Don's Diary: Excavations in Bahrain

January 18, 2002

Saturday
The start of the working week in Bahrain and the final one of excavation as my research leave, and with it my grand-sounding post of archaeological adviser to the crown prince of Bahrain, is coming to an end.

As is perhaps inevitable as the end approaches, we make exciting discoveries - three early Islamic gold dinars, the first such coins found in Bahrain. We also discover a large collection of pottery, of such quality and variety that it is as if someone's prize collection of 8th and 9th-century pots has been deliberately broken and deposited.

The find of the gold dinars has caused a stir, and I am congratulated by the archaeology superintendent. I also reward our labourers who found the coins, and the local paper arrives to document the find. In the evening I hand the coins over to the museum and feel relieved that I am no longer responsible for them.

Sunday
Time off from digging to wet-sieve soil samples. Two of my students from Manchester are completing this for me. At about midday, my note-taking in the site hut is interrupted by an ashen-faced sieving supervisor who has just disturbed several black scorpions by emptying a considerable amount of water from the settling tanks onto the rocks where they have been hiding. Fortunately, he was not stung and the scorpions have moved elsewhere.

Besides one or two inevitable mishaps, the students have been a positive asset to the project. Good-natured, hardy (enduring working temperatures of 45C and 90 per cent humidity), and they are quick to learn, they have made the scale of digging possible. Are these really the same students to be found (or not) in a 9am Monday morning lecture?

Monday
No excitements of an archaeological kind or scares of an arachnid kind either. Myself, my wife and our three-year-old daughter are invited to a Bahraini colleague's house this evening to celebrate Gergoan , a festival in which children go from house to house collecting small gifts of money and sweets, similar, but with no direct parallels to Halloween.

I have an excellent meal in all male company, while my wife and daughter are somewhere else in the bowels of the house being similarly well-entertained.

Tuesday
I spend the morning arranging visas for myself and some of my team to visit the archaeological museum in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. This is a difficult country to visit, more so because of the situation in Afghanistan - but the visas duly arrive, thanks to the ever-efficient crown prince's court.

In the afternoon the team go for a boat trip from a nearby Shi'ah village, ostensibly to collect reference specimens of shells and fish, which can be dried and cleaned and compared with our archaeological material, but also to relax.

I am amazed by the number of fish traps, elaborate reed funnels set in the seabed, which are still in use. At sunset we also see the dhows leaving for a night of fishing. It is still an impressive site as they head out, though they are powered by large truck diesel engines rather than sails, and some, though in the traditional shape, are made of fibreglass rather than wood. The march of progress I suppose.

Saturday
The past three days have been fruitful ones. Wednesday was spent drawing up plans of our finished excavations and Thursday and Friday were spent cataloguing our finds.

Today we leave for Saudi Arabia, and apart from an anxious half-hour wait in a layby beside the immigration booth midway on the causeway that links Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, we have a memorable day trip.

The museum collections provide parallels for my Bahraini pottery, the sun shines (it always does) and we visit the fortress on Tarut Island, a site I have read about and finally get to visit. Oh well, back to the rain in Manchester...

Timothy Insoll is a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Manchester. As well as his work in Bahrain, he has also been excavating in Timbuktu and is the author of The Archaeology of Islam , (Blackwell 1999).

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