Babylonia, the Gulf Region and the Indus: Archaeological and Textual Evidence for Contact in the Third and Early Second Millennia BC (Mesopotamian Civilizations)

This is a very important book by two scholars who have spent years studying ancient Mesopotamian cultures (Steinkeller, Harvard University) or leading explorations of more recently discovered Gulf Arab cultures (Laursen, Moesgaard Museum Denmark). The authors summarize and integrate previously-known textual data, primarily from ancient Mesopotamia, with “the dramatic increase of archaeological data, in particular on Tilmun and Makkan [ancient civilizations contemporaneous with the ancient Indus in the Arabian Gulf], in recent decades.” In their words, “following many e-mail exchanges about various points related to the archaeology and history of the Persian Gulf region during the third millennium BC, we concluded that, because of the great accumulation of new data and persistence of many misconceptions, there was a pressing need to produce an up-to-date synthetic evaluation of this subject” (p. 1, ix).

Laursen and Steinkeller rigorously review textual and archeological data. One comes away with a sense of how delicate the ebb and flow of trade between Oman [Makkan], Bahrain [Dilmun], Marhasi [southeastern Iran], the Indus civilization [Meluha], and Mesopotamia was in the 3rd millennium. Intense periods of contact and exchange were followed by fallow ones. One can infer that trade relationships were dependent on political, religious, tribal, or navigational ties that were fragile and subject to disruption. For example, Laursen points out that “sometime in the late ED III or early Sargonic period (ca. 2350 BCE), the trading post on Umm an-Nar island was abandoned, possibly after a fire had destroyed the ‘warehouse’ for the second time.” (p. 28).

Connections between Makkan [Oman] and Marhasi [southeastern Iran] seem to have been stronger than between the latter and Dilmun [Bahrain] despite their greater proximity. With such small populations on all sides of the Gulf, connections between places would have been transformative as well as tenuous. There is no doubt about how important trade was to these early civilizations; the authors show that the goal of the Sargonic kings of Babylonia was not so much annexation and conquest as “the control of critical nodal points . . . [and] to set the terms of trade and to provide protection for Babylonian traders, who lived in extra territorial commercial settlements in the periphery or simply conducted business there . . .. The main function of the empire’s political and military apparatus was to ensure that the entire commercial network worked smoothly, with the merchandise flowing from one end of the system to the other without any disturbances or interruption” (pp. 31-32). Across such large areas, this kind of integration was a big step in human history.

Indus civilization may have had similar trading objectives though the homogeneity across its territory seems to have been greater.

If we know what Meluha exported to Mesopotamia, we know little about what was sent in return. Nothing definitive from the region has turned up in graves (of which there are precious few Indus ones), where Bronze Age civilizations tended to hoard goods from other cultures.

Most archaeologists assume goods exported to the Indus valley were perishable. The items listed in Appendix I as exports from Babylonia to the Gulf region based on textual records would bear this out if the same goods were also exported to Meluha. These most often consisted of oils (including sesame and perfumed oils), wool and textile garments, leather objects and barley. Interestingly, while we think textiles were important economic products of Indus civilization, the book reminds us that this was also the case in ancient Mesopotamia, with many pages on the major textile production center and port of Gu’abba. Did the two civilizations exchange distinctive textile products? The fact that Mesopotamian ruling clans liked to be buried with Indus goods like carnelian and lapis suggests that foreign goods were important prestige objects.

Nowhere do cultural linkages appear as clearly as in the Indus contributions sketched both here (and in other papers by Laursen) to the rise of civilization in the area centered on what is now Bahrain island. “Approximately halfway through the 21st century BC,” write the authors, “Tilmun society suddenly underwent a series of major reorganizations that are concordantly suggestive of an explosion in both social complexity and economic prosperity. . . . The temporary segregation from the Meluha trade, which Tilmun had been subjected to, comes to a conspicuous end. Most important in this respect is the introduction in Tilmun of major urban innovations associated with the organization and administration of trade, each of which clearly are inspired by the mercantile protocol of the Indus Valley civilization.”

“The first Indus-inspired circular stamp seals of “Gulf-type” appear in the layers at Qala’at al-Bahrain concurrent with the construction of the city wall ca. 2050 BC. The synchronous introduction of Indus “writing” is suggested by the occasional presence in the Gulf seals of short inscriptions written in the characters of the Indus script. The distribution of this class of inscribed ‘Gulf Type’ seals ranges as far as Babylonia in the west to Sindh and Gujarat (Dholavira) in the east. By all appearances, this first series of stamp seals native to the Gulf is connected with a league of Tilmun-associated merchants that was now actively involved in the Meluha trade.”

“The introduction of sealing technology was accompanied by the introduction of a formal weight system, as evidenced in the cubical and spherical stone weights that correspond perfectly to the standard weight units of the Harappans. In Babylonia, Tilmun’s newly adopted Meluhan weight system became known as the Tilmun norm (na Tilmun) (UET 5 796)” (p. 50).

It may be worth noting that this flowering of Indus cultural influence was followed by the decline of Indus civilization in both in the homeland and in the Gulf. Could its blossoming in Dilmun have been associated with some population of Meluhans trying to get away and establish a new presence in another place?

There are hints of Meluha participating in external conflicts – the authors note that “the conflict with Marhasi continued into the reign of Sargon’s son Rimus, who successfully fought a major Marhasian coalition, one of whose members was, very revealingly, Meluha” (p. 35). There are tantalizing references to the ancient land of “Kupin,” which may have been present-day Balochistan and the Makran coast, between Meluha and Marhasi, and could be related to the so-called Kulli culture that preceded the Indus civilization.

However inconclusive the evidence is, there is much to be learned about the ancient Indus civilization outside of the region directly, in its relationships with other civilizations. There are many Mesopotamian texts in archives that still remain to be read that may have clues to, for example, Meluhan rulers, as all the areas around them seemed to have rulers, and why should Meluha be an exception? This book is an excellent and critical marker on the long journey of discovery ahead.