The island of Bahrain is a natural focus for trade. It lies at the intersection of routes from southern Mesopotamia, eastern Arabia, Oman and the north-west of the Indian subcontinent. To the early Sumerians, it was Dilmun, the exotic land in the midst of the sea, and in several texts it is linked with the places known as Magan, an important source of copper, and Meluhha.
Magan may well be the Oman peninsula, and it is likely that Meluhha was the Mesopotamian name for the city states of the Indus Valley. The profusion of burial mounds on the island, combined with the Sumerian belief that the place was a form of paradise, led to the theory that ancient Bahrain was simply a place to be seen dead in. But it was not a mere Isle of the Blest, as Harriet Crawford shows in her readable and wide-ranging survey. For there is now evidence for settlement on Bahrain dating back to the fifth millennium bc.
Crawford shows that there was never any need to import corpses from abroad to account for these cemetery sites. She also shows that the Mesopotamian vision of Bahrain as a watery paradise was a direct product of lack of knowledge, and that the picture became more sober as trade links with the north began to flourish.
The climate of Dilmun 4,000 years ago was probably similar to that of Bahrain today. In such a region, the inhabitants soon become expert at managing the ecology and saving the meagre water supply.
The name Dilmun is as mirage-like as historical accounts of the place. It may have been a vague name for anything in the sea south of Mesopotamia and the confluence of its two rivers. Then it may have attached itself to a variety of areas as they became better known: parts of eastern Arabia, the island of Failaka opposite modern Kuwait, perhaps even sites on the coast of Iran.
One problem facing students of this area is the lack of written material. There are a few cuneiform inscriptions, the most informative of which found its way to London, but was thought to have been destroyed in the Blitz. There are some seals inscribed with the Indus Valley script, but these have yet to be deciphered. It is not even known whether the people of Dilmun had their own writing system.
Crawford's survey is pioneering. There have been few excavations in the area, and there is no way of telling whether a site is typical of the region. But the evidence of the cemeteries suggests an unstratified society.
Temples proliferate - one containing what may have been a sacred well - and the stonework was impressive. The names of two of the gods, Inzak and Meskilak, do not seem Semitic, but we still do not know who the people of Dilmun were. In another generation we may know more. If we do, it will be because of surveys like this.
John Ray is reader in Egyptology, University of Cambridge.
Dilmun and its Gulf Neighbours
Author - Harriet Crawford
ISBN - 0 521 58348 9 and 58679 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00 and £15.95
Pages - 170