Gift of the Gulf

The Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Kuwait, under the auspices of H.E. Grzegorz Olszak, the Ambassador of Poland, held a press conference on Monday, 9 December, 2013 at the embassy, to shed more light on the results and findings of the current archaeological excavations in Northern Kuwait carried out by the Kuwaiti – Polish archaeological team during the season 2013.Professor Piotr Bielinski, Head of the Kuwaiti – Polish Archeological Mission to Northern Kuwait, (KPAM) in the presence of H.E. Dr. Shehab A. Shehab, Assistant Secretary General of the National Council or Culture, Arts and Letters, (NCCAL) gave a highly absorbing and persuasive presentation on their current excavations at Bahra 1 in As-Sabbiya area of Kuwait, including their findings, conclusions and theories regarding the earliest inhabitants on land that eventually became the State of Kuwait.

The ongoing cooperation between the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw, and NCCAL began in 2007 with the investigation of tumuli, or mounds of earth raised over ancient graves, in the As-Sabbiya area, followed by survey and excavation projects of tumuli and desert wells in Northern Kuwait. KPAM began excavating the Bahra 1 settlement in 2009.

Various archaeological excavations conducted over the years by KPAM have established beyond doubt the major role played by settlements in Kuwait and other littoral states along the Arabian Gulf in the spread of human civilization more than 7,000 years ago. Archeological relics discovered in the area by KPAM has provided documented evidence required to establish a record of historical development in the region stretching back to the turn of the 5th millennium BCE. The site of Bahra 1, which has been excavated since 2009 by KPAM, is a settlement that can be linked to the prehistoric Ubaid Period of Mesopotamia, which flourished from around 6500BCE to 3800BCE.

The Ubaid Period derives its name from early excavations conducted around a mound (tell) in al-Ubaid, west of the present town of Ur in southern Iraq. The Ubaid culture at its height extended from Mesopotamia along a narrow crescent stretching the length of the Arabian Gulf coast all the way to eastern Oman. The Ubaid Period is considered by many to be the birth-place of civilization, when nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers began to coalesce and form permanent settlements marked by agriculture, irrigation, animal husbandry, specialized crafts and strong spatial relations through trade with the outside world.

The Period is also characterized, among others, by a unique material culture represented by distinctively painted pottery with decorative patterns and shapes, remnants of which have been found all along the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. The excavations at Bahra 1, which is the largest and longest continued permanent settlements of Ubaid culture unearthed so far, along with more than 60 other similar sites along the Arabian Gulf coast, point to a mixed material culture that combined elements characteristic of Arabian Neolithic with that of Mesopotamian Ubaid.

Contextual analysis of the settlement also help substantiate theories that the spread of Ubaid culture was exemplified by the development of local communities that assimilated and transformed elements of Ubaid material culture into distinct indigenous forms. The Bahra settlement is in close proximity to another Ubaid Period site in As-Sabbiya known as H3, which has been excavated by a British team. The H3, which lies along the coast, is a well-stratified artifact-rich site of the Arabian Neolithic period that very likely had contact with the Bahra settlement. The remnants of a reed boat at H3, dating back to between 5300 and 4900 BCE, points to the presence of a sea-faring community that built sailing vessels to trade up and down the Shatt-el-Arab and further down the Arabian Gulf thereby supporting the theory that the Bahra settlement played an important role in the proliferation of Ubaid culture in the region.

Bahra 1, which is located on the south-eastern slope of a small hill, around 7km inland from the present coastline, has continued to surprise the KPAM team, throwing up one surprise after another, during each season of work. The sheer size and complexity of the settlement, which covers an area of over 5,000sqm and extends for a length of around 170 meters and a width of over 30 meters, has recently revealed that there are dense architectural remains spread across the whole area.

The settlement excavated so far reveals a community of 80 to 100 people living in eight or more multi-room houses laid out in a linear, tripartite plan.

The fact that some of the houses were rebuilt at least twice surmises that the settlement also had quite an extended lifespan. The houses, most probably reed-thatched and in some cases with stone paved floors all had a high-level of architectural sophistication, including high thresholds to prevent animals and storm water from entering and sturdy walls made by placing together large and small stones without the use of any mortar. The discovery of a workshop with a fireplace and an open roof, probably to prevent the fire lapping the reed roof, as well as the fact that it was situated afar from the other residences, speak of higher level of community evolution.

The workshop for crafting shell jewelry, as evidenced by the large number of discarded beads, halffinished products and specially crafted chipped stone tools such as flint borers, identify the Bahra settlement as a specialized production center for tubular shell beads. The shell jewelry were most likely used to trade for goods the community needed, including the distinctly decorated, kilnfired pottery of Ubaid culture, several remnants of which were found at the settlement.

The importance of high threshold for the houses was made abundantly clear when the sudden and torrential rains that occurred in Kuwait in November of this year, destroyed our trenches and damaged the newly uncovered structures. The devastation that the rains unleashed on us probably had the same affect on the Bahra settlement community more than 7,000 years ago, said Prof. Bielinski. He concluded by saying that the settlement at Bahra and other excavations elsewhere in the country and the region could be called the Gift of the Gulf to civilization.

For his part Dr. Shehab thanked the Ambassador and the embassy of Poland for hosting the press conference that helped in revealing a small part of the history not just of Kuwait but of mankind and civilization. He said that the NCCAL was racing against time to protect and preserve this unique history by securing archeological sites in the area before they become engulfed in the modern development plans that the government has for the region, including the establishment of the Silk City.

The take-away from the hour-long presentation by Prof. Bielinski was that although the early history of the Arabian Gulf was largely conjectural, archeological excavations such as the one at Bahra settlement, and elsewhere in Kuwait by KPAM was helping to pry open the mysteries of history, one page at a time.