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Qatar's Archeology

The Discovery of Qatar's Past

by Fran Gillespie, local author and coordinator of the Qatar Archaeology Project. Also see The Ubaid in Qatar by the same author.

Archaeology came late to Qatar. Until the beginning of the oil era seven decades ago, the population was small and heavily dependent on pearl fishing and animal herding. There was no one with the time or interest to be curious about who had lived here long ago in the 'time of ignorance', before the revelation of Islam, and few westerners had visited Qatar.

Excavation of Bronze Age and Neolithic site at Ras Abrouq 2008
Copyright © David Gillespie

Bahrain, with its thousands of prehistoric burial mounds and its great ruined Portuguese fort, had attracted the attention of amateur archaeologists as long ago as the 19th century. Men like Colonel F B Prideaux and Captain E L Durand, who was the pioneer of Gulf archaeology, tunnelled their way into some of the mounds and make careful records of what they found.

By comparison, Qatar seemed poor archaeological territory, a barren and inhospitable peninsula, scoured by the wind, with little vegetation and few natural springs to encourage settlement. But soon after the first oil income began to flow into the country Ron Cochrane, a Scotsman who was the commandant of the Qatar police force, suggested to the members of a Danish archaeological expedition excavating in Bahrain that they should come over to Qatar and take a look around.

Accordingly the British archaeologist Geoffrey Bibby and the Danish director of the expedition, PV Glob, came over in a Qatar Petroleum Company launch. This was in 1956, and no sooner had they landed on the shores of Zekrit Bay and travelled northwards by car than they began to come across burial mounds and quantities of Stone Age tools.

Neolithic arrowheads recovered near Dukhan by the Danish expedition.For 10 years, beginning in 1956, the Danes mounted a small annual expedition to Qatar, surveying and mapping and identifying innumerable flint sites. They excavated several burial mounds on the Abrouq peninsula, as yet undated. Holger Kapel sorted the stone tools into 4 categories, which he labelled A to D, and published a book, The Stone Age Cultures of Qatar, which is still used as a standard reference work. However, he believed, based on the knowledge of Arabian archaeology at the time, that the cultures ranged from the Middle Paleolithic down to the Neolithic. Later archaelogists revised this and it is now generally accepted that all the stone tools date from the Neolithic period.

In 1973 the British archaeologist Beatrice de Cardi arrived in Qatar. The government of Qatar was setting up the National Museum and had approached the British Museum for assistance in organising an archaeological expedition, and de Cardi was appointed as director.

'The archaeology of Qatar at that time was almost a total blank,' she said. 'There was a gap extending from the Stone Age to the Oil Age: how might this be filled? I had just ten weeks to recover as much evidence as possible of Qatar's past. In the ten weeks we carried out eight excavations and three regional surveys!'

The most important discovery made by de Cardi and her team in Qatar was the discovery of 'Ubaid pottery from the 5th millenium BC, named after a site in Mesopotamia dug by Woolley in the 1930s. At Al-Da'asa on the west coast several shards of the 'Ubaid painted greenish-buff ware were found, along with a small collection of stone and coral domestic tools, including a quern and graters. These had been carefully stashed, presumably by someone who intended to return and use them but never did so.

The finding of the Ubaid pottery indicated that the people living in Qatar had formed trading links with other regions far longer ago than was once thought possible.

Three years later saw the first of the French archaeological missions in Qatar, led by Prof Jacques Tixier. Over a number of years the French mission excavated sites of different dates all over Qatar, including the oldest habitation yet discovered, a fisherman's dwelling on an ancient shoreline at Al Shagra in south Qatar which dated to 6000 BC.

The French also excavated at Murwab, a large settlement on NW Qatar, some 5km from the nearest coast, which is the oldest Islamic site in the country. It has the remains of around 600 houses, two mosques and two small forts, one on top of the other, dating to the 8th to 9th centuries.

In 1981-3 the French mission excavated two sites on a small island in the bay of Al Khor. One proved to date to the Bronze Age period around 2000 BC when a trading civilisation known as Dilmun, which was centred in Bahrain, flourished along the eastern coast of the Arabian Gulf. Near the site were circular stone-lined pits containing fragments of oyster shells which were carbon dated to 1400 AD.

Caption: Murwab:Abbasid period [8th-9th centuries AD] house with plaster.
Copyright © Fran Gillespie

Another site excavated on the island proved to date from the Kassite period c. 1400 BC. Among the remains of small stone buildings were mounds containing thousands of crushed shells of a sea snail, Thais savignyi, which releases a brilliant scarlet dye. This dye was immensely valuable and was used by the royal family and nobles of Babylonia for their robes. The dye-production site is, so far, the only one of this period outside the Mediterranean and pre-dates the more famous sites in Lebanon.

Many residents and visitors to Qatar are intrigued by the petroglyphic sites on coast Jebel stretching at intervals from Al Wakra on the east coast around the top of the peninsula to Al Fraiha in the north-west. These feature many pictures of boats, the earliest of which may date to the Neolithic period, and also cupmarks in various configurations, runnels to collect water, and cisterns. The best-known site is at Jebel al Jassasiya. It was surveyed and drawn in 1974 by Holger Kapel's son Hans and in 1984 Prof DF Hawkins, a consultant working at Hamad Hospital, made a careful study of carvings at Jebel al Fraiha.

A small team from Rikkyo University in Japan arrived to excavate in 1990/91, having made a previous survey in 1988. They worked at a large complex of burial sites at Umm al-Mar on the north-west coast of Qatar, excavating burial mounds containing crouched burials which appeared to date from the Iron Age. This year a team from Munich University have returned to the site and excavated another dozen or so mounds.

In 2000 a British team from the University of Birmingham were invited to excavate on the small island at Al Khor where the French had dug some 20 years previously. The archaeologists re-excavated the Dilmun period site, and on the other side of the island they excavated the remains of a circular hut with a central post hole. Unexpectedly they came across a pre-Islamic burial underneath the floor of the hut which appeared to have been placed there after the hut was abandoned.

More recent excavations in Qatar have included three seasons by the Department of Antiquities [2002-5] at the 17th - 20th century AD trading and pearling city at Al Zubara, including a 19th century fort at Al Fraiha just north of the city. Earlier excavation of the city by the Department had taken place in the first half of the 1980s.

In 2007 a series of structures of different periods were excavated along the shores of Al Khor bay by a team based at the University of Lyons, in an area scheduled for rapid development. Also last year a British team excavated a late Islamic settlement at Al Khor.

A small jar containing beads, excavated 2005.
Copyright © Fran Gillespie

This year, after an absence of 43 years, the Danes are back! A small team from Moesgard Museum in Jutland is working in the oasis at Ras Abrouq, finding pottery from the Bronze Age and the Neolithic 'Ubaid period. They have also carried out a new survey of the small peninsula and discovered some 80 previously unrecorded sites.

What of the future? Recent Paleolithic finds in the UAE have caused archaeologists to wonder if in fact Qatar's archaeology dates back further than the Neolithic after all. Surveys looking for earlier remains are now ongoing.

The recent opening of the RC church was a reminder that Nestorian Christians lived in Qatar long before the Revelation of Islam, but although the name of the bishop who was here in the 7th century is known, plus the names of the delegates who attended a council meeting in 671, no trace of a church building has ever been found. Maybe one day...who knows.

Frances Gillespie has contributed to several publications related to Qatar, is the author of Discovering Qatar and also writes regular feature articles for a national newspaper on the cultural heritage and natural history of the country. She is a former chairperson of the Qatar Natural History Group, and is still active on the committee.