Home Dilmun to Dublin Tour Diary Saudi Arabia Retracing some famous footsteps
Retracing some famous footsteps
Written by Claire Reeler   
Sunday, 08 February 2009 13:48
The Friendship Tour team at Tarut Fort


In the early 1960s Geoffrey Bibby and the Danish archaeologists from Moesgaard Museum working in Bahrain were able to get permission to visit the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia on the invitation of workers from Aramco. In 1968 they got permission to conduct some more extensive survey and excavation on the exciting sites that they had discovered during their preliminary explorations. Following in their footsteps, the Friendship Tour team crossed the causeway into Saudi Arabia with the early morning commuter traffic and headed to the island of Tarut, just north of Dammam.

Tarut is joined to the mainland by a short causeway and we were able to admire the flamingos feeding in the shallows. It is a very important site for the region with long connections through history and prehistory to Bahrain. Tarut was closely linked both in terms of population and trading activities with Bahrain throughout the last few thousand years. We know this from many historical accounts, but the enormous antiquity of these links was demonstrated by the Danish archaeologists from Moesgaard Museum, when they found Dilmun pottery in their excavations below Tarut Fort.

We visited the fort, which has some resemblance, on a much smaller scale, to Qalat al Bahrain, and saw for ourselves the reddish sherds of Barbar pottery so distinctive of the Dilmun material in Bahrain. The Dilmun pottery seems to be associated with beautifully cut blocks of limestone masonry, strikingly similar to the masonry from Dilmun sites on Bahrain. These fragments hint at exciting finds that still await archaeologists in the levels under Tarut Fort. Even more exciting is the fact that the Dilmun material is situated in a level of the tell still high above the ground level, implying that several thousand years of as yet undiscovered material still lie underneath.

Archaeologists Nabiel Al Shaikh and Claire Reeler


When the Danish team visited the sites in the 1960s they were very restricted in their access to the site, because of the presence of a women's bathing facility centred around the spring, which was the reason for the settlement. However, these baths are no longer used and we were fortunate enough to be accompanied by Nabiel Al Shaikh from Dammam Museum, who gave us full access to the site, which is not open to the public. He guided us around the fort and showed us the place where the Danes from Moesgaard Museum excavated and the Dilmun material they found.

Leaving Tarut, we headed west across the desert, again following in the tracks of Bibby and the Danes, towards the site of Thaj, a journey of about 150 km inland. On the way we stopped to admire some friendly camels and have a look at some of the burial mounds which surround the area of Thaj. Some of these burial mounds bear a very close resemblance to the Dilmun burial mounds on Bahrain, again suggesting ancient links that could bear further investigation. The Danes were drawn to the village of Thaj, lying at the edge of a salt flat or sabkha, by reports of inscriptions in South Arabian script. This was the alphabet developed in Yemen during the first millennium BC and strongly associated with the trade in aromatics such as frankincense and myrhh, which were carried by merchants across Arabia in camel caravans, heading for the markets of Europe and the East.

The Danes found the ruins of a walled city of substantial size situated on the edge of the sabkha. 4 m thick, finely cut stone walls with watchtowers at each corner surround the city, which contains a carefully planned network of streets, fine stone buildings and houses. Clearly this was an important city,containing something that needed to be very well guarded. In their excavations, the team from Moesgaard Museum discovered Attic pottery from Greece, firmly dating the site to the Hellenistic period immediately after Alexander the Great. They also found incense burners, suggesting that Thaj did indeed lie on the incense trade routes and perhaps the fortifications were to protect these valuable products and the wealth generated by their trade.

Nabiel Al Shaikh once again gained us access into the fenced enclosure of Thaj, so that we could marvel at the remains of city walls and actually walk the ancient streets. We were able to cast our minds back in time and see not the small, dusty settlement surrounded by desert of today, but a bustling thriving marketplace and busy city, thronged with people from across the Ancient World, trading their valuable wares. The streets would have rung with the sounds of not only early Arabic languages, but the languages of ancient Yemen and Greece, and the air would have been filled with the smells of the exotic spices and incense.

Ancient Greek historians talked about a fabled city of exotic wealth in far off Arabia. The inhabitants of this city of Gerrha were said to be as wealthy as the Sabaeans of Yemen, where the incense trade originated. Their houses contained "ivory and gold and silver set with precious stones" according to Strabo, the Greek historian of the early centuries AD. For many years people have wondered where this "Lost City" of Arabia might be found. Archaeologists began to speculate that it might be Thaj.

Then in 1999, working through the long hot days of summer to clear a burial mound for development, Nabiel and the team from Dammam Museum found a stone walled burial chamber. The capstone was broken and they assumed that, like most other burial mounds, this one had been robbed in antiquity. However, as they dug deeper, suddenly a gold burial mask in the Greek style, like the famous "mask of Agamemnon" appeared in the ground.

They began to clear away the dirt surrounding the mask and slowly uncovered the bones of a young girl, perhaps 11 years old. Besides the mask she had strips of gold placed across her head, a golden glove on one hand and necklaces, bracelets and rings of gold set with precious stones. She was surrounded by thin gold foils bearing embossed pictures of Zeus and Greek goddesses. These would probably have been stiched to the shroud in which she had been wrapped. She was carefully laid on a funerary bed, decorated with bronze dolphins in the Greek style. The legs of this bed were miniature female figures, dressed in Greek clothes.

The sheer wealth of Hellenistic material in this grave bears out the descriptions by the Greek historians. Here at last was evidence that Thaj was indeed the fabled "Lost City"of Gerrha. As we stood at the top of this burial mound, looking out over the salt flats of the sabkha, the descriptions of the inhabitants of Gerrha in their houses which flaked with salt, suddenly made complete sense. We were in fact standing in a long forgotten city about which rumours and stories had circulated through Ancient Greece. Turning once again to the report of the Danish team, we discovered that they had also discovered pottery in the style of that from Failaka in Kuwait at Thaj. So we were standing, not a in distant part of the Arabian desert, but in a long forgotten city, with strong trade connections to Yemen, Kuwait, and even Greece.

Our visit to Saudi Arabia re-emphasised the strong links through history within the Gulf. Bahrain is linked to Tarut in Saudi Arabia and Failaka in Kuwait. Thaj in Saudi Arabia is linked to Failaka and we now know that Thaj pottery has been found in Bahrain too. And, like Bahrain,Thaj was also connected with the Greek world during the Hellenistic period. Thaj also tied the Gulf into the incense trade with Yemen, which was so important at that time.

As the sun set behind us, we like the Danes before us, returned to Bahrain, completing an ancient route of long-held connections.

Site of the Danish excavations below the Dilmun wall at the foot of Tarut fort