and their presence suggests Ubaid had moved there, thus casting aside a widespread concern that it was too difficult for people to move with their goods at that time. The presence of labrets and small ear spools are present at most Ubaid sites down to the Persian Gulf, and as markers of Ubaid personal identity denote the physical presence of Ubaid.
Despite my predilections, we must keep in mind that there is a strong preference for regional terminologies among those who want to restrict the term “Ubaid” to a material horizon and not recognize an Ubaid people group. Given the breadth and depth of the material horizon, I think this presumption is counter-intuitive, and arises mainly because admission of a Ubaid people group gainsays a lot of entrenched opinions, filing systems, philosophies, and archaeological literature.
Finally, let’s not forget there have been various hypotheses about the origin of the settlers of the Mesopotamian alluvial plain – the so-called “Sumerian question.” Popular hypotheses have included the steppes of northern Syria, the mountain ranges east of Mesopotamia, and possibly the coast of the Persian Gulf south of Mesopotamia. Archaeologist V. Gordon Childe hypothesized a common origin in the Gulf region for prehistoric cultures with painted pottery, specifically the Ubaid. “The core question that lies at the heart of the issue, namely, what processes account for the dramatic dispersal of Ubaid material culture has yet to be adequately explained.”
Reiterating, I hypothesize the Ubaid were forced from the Persian Gulf Valley as the sea level rose.
Ubaid excavation sites in the Persian Gulf littoral. Source.
Topical Search of Excavations and Ubaid-Period Boat Remains at H3, As-Sabiyah (Kuwait). Robert Carter, BAR International Series 1826 (2008). Dr. Carter begins this free PDF paper by noting there are now around 40 Ubaid sites in the Arabian littoral. We present his map below which shows many of them. This paper addresses a key element in claims that Ubaid navigated the Gulf.
Carter focuses on his site H3 in Kuwait, where he excavated what looks to be a facility for building and maintaining boats constructed with tied bundles of reeds which were sheathed with slathered bitumen. As a one-time shipbuilder who never built a reed boat, I hypothesize bitumen was heated in a ceramic clay pot (not mother’s best) and brushed on the exterior of the hull until the voids were filled. The thicker the better, but bitumen certainly wasn’t cheap to acquire unless you located your shop next to a tar pit – and I’ve never seen a tar pit closer to an ocean than the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, which are 10 miles from Santa Monica on the ocean.
The H3 excavation uncovered an 11 chamber building. Part was open dividing walls, and part was a corbeled enclosure that probably supported a domed roof. There was a fire pit likened to an Ubaid style. The mention of an Ubaid fire pit reminded me of the Harappan fire pits, but there was nothing more about the fire pit in this paper. The fire pit was calibrated by carbon-14 to 5511-5324 B.C. which Carter identifies as Ubaid 1.
80 percent of the pottery shards at the site were Mesopotamian Ubaid ware, both plain and painted. The other 20 percent was composed of cream red or brown ware and are believed to have come from the central Gulf region. I wouldn’t be surprised to find them firing their own red clay pots for heating bitumen into tar. The Ubaid pottery is comparable to Ubaid 2/3 from Mesopotamia. These were mainly bowls with flaring rims, but also large storage jars. Some of the bowls were so large and delicate that they ruled out land-based transport (implying seaborne).
They also found tools and personal ornaments, including ceramic nails, labrets, spindle whorls, and pierced ceramic discs, which bespeak Ubaid onsite.
Carter found a boat model fashioned from coarse red ware which is pictured below. It is similar to boat models found in the Eridu and Al-Ubaid excavations. It probably represents a reed boat, like the one in the picture of Eridu harbor shown in the prior post 76. The model’s flat bottom is anomalous and was likely rounded, for flat with sharp edges is structurally more difficult to produce in reed bundles, and flat bottoms are less stable–especially in rough water.
6 inch ceramic boat model from site H3. Source: Carter op cit.
The 35 barnacle encrusted and/or reed-impressed bitumen fragments spread over the area speak to salt-water boats. The figure below shows some of these that had reed impressions on one side and barnacles on the other.
Bitumen artifacts showing impression of reeds and crust of barnacles. Carter op cit.
Food remains at the site were primarily fish, but also included hunted gazelle, caprids, and bovines. This protein diet indicates not only Ubaid occupied the site, but also hunter-gatherer pastoralists.
That’s enough for this post. Next week we’ll resume our search for more evidence that the Ubaid dominated the Persian Gulf littoral as the sea level rose.
Thanks for visiting,
R. E. J. Burke