Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.03.02

Rachel Maclean, Timothy Insoll, An Archaeological Guide to Bahrain.   Oxford:  Archaeopress, 2011.  Pp. 162.  ISBN 9781905739363.  £13.99.  



Reviewed by Peter Magee, Bryn Mawr College (pmagee@brynmawr.edu)

The islands that comprise the modern country of Bahrain have been a source of interest to archaeologists for most of the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1950s, intensive excavation and survey by Danish archaeologists, led by P.V. Glob, led to the uncovering of extensive remains at a number of sites in the north and central part of the main island. Dozens of scholarly articles and books have reported on and debated the significance of these discoveries, and today active research still continues at numerous sites across the country. The book under review is, as the title suggests, a guidebook to these sites. It is geared less towards the scholarly community and more towards residents and visitors to Bahrain who wish to explore the antiquity and history of the country.

The book comprises seven chapters, the first of which provides a solid yet accessible introduction to the geography of Bahrain. Non-specialists who visit Bahrain (and other Gulf states) will have one of their most common questions answered: ‘Where did they get their water?’ as MacLean and Insoll quickly pass over clichéd descriptions of the desert environment to emphasize that several fresh water springs fed by aquifers in the Arabian peninsula rise to the surface on the island. The introductory chapter concludes with a brief outline of Bahrain’s main archaeological periods which adopts the now common system of Early, Middle, Late Dilmun for the prehistoric periods and then a sequence into the Islamic period and ending with the rule of the al-Khalifa beginning in 1783.

Subsequent chapters each deal with a specific archaeological site. It is not surprising that the first to be discussed in Chapter 2 is Qala’at al-Bahrain. After a brief description of the history of research at this site, the authors provide a detailed description of how this city was organized from c. 2100 BC until the establishment of the Portuguese fort that now dominates the site. The descriptions draw upon the wealth of archaeological data published on this site and, where possible, incorporate archaeozoological and archaeobotanical evidence so as to fill out the image of how people lived 4000 years ago. Subsequent chapters employ a similar approach to the early second millennium BC Barbar Temple, The Burial Mounds, Saar, al-Khamis Mosque and the so-called ‘Tree of Life’.

For each of these sites, the authors provide detailed maps and color and black and white photos of the excavations and finds. It is particularly pleasing to see the inclusion of many archival images of the Danish archaeologists excavating and resting after a long day (Figure 2.03). In their portrayal of dress and, it must be said, techniques (Cf. Fig 4.05 of P.V. Glob excavating inside a burial mound with a smoking pipe in mouth!). These images provide a link to a period only 40 years ago when Bahrain and the practice of archaeology was vastly different.. An outstanding aspect of each of these chapters is detailed instructions on how to visit the sites today.

There is no publication to which this book can be compared. Of course, detailed scholarly studies such as Potts’ Arabian Gulf in Antiquity (OUP 1991) form the cornerstone for any scholarly foray into Gulf archaeology, but these are aimed a different audience than MacLean and Insoll’s book. In some ways, their book sits along the Blue Guides which once accompanied those tourists who wanted to understand the history and culture of their destination beyond that offered by tourist brochures. It is, however, more than that and presents an accessible yet scholarly rigorous overview of the island of Bahrain from the Bronze Age onwards.

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