Learning about life from death: Discoveries from the Dilmun graves

Ancient trading links that connected Bahrain and Arabia to the ancient world come alive in a new exhibition in Sharjah.

Plaster/Gypsum painted-Burial Stele- Shakhoura Tylos, 1st cent BC / 1st cent AD. (Courtesy-Sharjah Museums Department) FOR Rym Ghazal story
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In the funerary rituals of death we can sometimes learn more about a past culture and its traditions than from the objects that survive from their daily lives.

Take the ancient graves of Bahrain, home to the powerful Dilmun civilisation that controlled Arabian Gulf trading routes for many centuries and known to the ancient Greeks as Tylos.

Here, figurines of “wailing women” or mourners were found buried with the deceased. Dating from the middle Tylos period, or first century BC, is one such figurine, 26 centimetres high and six centimetres wide. It is crudely made of plaster, painted like a doll, and with an expressive face and colourful dress that captures the fashions of the time.

Like other figurines discovered, she is dressed in a long chiton pulled in at the waist, hands clinging to her long dark hair in a gesture of profound lament. Other grave goods feature a dishevelled female figure with the mourner pulling her hair.

The meticulous care given to the deceased and the variety of items buried with them reveal that past civilisations often believed in renewed life after death and put strong emphasis on it.

In addition to the female figurines, many types of pottery were buried along with the dead, as well as precious adornments such as fine jewellery, a trend reflected in Hellenistic cultures.

One magnificent piece that has survived is a pair of earrings with rattles, found in Bahrain’s Shakhura Necropolis, and made between the end of the second century BC and the first century AD, or the Early and Middle Tyros period. They feature the theme of Eros riding a goat, popular in the Hellenistic world from the third century BC onwards. Exceptionally crafted out of gold and precious stones, the details of the design show the meticulous care taken over its creation – from the fur of the goat to the wings of Eros.

In other graves, rings with elaborate designs have been found. One gold ring comes with a cameo depicting a male head with a band around his forehead. It was found in a woman’s grave and is more than 2,000 years old.

These exceptional objects are among 150 significant artefacts selected from the Bahrain National Museum’s permanent collection and now on show at the Sharjah Archaeology Museum as Ancient Bahrain: The Power of Trade. The aim of the exhibition is to highlight the importance of the ancient Dilmun civilisation and its links to UAE history.

“The port [Bahrain] was a dynamic marketplace, right on the crossroads of the ancient maritime trading routes that linked the Near East with the Indian subcontinent,” says Nasir Al Darmaki, Sharjah Archaeology Museum curator.

“The items have been chosen to give visitors a unique insight into what that marketplace was like between the second millennium BC and the third century AD.”

The exhibition, a collaboration between Sharjah Museums Department and the Ministry of Culture in Bahrain, is a dual celebration, where Bahrain is the Capital of Asian Tourism 2014, and Sharjah, the Islamic Culture Capital 2014.

“Together, the two countries have a rich history of cultural exchange over the centuries. Archaeological discoveries have confirmed that the two nations have been in contact for millennia,” says Mr Al Darmaki.

The exhibition is divided into four main sections. The first sets the scene and is called Dilmun and Tylos: Centuries of Enterprise and Prosperity. The second looks at Dilmun, under the title Warehouse of the Gulf in the Bronze and Iron Ages (2000-500BC), while the third examines Tylos as Crossroads of an International Trade (200BC-300AD). Finally, and broadening the context of the exhibition, is Beyond Trade Influences: A Unique Insular Culture.

“Excavations in Sharjah, and throughout the UAE, have revealed a number of artefacts that are clearly Dilmun imports. These items were clearly prized, and often show signs of reuse that highlights their local value,” says Mr Al Darmaki.

“The main examples were recovered at the Tell Abraq site, on the western coastal plain of the UAE. Several objects found there were clearly imported from Bahrain, including several specimens of the famous Dilmun burial jar and an ivory Arabian stamp seal. Equally symbolic of the trading relationship that brought Bahraini influences to the UAE is a chlorite stamp seal, found at Jebel Buhais in Sharjah. These show how exchange between the two nations was so central to life even hundreds of years ago.”

Many of the other objects on display have their own stories to tell. They include steatite stamps, intricate seals with reversed grooved ornaments and animal motifs, finely worked pottery, glass, alabaster containers, ivory objects and gold artefacts.

A significant number of funerary limestone steles, or slabs, discovered on the island reflect an obvious desire by the inhabitants of the time for self-presentation, either placed near the grave or gathered in a small enclosure within the graveyard.

In the Early Tylos period, a simple anthropomorphic stele known as a “nephesh” (breath in Aramaic) featured a simple human shape that evoked the soul of the deceased.

Over time, the nephesh steles gave way to more elaborate humanised figures of both sexes, with full faces, in praying postures, the right hand raised and palm facing forward. One such burial stele on display features a limestone figure of an elegantly dressed woman in this posture, with her ring and jewellery clearly carved into the design.

In the grave of an adolescent female is a figurine toy made of bone. In other graves, glass perfume flask bottles, cosmetic cases and conical spindle whorls made of elephant or hippopotamus ivory were buried – fascinating glimpses into the day-to-day lives of women more than two millennia ago.

Dilmun played a pivotal role in international trade and became wealthy as a result. It was constantly mentioned in ancient official and economic Mesopotamian texts in relation to the importation of raw materials, mainly copper. What that copper must have looked like can also be seen in ingots dating back 3,000 years. Their shape was formed when the molten metal collected at the bottom of the ovens, with the copper then exported from the mining areas in Magan – probably the Oman Peninsula to Sumer in what is now southern Iraq via Bahrain.

One other interesting aspect of the exhibition is what is largely lacking from the display. “There are two spearheads that are particularly unusual, as generally the people of Dilmun were focused on trade not conflict, so such weaponry is rare,” says Mr Al Darmaki. “One of the most wonderful aspects of this exhibition is that it enables people to find their own particular favourite items.”


Ancient Bahrain: The Power of Trade at the Sharjah Archaeology Museum runs until the 29th of March 2015. Adult fee Dh5, children free, open Saturday to Thursday: 8:00am — 8:00pm, Friday: 4:00pm — 8:00pm. Closed Sunday

For more information, call 971-6-566-5466 or +971 6 5566002 or visit www.sharjahmuseums.ae