You are here

Mortuary and Bioarchaeological Perspectives on Bronze Age Arabia

April 2020 (124.2)

Book Review

Mortuary and Bioarchaeological Perspectives on Bronze Age Arabia

Edited by Kimberly D. Williams and Lesley A. Gregoricka. Gainesville: University of Florida Press 2019. Pp. xii + 256. $100. ISBN 978-1-68340-079-0 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Mortuary and Bioarchaeological Perspectives on Bronze Age Arabia is rooted in two symposia: “Mortuary Perspectives from Outside the Levant,” held at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research in San Diego, and “Archaeology, Death, and Change in Ancient Arabia,” held at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Austin. These symposia were undertaken to assess the state of mortuary archaeology and bioarchaeology in Arabia and to seek ways forward through novel methodologies and broader theorization of cultural developments and interactions within the region.

The papers seek to develop robust integrations of mortuary and bioarchaeological research within peninsular Arabian contexts, a region that has arguably been overshadowed by more prominent archaeological investigations in neighboring Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. Historically, southeast Arabia has often been framed as a transitional zone, where cultural transactions were influenced by adjacent regions but within which consideration of cultural developments have been infrequently theorized by comparison.

Archaeological investigations of southeastern Arabia only began relatively recently, with the work of Geoffrey Bibby and Peter Vilhelm Glob on Dilmun in the 1950s broadly seen as initiating the field. From the outset, the reader of this volume is made aware that poor preservation, reuse of monuments over extended periods of time, and mortuary traditions involving communal burials present substantial challenges to bioarchaeological investigations in the region. Yet, the papers show by example that all is not lost. The adoption of more recently developed methods (e.g., isotopic analyses) coupled with broader survey coverage have helped mitigate the wider challenges of preservation and communal use. It is clear, however, that challenges remain, as Richard Thorburn and colleagues (ch. 3) illustrate when they note that between 1959 and 2014 approximately 141 prehistoric burials were excavated in Qatar, of which only eight were undisturbed.

Research from Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates is well represented in this volume, while research from Yemen and Saudi Arabia is noticeably absent. In the case of Yemen, substantial Bronze Age mortuary archaeological research exists elsewhere, while the absence of research from Saudi Arabia may reflect the relatively nascent development of Bronze Age bioarchaeological investigations within the kingdom—though Thorburn et al. do note the work of Bibby at sites around Yabrin Oasis, suggesting future potential for research in this area. Temporally, the contributed chapters focus on questions situated within the Hafit (ca. 3200–2700 BCE), Umm an-Nar (ca. 2700–2000 BCE), and Wadi Suq (ca. 2000–1300 BCE) periods, with the majority of chapters focusing on the Hafit and Umm an-Nar periods.

Though each chapter presents an individualized case study, the overarching focus of the volume is found in the challenges and limitations of integrating mortuary and bioarcheological data to create wider-ranging syntheses and deeper regional discourses for southeastern Arabia. Beyond seeking to address nuances in the mortuary traditions of the region, the volume also shows a route forward for examining the lived experiences of individuals through skeletal analyses, an area of focus that has traditionally been hindered by poor preservation and comingled remains.

In terms of presentation, this volume is divided into two parts: part 1, “Mortuary Transitions,” focuses on material cultural and structural remains of mortuary complexes; part 2, “Evidence from the Bones,” focuses on associated skeletal remains, both faunal and human. The case studies presented are widely variable in their foci, including trait-based structural evolution of tomb styles, issues of group identity, the use of isotopes, and assessments of ideologies of masculinity in early Dilmun, among other topics.

There are two studies of note that advance the discourse on southeast Arabian mortuary archaeology and bioarchaeology. The first is the presentation of radiocarbon data for transitional-style tombs by Williams and Gregoricka (ch. 4), and the second, by Gregoricka (ch. 10) focuses on the use of oxygen (δ18O), strontium (87Sr/86Sr), and carbon (δ13C) isotope analyses to assess potential instances of mobility and dietary changes on Umm an-Nar island. Though but two examples, these contributions present approaches that can be instrumental in surmounting challenges of preservation, reuse, and comingled remains, providing a path forward for looking at nuanced variations and transitions in mortuary practices and the lived experiences of individuals in Bronze Age southeastern Arabia.

On a broader level, the papers argue for moving away from a “type site” approach in southeast Arabian archaeology. While standard type site paradigms (e.g., Umm an-Nar) are used, the authors suggest that it is time to interrogate more deeply the extant models of cultural transition and to seek syntheses in the positioning of cultural developments of southeastern Arabia within the context of the broader region.

In many ways, the volume can be seen as developing ideas from Death and Burial in Arabia and Beyond: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (L. Weeks, ed., BAR-IS 2107, Oxford 2010), with a more specific focus on the Bronze Age. While the volume is accessible to a large readership, the case study approach of the chapters will have the greatest impact on researchers working in southeastern Arabia; in particular, the chapters provide a substantial amount of raw data that will be of use for their comparative value. This volume is not intended as a comprehensive overview of the state of mortuary studies and bioarchaeology in the region but rather a series of case studies that examine specific regional challenges and advancements with a view toward future improvements in method and theory. It will be a welcome addition to archaeological libraries and is highly recommended for researchers interested in Bronze Age developments in southeastern Arabia.

Robert James Stark
Archaeological Research Associates Ltd.

Book Review of Mortuary and Bioarchaeological Perspectives on Bronze Age Arabia, Edited by Kimberly D. Williams and Lesley A. Gregoricka
Reviewed by Robert James Stark
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 2 (April 2020)
Published online
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1242.Stark


Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.