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The Early Dilmun Settlement at Saar

The Early Dilmun Settlement at Saar

Edited by Robert Killick and Jane Moon. Pp. xii + 367, figs. 461, tables 27. Archaeology International, Ludlow 2005. £75. ISBN 0-953-95611-3 (cloth).

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The small island of Bahrain has been the focus of intensive archaeological research since the pioneering work of Danish archaeologists in the 1950s. Most work focused on ascertaining patterns of trade among Mesopotamia, Bahrain, southeastern Arabia, and south Asia. This is particularly important in the late third and early second millennium B.C.E. when Bahrain (ancient Dilmun) operated as an entrepôt in these mercantile endeavors.

The benefits of this trade must be understood alongside the adaptive strategies practiced by Bahrain’s inhabitants, which allowed them to flourish in a relatively inhospitable environment. This key issue of how societal reproduction was achieved should be central to all archaeological research, but relevant evidence is rarely available, and even when it is, the patience, skill, and multidisciplinary research necessary to excavate and interpret the data properly are not always available or forthcoming.

Killick and Moon’s report on the Bronze Age settlement at Saar represents the fruition of such an effort. It is an exemplary piece of research and a polished and well-presented publication that, to this reviewer’s mind, has few parallels in any publication dealing with a prehistoric Near Eastern domestic settlement.

There are 12 chapters in the volume that deal with the stratigraphy, plans, and artifacts of all types from the settlement. In each chapter, dozens of full-color photographs and beautifully presented color images detail the nature of the cultural deposits, the artifacts, and their distribution. So, in chapter 3, we move from an analysis of the architecture of each domestic block to individual buildings within the block, and then to rooms within each individual building. For each, there is a detailed description of access routes, minor architectural details, storage areas, and cooking facilities. Links between each block of buildings are examined through careful sections that detail the micro- and macrostratigraphy. Photographs accompany each section and provide multiple angles of most rooms and facilities. This section concludes with chapter 4, which discusses form and function across the settlement as a whole.

Chapters 5 to 9 are concerned with artifacts. The provenience of each artifact is given so that its position in the preceding architectural discussions can be ascertained. A rich variety of artifacts is described, including bronze weapons and tools, stone utensils, beads, softstone lids, and vessels. Nearly all are illustrated with a fine line drawing or a color photograph. Chapters 6 and 7 discuss the many ceramics. Chapter 6, authored by Carter, uses a typological approach to structure the ceramic data toward a functional analysis of space throughout the settlement.

In chapter 8, Margarethe and Hans-Peter Uerpmann present the archaeozoological remains. Specific attention is given to the distribution of animal remains within each of three analyzed buildings. Rooms within these buildings were excavated in arbitrary divisions. This permitted the analysis of intraroom variation in fish vs. mammal consumption but also revealed, through analysis of trampling and breakage patterns, which areas within each room were more commonly used as thoroughfares. Compositional analysis of bronze objects is the focus of chapter 9, by Weeks and Collerson. This chapter includes lead isotope analysis of several bronze objects that allows the authors to conclude: “societies of the central and southern Gulf were part of the same Bronze Age exchange system, which allowed access to the same range of metal sources” (319). Two chapters on microstratigraphy and geology complete the presentation of data.

The volume concludes with a chapter by Killick and Moon on social and economic organization at Saar. Here they discuss population size and density, activity patterning, and social life based on the previously presented data. Some might consider this chapter a disappointment. After the mass of data presented in the previous chapters, a punchier conclusion might have been expected. I suspect there are good reasons for this.

The first, I believe, is technological: the excavation began before Geographic Information Systems (GIS) were commonplace in archaeology. If ever an archaeological site cried out for the application of multivariable spatial analysis, it is Saar. That is not done in this volume. This may be because the data could not be used within such a system or, perhaps, because Killick and Moon believe that the data speak for themselves through a careful reading of each chapter. In any case, an undergraduate student of mine will soon find herself embarking on just such an analysis. Few publications provide the necessary detail; this is one.

The second reason why the conclusions seem restrained potentially illuminates what is unique about ancient Arabian society. A research project that focuses on a prehistoric settlement and which takes careful note of artifactual provenience and room function ultimately aims to explore issues of behavioral, functional, and status differentiation. However, throughout the careful analysis of artifacts and architecture in each chapter, a recurrent theme is emphasized. There is, in fact, very little variation. This must not be considered a negative conclusion but rather should be seen as a tantalizing glimpse of a social and economic order that stands in contrast to the hierarchical, structured societies that are believed to have existed throughout the Bronze Age Near East. It is, I believe, a potential indication of a society that did not emulate or copy the political structures found among the powerful neighbors with whom they traded. This review is not the place to develop this idea further; suffice it to say that research such as the Saar excavation is accordingly of great significance in our understanding of past lifeways, and this book is a landmark contribution to ancient settlement studies. The careful and detailed analysis of Saar’s archaeological record holds the potential to challenge the application of archaeological models that have explained much but that also have blurred what is unique and important about ancient human behavior.

Peter Magee
Department of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology
Bryn Mawr College
101 North Merion Avenue
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania 19010-2899

Book Review of The Early Dilmun Settlement at Saar, edited by Robert Killick and Jane Moon

Reviewed by Peter Magee

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 112, No. 4 (October 2008)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1124.Magee

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