The subject of this year’s prestigious Beatrice de Cardi lectures, held at the Society of Antiquaries of London, was the archaeological discoveries over the past 22 years in Bahrain.
In 2001, professor Timothy Insoll, with the support of the Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Bahrain, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, established the Anglo-Bahraini Early Islamic Bahrain Project to understand how Islam travelled across the country that, as an island nation, was a stepping stone between the Arabian peninsula and Persia and East Asia.
“The state of archaeology in Bahrain has always been very good, but the Islamic period was neglected,” says Insoll, the Al-Qasimi professor of African and Islamic Archaeology at the University of Exeter, who delivered the lecture.
“I think it was in part to do with the fact that people think [Islam] is what we are now – so why is it important archaeologically?”
Islam was also not a preferred subject of study for most European or American teams, who tended to excavate periods they perceived more of a connection to such as early Christianity or Greco-Roman sites – whether in Bahrain or other locations across the Islamic world, such as Afghanistan.
Insoll and his teams worked to fill in these missing gaps to try to understand what happened from around 7th to 11th centuries when the inhabitants of Bahrain converted to Islam, largely from Christianity.
In 2001, they began work on the site of Bilad Al Qadeem, the island's capital during the Abbasid period, in the 9th-10th centuries, and an Islamic settlement occupied until the 15th century. Excavations at the palace there divulged information about what kinds of food the inhabitants then ate, how they kept and stored water and even the environment.
The presence of mollusks showed that ground was wetter and danker than the current desert. That might have brought with it its own complications – such as the spread of parasites, which Insoll and his team theorise came along trade routes. The large mangrove trees that were used to support the palace at Bilad Al Qadeem, as for other houses of the time, were imported from Madagascar and East Africa, and the diseases might have come with these beams on the ship.
In 2017 Bahrain opened a small museum at the Al Khamis mosque to display the archaeology Insoll and his colleagues found, including the extraordinary funerary monuments with their finely carved calligraphy attesting to the men and women buried there.
In Hamad Town, in the north-east of the island, the Exeter team will soon open a small park with 200-year-old irrigation channels, integrating archaeology for the first time into the recreational grounds.
Insoll also identified a number of changes over the past two decades of working in the Gulf – most notably, an expansion of who has been involved in the field.
Previously “it was all foreigners, parachuting [into the Gulf] and doing their monthly fieldwork, and then publishing in journals like these,” he says, gesturing at the leather-bound volumes in the Society of Antiquaries’ library. “Archaeology wasn't engaging with the local population or building capacity among local students. And this has been a change throughout the Gulf – and now in Saudi with Vision 2030.”
Insoll’s team now includes Salman Almahari of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities – the first Bahraini to achieve a PhD in archaeology.
They also discovered another site showing the fertile crossover of religions in Bahrain, such as Samaheej, a Nestorian Christian dwelling from the 7th century. Found on the isle of Muharraq, just off the coast of the country, signs in the site heavily suggest Christian habitation, such as the outline of a fish etched into one of the walls and ceramics bearing the sign of the cross.
Local Bahrainis helped the archeologists identify some of the food sources, such as the fish that were very similar to those of the present day.
“The notion of partnership is extremely important, and that's pushing archaeology to the next level,” says Insoll. “We are now integrating the local voice – people saying I remember this site 50 years ago, this is what was here then. Why don’t you go and excavate here, or I understand this type of structure or material – like the madbasa, a room that was used for fermenting dates.
“The world is changing, and archaeology should reflect that. And archaeology is a lot richer for it.”