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A new Bactrian find from southeastern Arabia.

A new and handsome find, a decorated bone comb from Tell Abraq in the United Arab Emirates dated about 2100--2000 BC, provides another link between eastern Arabia and the distant Bactrian lands.

The site and context

The purpose of this short note is to report the discovery, on 11 February 1993, of a decorated bone comb (TA 1649) in a context datable to c. 2100--2000 BC at the site of Tell Abraq, emirate of Umm al-Qaiwain, United Arab Emirates. Tell Abraq (FIGURE 1), the largest prehistoric site on the southern coast of the Arabian Gulf, is the only multi-period site in southeastern Arabia with a continuous sequence of occupation extending from the middle of the 3rd to the middle of the 1st millennium BC (Potts 1990; 1991; 1993). The early settlement at the site was dominated by a fortification tower made of stone and mudbrick, 40 m in diameter and 8 m high. Fortifications of this sort, of which the Tell Abraq exemplar is the largest found to date, are well-known features at sites in the Oman peninsula dating to the so-called Umm an-Nar period (c. 2500--2000 BC).


Ten metres west of the fortress is a contemporary tomb. Like the fortresses of this period, the tombs were circular. The Tell Abraq tomb, diameter c. 6 m, is divided into two chambers by an internal crosswall. A passage at the southern end of the wall links the eastern and western chambers. This year, under the supervision of J.N. Benton (University of Sydney), and with the assistance of Prof. A. Goodman (Hampshire College, USA), Prof. D. Martin (Hampshire College, USA), and Prof. and Mrs R.V.S. Wright (University of Sydney), the western chamber was excavated completely. The internal deposit, which was preserved to a height of c. 1.30 m, contained a minimum number of 155 individuals representing all age groups (adult MNI 121). Here, in addition to a variety of ceramic and stone vessels, copper/bronze rings and spearheads, ostrichegg shell fragments (presumably from once complete vessels), beads and 'feeding shells' (Ficus subintermedia d'Orbiny 1852, so-called because of the ethnographic evidence for their use by the local population for feeding liquids to infants), a decorated bone comb was discovered.

The comb and its date

The comb (FIGURE 2a & b) is 11 cm long, 8.2 cm wide (max.), and 0.4 cm thick. Roughly one third of its teeth were missing or so fragile that they broke upon first contact with a small brush during cleaning. Otherwise, it is completely intact. The upper part of the comb is crescentic. The body extends down each side in the form of a 1-cm wide strip flanking the teeth. Both sides of the body of the comb are decorated identically with a set of three double-dotted circles arranged in a triangle. On either side of the dotted circles is a stylized flower with two upward-curving, dentate or crenate leaves, a long stem and three lotus- or tulip-like petals.


While we hope soon to acquire [.sup.14]C dates from burnt bone discovered in the tomb, several indications already narrow down its date to the very end of the Umm an-Nar period. A burnt deposit excavated in 1989 and 1993, which ran just under the surface linking the base of the tomb with the base of the fortress, yielded two dates of 2130 BC (K-5574) and 2190 BC (K-5575) (calibrated after Pearson & Stuiver 1986), thus providing a secure terminus post quem for the tomb. A date between c. 2100 and 2000 BC is suggested by the pottery, with treatment (e.g., string-cut bases) and temper characteristic of the following Wadi Suq period (c. 2000--1300 BC), whereas the shapes appear to be in the Umm an-Nar tradition. The painted decoration is clearly transitional, for it represents a stylized, simplified version of 'classical' Umm an-Nar decoration. Thus, I would refer the tomb to the terminal Umm an-Nar period, at the end of the known sequence of excavated Umm an-Nar tombs, beginning with the tombs on Umm an-Nar island itself (c. 2500--2300 BC), followed by Tomb A at Hili North and Mowaihat in Ajman (2300--2100 BC), and finally by the Abraq tomb (c. 2100--2000 BC).


Even a cursory examination of the literature on combs in Western Asia (e.g. Spycket 1976--1980) shows that a comb is hardly an everyday discovery in a late-3rd-millennium context. The interest of the Tell Abraq find is amplified by the decoration it bears.

On first reflection one looks to the Indus Valley for comparanda where, in Mature Harappan contexts, bone and ivory combs with dotted-circle decoration have been found at Mohenjo-Daro (Marshall 1931: 532; Mackay 1937: plate XCI.26 = plate CXXV.24), Harappa (Vats 1940: plate CXIX.6), Chanhu-Daro (Mackay 1943: plate CXXXII.13 & 21, plate CXXXIV.4), and Kalibangan (Thapar 1979: plate XXVII). In 1985/6 an ivory comb with dotted-circle decoration, thought to be an Harappan import, was discovered at Ra's al-Junayz on the eastern tip of Oman in a context (period II) now dated by the excavators to c. 2400--2200 BC (Cleuziou 1992: 97). In 1932 a wooden (?) comb with dotted-circle decoration was found at the 3rd-millennium BC site of Bampur in southeastern Iran by Sir Aurel Stein (Stein 1937: plate IX, Bam.A.33).

None of those combs bears the distinctive floral motif of the Abraq exemplar. We find a strikingly similar pair of long-stemmed flowers on a series of soft-stone flasks (FIGURE 3) found during illicit excavations in southern Bactria (northern Afghanistan) in the 1970s and published in 1984 by M.-H. Pottier (Pottier 1984: figures 19.143--144, 20.145, 150; cf. plate XX). The tripartite flower, crenate or dentate leaves and long, curved stem are closely replicated, and in two cases the flowers are shown in pairs symmetrically flanking a central object (Pottier 1984: figure 20.145 (on either side of a plant), 150 (either side of a winged female deity)).


Although scientific excavations at other sites in northern Bactria (southern Uzbekistan) have yet to yield combs with this decoration, they have produced bone combs (Sarianidi 1977: figure 24, lower left); and the dotted-circle is well-represented on soft-stone vessels in Bactria (e.g. Pottier 1984: figure 20.147, 151--153) as well as on bone and ivory sticks and so-called gaming pieces from Turkmenistan (cf. Masson & Sarianidi 1972: figure 29a; Masson 1981: figure 6). Given the absolute rarity of combs, it comes as no surprise to find that no precise parallel on an extant comb can be adduced. As the very particular representation of the flower on the Abraq comb finds a perfect parallel in Bactria, it may be suggested that the Tell Abraq comb is an import from that area.

Identification of the flowering plant depicted on the comb is a difficult if not impossible task. After examining a drawing, Mr James P. Mandaville, Jr (Dhahran, Saudi Arabia), author of the recently published Flora of eastern Saudi Arabia (London, 1992), observed that none of the wild flowers of Arabia resembled it. He writes (letter of 17 March 1993):

My impression is that this plant may be largely attributable to genetic engineering by its artist. This is mainly because of the discordance between the flower and leaf form. The best possibility that comes to mind in terms of petal shape is an iris (although some petals should be more deflexed). A tulip or a poppy might be other possibilities, assuming some artistic license. In the case of the iris or a tulip, however, the leaves should be entire and sublinear (straight margined without lobing). In the case of a poppy and its relatives, the leaves should be much more sharply and deeply lobed and dissected. I would note, however, that some irises have undulate leaves (wavy in the vertical plane), and this might lead some artist to show them somewhat as appearing here (crenate or dentate). In Arabia we have tulips only in the far northwest Hijaz mountains. We do have an iris or two (but probably not in the far east, or UAE area). Poppies are found as weeds sometimes in wheat cultivation, or perhaps wild over in the Hijaz.

Mandaville also remarked that a species of tulip with undulate leaves does exist 'which thus might appear crenate if viewed from a certain angle. The leaves are narrower and more acute than the ones in your drawing, however' (letter of 18 March 1993). The lower two leaves of Tulipa boeotica, which is native to Asia, indeed have undulate margins (see e.g. the photograph in Polunin 1980: plate 58.1627d) which could have led an artist to depict them in this manner. Indeed the mountain tulip (Tulipa montana Lindl.), which ocurs in Asia Minor and Afghanistan, bears a remarkable likeness to the flower on the Tell Abraq comb. It is long-stemmed; has lanceolate-linear leaves with undulate margins which are mainly centred at the base of the stem; and has six petals which appear as three in profile. Furthermore, it is native to Afghanistan (Zohary 1982: 180; my thanks to Dr L. Rodriguez for bringing this reference to my attention). The possibility that the flower is a species of Tulipa, a Eurasian-wide genus (Good 1961: 89), is particularly interesting in view of M.-H. Pottier's discussion of the flowers on the Bactrian flasks. Suggesting these are tulips, she notes that, nowadays, spring on the steppes of Central Asia is marked by the appearance of thousands of tulips, for which reason the tulip has become the symbol of Turkmenistan. In antiquity, she suggests, the widespread blossoming of the tulip may have made the flower a symbol of fertility (Pottier 1984: 76 and n. 60). Yet in later Zoroastrian tradition, the tulip, although mentioned in the Pahlavi Book of Creation, Bundahishn, is not named as one of the 30 flowers identified with a specific archangel or angel whose names were associated with the days of the month (Laufer 1919: 192--3); the tulip was not always significant in the ancient Iranian-Central Asian tradition.

The rarity of bone and ivory combs in the archaeological record results not only from the soil conditions of Western Asia. They seem to have been very rare and costly items in antiquity which were never numerous. Two Old Babylonian texts from Ur list items brought back from a trading expedition to Dilmun (Bahrain) and then dedicated to the Nanna-Ningal temple complex (Oppenheim 1954: 7; cf. Leemans 1960: 26, 29), which include single combs, UET V 678 (undated; s.v. l. 12, ga-rig zu-am-si, '1 comb of ivory') and UET V 292 (dated to the 8th year of the reign of Sumuel, i.e. 1886 BC acc. Middle Chronology; s.v. II 19, [.sup.gis]ga-rig (for the reading ga-rig vs. ga-zum cf. Edzard 1976--80), '1 comb') (cf. also the attestation of ivory combs in an Old Babylonian text from Susa, Oppenheim 1954: 11, n. 20).

The owner of the Tell Abraq comb was clearly an elite individual in possession of a very rare and exotic piece of personal equipment.

This Bactrian comb in southeastern Arabia should be seen in the context of the southward spread of the Bactrian-Murghab Archaeological Complex (Sarianidi 1987: 44; cf. Hiebert & Lamberg-Karlovsky 1992: 1). Materials of Bactrian affinity have now been identified at a number of sites in the Indo-Iranian borderlands, including Shahdad, Khinaman, Tepe Yahya and Khurab in Iran; and Mehi, Quetta, Mehrgarh and Sibri in Pakistan (the relevant literature conveniently referenced in Hiebert & Lamberg-Karlovsky 1992). Whether interpreted as the manifestation of an Aryan invasion (cf. Sarianidi 1987; Parpola 1988) or not (e.g. Shaffer 1986: 93), there seems little doubt that a major phenomenon of contact extending from the steppes of Central Asia to the shores of the Arabian Sea took place around 2000 BC. Pedestalled ceramic and bronze vessels from Bahrain and Asimah (Ras al-Khaimah) have recently been discussed in the context of contact between the Gulf and Central Asia (During Caspers 1992), and the close parallel between a square-based, soft-stone flask with dotted-cricle decoration from Tomb A at Hili North (Cleuziou & Vogt 1985: 255--7 and figure 4.5) and similar soft-stone vessels from Bactria has long been recognized.

We know from the ceramics, seals and stone vessels recovered during the first four seasons at Tell Abraq that the site was in contact with Babylonia, Elam, Dilmun, southern Iran and the Indus Valley during the late 3rd and early 2nd millennium BC (Potts 1990; 1991; 1993). The unexpected discovery of the Tell Abraq comb now shows us that Bactria must be added to that list. There is little doubt that the comb represents a noteworthy addition to the growing corpus of Bactrian material from eastern Arabia and the Indo-Iranian borderlands.


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Title Annotation:West Asian bone comb from roughly 2000 BC
Author:Potts, D.T.
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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