Debris left by former inhabitants of Qatar, now under investigation by a team of archaeologists, ranges from stone age pottery to Pepsi bottles!
German archaeologists working in Qatar are carrying out a thorough survey of south Qatar, a region that has been curiously neglected over the years. Thousands of archaeological sites have been recorded in the north, with many excavated, but the stony deserts of southern Qatar have remained relatively unexplored.
Now a team from the German Archaeological Institute, working alongside staff from Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), aims to change this.
Talking to an audience of archaeologists and QMA staff on Thursday evening, Dr Christoph Gerber, director of the team, reported on the South Qatar Survey Project that began towards the end of 2012 and has continued in the first two months of this year. Funding for this important work has been provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Qatar and by private institutions.
Besides conducting tests to determine ancient sea levels, the archaeologists have been investigating areas surrounding abandoned wells, now long gone dry, as these wells may have been in use for many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years and ancient settlements could lie beneath the surface.
Another area of investigation is the roads that cross central and southern Qatar. These were only given hard surfaces in the 1950s, and beneath many of them may lie ancient routes once traversed by camel caravans, with small settlements at intervals beside them.
Locations recorded so far include an early Neolithic site near Al Asaila fort with a very specific type of knapped flint tool that has intriguing counterparts in the Levant, and areas where fragments of ancient painted pottery from Mesopotamia have been found.
Qatar lacks deposits of clay suitable for the manufacture of pottery, so from the very earliest times this had to be imported. The fine painted pottery is known as ‘Ubaid, after a village near Ur in ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) where it was first identified in the 1920s.
‘Ubaid pottery dates from the late 6th millennium to around 4200 BCE, and represents the most widely disseminated example of related cultural material anywhere in the ancient world. 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, whose influence spread far and wide.
‘Ubaid pottery was first identified in Qatar, on western coastal sites, in the early 1970s and since then more and more sites have been located, including those most recently recorded by the South Qatar Survey on the far south-western coast. One site featured not only the typical painted potsherds but also a shell midden, along with finely-made tanged arrowheads and D-shaped scrapers of black flint. The team has also investigated a number of rawdhats: areas of slight depression scattered across the plains, where enough moisture collects to sustain the growth of trees and plants.
Many of these feature temporary mosques made by nomads and later campers, some no more than a simple outline in stones of the qibla walls, others more elaborate. Some of these may be many centuries old, said Dr Gerber.
It was in one of the rawdhats that the archaeologists came across evidence of more recent campers, in the form of coins dating to the 1970s, a Pepsi bottle sherd and even a platform shoe of the type that was in fashion at that time!
A quick bit of research on the design of Pepsi bottles, which are updated regularly by the company, confirmed that the sherd was contemporary with the coins and the footwear.
On a more serious note, Dr Gerber expressed grave concern over conditions at Umm Al Houl, a ruined fishing village dating to the 1890s, on the coast south of Al Wakra.
It lies within the area where massive excavations are taking place for the new port, and although a wall has been constructed to protect the ruins a leak has allowed water to flood the site, most likely causing irreversible damage to what lies beneath the ground. The flooding has happened within the last few days, and urgent action is needed if this historic village is to be saved.