Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Arabian Time Capsule Volume 53 Number 5, September/October 2000
by Daniel T. Potts

An undisturbed trove of relics reveals the trading patterns of a Bronze Age society.

[image] A collective burial at Tell Abraq, left, yielded 4,000-year-old artifacts, including a gold pendant, right, depicting a pair of long-horned mouflon, or mountain goats. (Left, Daniel T. Potts; right, Michele Ziolkowski)

Within days of opening a trench at Tell Abraq, I was walking on the walls of a circular fortification built around 2200 B.C. and staring at painted pottery from the late third millennium. This was a pleasant surprise. I had already been excavating for some years in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), a corner of eastern Arabia known for its inland expanses of desert and gravel plain, at a site several miles to the north with an abundance of Roman glass, Parthian pottery, and even the odd Indian coin, attesting a lively international commerce in the first century A.D. Impressive as this was, I felt it was possible to push back local history to an even more remote past, and Tell Abraq, where I had found a few pieces of broken pottery lying on the ground, seemed a promising place to explore.

Soon after the ancient walls and painted pottery came to light, my University of Sydney team stumbled upon a circular stone tomb of the sort commonly used for collective burials in the Early Bronze Age (2500-2000 B.C.) in the region of Oman and the U.A.E. Here, to my astonishment, we found nearly 400 bodies from a massive unlooted burial, a time capsule of ancient Magan, a culture intimately connected to a trade network linking Mesopotamia, Iran, Arabia, Afghanistan, and the Indus Valley. The tomb had never been plundered because it had been sealed ca. 2000 B.C. by several feet of accumulated settlement deposit as the site of Tell Abraq grew up, over, and around it.

Daniel T. Potts is Edwin Cuthbert Hall professor in Middle Eastern archaeology at the University of Sydney, Australia.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America