The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
GULF IN ANTIQUITY
By: Daniel T. Potts
The Persian Gulf (24°-30°30′N, 48°-56°30′E) is a shallow, epi-continental sea approximately 1,000 km long and 200-350 km wide, narrowing to about 60 km across at the Straits of Hormuz (Hormoz). Depths average only 35 m (max. ca. 100 m), and a rate of 37-40% salinity is considered high.
During the last glacial
maximum (c. 70,000-17,000 BP) when worldwide sea-levels were up to 120 m lower
than at present, the bed of the Persian Gulf was a valley floor through which
the combined waters of the Tigris, Euphrates and Karun (Kārun) ran as a single
river draining into the Straits of Hormuz. With the onset of the Flandrian
Transgression about 17,000 BP, sea-levels in the Gulf valley began to rise and
by 7000 BP a sea-level comparable to that of the present day was reached (Lambeck,
1996, p. 49). Although sea-levels have fluctuated slightly since that time (Sanlaville
et al., 1987), the main point of relevance with regard to understanding the
archaeology of the surrounding landmasses is that any site of the Palaeolithic,
Epipalaeolithic or Neolithic along the ancient ‘Tigris-Euphrates-Karun to
Hormuz’ river which may have been in what was then southernmost Iran or
eastern Arabia were submerged by the rising sea-levels of the late Pleistocene
and early Holocene (Teller et al., 2000). Consequently, it would be unusual,
except on highly elevated ground, to find any prehistoric remains pre-dating the
Chalcolithic, but this is in fact the case.
To date, no Neolithic remains have been found anywhere along the Persian Gulf coast of Iran. The earliest archaeological remains yet identified on the coast of Iran consist of sherds of Mesopotamian Ubaid (‘Obayd) 1-2 (Eridu, Haji Muhammad) type picked up by M. E. Prickett and A. Williamson on the surface of Halilah (Ḥalila), a prehistoric site on the Bushehr (Bušehr) peninsula (Oates, 2004, p. 92). These may be roughly dated to about 5500-5000 BCE (cf. Porada et al., 1992, p. 92).
On the Arabian coast, dozens of sites in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and modern states of Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), characterized by bifacial, finely pressure-flaked arrowheads, belong to the so-called Arabian bifacial tradition (Uerpmann, 1992). Because of the presence of domesticated sheep and goat on those sites which have been excavated, this tradition is considered ‘Neolithic’ (Kallweit, 2003), even though there is no evidence of domesticated plant use and the societies who left these remains are probably best understood as herders who engaged in some hunting (hence the preponderance of arrowheads) to supplement their source of protein, conserving their herds for the exploitation of their secondary products (milk, cheese, hair/fleece), as opposed to hunter-gatherers. The earliest dates for this complex come from some of the offshore islands of Abu Dhabi and cluster in the period between ca. 5300-5800 BCE (Shepherd Popescu, 2003, Table 1). As the east Arabian littoral is well outside the natural habitat of either sheep or goat both species must have been introduced into the area, most probably from the aceramic Neolithic communities of the southern Levant (Uerpmann, Uerpmann and Jasim, 2000). Marine resources (shellfish, fish, dugong, etc), of course, were extremely important to the diet of the inhabitants of the Arabian coast (Shepherd Popescu, 2003; Beech, 2).
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