The Ubaid Period in Qatar
IMPORTED NEOLITHIC POTTERY IN QATAR: THE 'UBAID.
Also see: The Archeology of Qatar by Frances Gillespie
The Peninsula of Qatar lies at the centre of one of the most interesting archaeological discoveries of the last 50 years: the presence of coastal sites at which prehistoric painted pottery identical with that of southern Mesopotamia has been found. The pottery is known as Ubaid, after the site near Ur in Iraq where it was first identified in the 1920s.
The Ubaid period dates from the late 6th millennium to around 4200 BC, and in it are found the forerunners of the world's earliest cities and the origins of writing. Ubaid pottery represents the most widely disseminated example of related cultural material anywhere in the ancient world. Not until the days of the imperialism of the 16th and 17th centuries AD has a single material culture spread so far. This is the period in Mesopotamia when the first temples were built and the size of settlements began to increase. It was the beginning of the literate urban culture known as the Sumerian civilisation.
Expeditions and Discoveries
When examples of this distinctive painted pottery were first discovered in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia in 1968, archaeologists began to search for comparable material in other regions in the Arabian Gulf, in particular Qatar and Bahrain. The first survey to be carried out in Qatar was by the noted British archaeologist Beatrice de Cardi in 1973-4, who found two sites with early painted pottery along the west coast at Ras Abaruk and Al Da'asa. This pottery was identified and published by Dr Joan Oates of Cambridge University in the UK, who had made a specialised study of this type of pottery in southern Mesopotamia.
The French mission to Qatar in 1978 identified a further Ubaid site at Al Khor on the east coast. More recently, a few Ubaid potsherds have been identified on the islands of Dalma and Merawah in the Emirates. There is also one Ubaid site known on the Iranian side of the Gulf, on the Bushire peninsula.
The most recent find of an 'Ubaid site in Qatar was in March 2008, when a small team of Danish archaeologists, together with staff from the Qatar Museums Authority, were excavating a site beside the group of tall date palms which form a conspicuous landmark at the oasis at Ras Abrouq on the west coast.
In 1973 Beatrice de Cardi's team had dug three trial trenches on the site and uncovered fragments of distinctive Barbar-ware: red, ridged pottery from the Bronze Age period of the 3rd millennium BC.
The Danish-Qatari team excavated down to the Dilmun period occupation, uncovering what appeared to be a stone structure. They found not only pottery but the oldest pearl ever discovered in Qatar. They then went deeper, digging through an apparently sterile layer of silt. Beneath this they came across the distinctive shards of 'Ubaid pottery. There are plans to continue excavations at the site.
The country also has one of the world's least known repositories of prehistoric art and inscriptions. Scattered along the mountains of the Hijaz to the fringes of the Empty Quarter significant finds are still being reported and surveyed with encouraging signs of more open scholarship, research and debate on what was until recently a topic that was largely shunned and bypassed.
Origins and History
'Ubaid pottery appears to have been brought from Mesopotamia, almost certainly by sea as almost all the sites where it has been found are coastal. Some archaeologists suggest that the sites provide evidence for the earliest known international trade; others believe that they represent sailors and fishermen from Mesopotamia travelling along the Gulf coast to exploit local resources such as pearls or particular types of fish. There is speculation as to the types of seafaring vessels in use at the time. At an Ubaid site in Kuwait recent excavations have uncovered the remains of bundled reeds coated with bitumen, a technique still in use for the construction of reed boats.
Many of the 5th millennium sites now lie inland, along the edges of sabkha which represent earlier lagoons or sea inlets, which suggests a rise in sea level in the later Ubaid period. This wetter period seems to have been followed by a drier phase.
Extensive work has been carried out in Qatar by the Danish, British and French expeditions in studying the local flint tool industries, which still forms the basis of archaeological work on the Neolithic period in the Gulf. All the evidence so far discovered points to a highly developed, complex society in Qatar and the Emirates at that time. The economy was based on fishing, the herding of sheep, goats and cattle, hunting and the gathering of wild food. Date palms are known to have been present in the Gulf then, as date stones have recently been found at an Ubaid related site on Dalma island just east of Qatar. The distribution pattern of the sites suggests that most of the year was spent inland where fresh water springs and grazing was available. The winters and early spring would have been spent on the coastal sites, fishing and gathering shellfish.
Together with the painted Ubaid pottery, locally-made coarse reddish pottery also occurs. The poor quality of the pot reflects the lack of good local clays suitable for potting, and also the fact that the Mesopotamian visitors' were presumably fishermen and boatmen rather than potters. The imported fine-quality Ubaid pottery seems to consist largely of cups and plates, suggesting it was only intended for personal use.
The sites in Qatar appear to mark the eastern mainland limit of the genuinely Ubaid sites. For some reason not yet understood, contact with Mesopotamia seems to have ceased at the end of the Ubaid period. The whole area of research is one of the most challenging in Near Eastern prehistory. It is an area where Qatar has played an important role in the past, and where there remains considerable scope for further investigation. There is still much to learn about this period which was the background for the growth of the world's earliest complex society.
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