Domestic food practice and vessel-use at Salūt-ST1, central Oman, during the Umm an-Nar period

A Sherlock Holmes-style investigation into over four thousand year old pots to determine the foodstuffs that they once held to draw a bigger and better picture of food practices on the Arabian Gulf during the so-called Umm an-Nar period (ca. 2700-2000 BCE). Many of these pots were imported ancient Indus Black-Slipped Jars. "Degraded animal fats were found in a majority of the vessels, and we report the first direct detection of dairy products in Umm an‐Nar vessels . . . [and] the detection of a range of products (ruminant meat, dairy fats, non‐ruminant fats and mixtures) in Indus Black‐Slipped Jars from the site indicates vessel multifunctionality and reuse of the vessels," (p. 1). (Ruminant creatures have more than one stomach, and regurgitate it to continue chewing; these include cattle and sheep.)

Lipid analysis is a relatively new tool in Indus archaeology, and this is among the first comprehensive set of results using this tool even if the source of the materials is one of the civilizations that Indus people traded with – in their own pots.

The investigation provides insights into ancient dietary habits and domestic practices and reminds us of how foodstuff circulated widely even if we cannot be sure where precisely foodstuffs originated. The authors summarize the situation around Indus pottery succintly: "Indus pottery appears to have been imported to the Oman Peninsula mostly from c. 2500–2000 BC. It is represented by a variety of different forms, such as pedestalled dishes, perforated vessels, cooking pots and jars, and is found at several coastal and inland sites in south‐eastern Arabia (Cleuziou & Méry, 2002; Méry, 2000; Thornton & Ghazal, 2016, pp. 204–208). Black‐Slipped Jars (BSJs), however, are one of the most common vessel types, found more widely in coastal and interior settlements in the Omani peninsula than they are within the Indian subcontinent (Méry & Blackman, 2004). Geochemical analyses of several examples from different sites have indicated that these vessels were produced either along the Ravi River or the Indus River, but those reaching the Oman Peninsula came from the southern Indus basin area (Méry & Blackman, 1999, 2004). Indus BSJs are unmistakably transport or storage vessels, shaped not unlike amphoras from classical antiquity (Méry & Blackman, 2004). Although there are variations in size and capacity, ranging between 19 and 22cm in external rim diameter, and estimated volumes vary from 30 to 80 litres, most BSJs appear to have been made to be transported by boat; their bases are tapered which makes them easy to stack and ship (possibly down the Indus river and then the Arabian Gulf), and they are slipped on both the interior and exterior surfaces (Méry & Blackman, 1999, 2004). It has been suggested that Indus BSJs were used to transport a specific foodstuff from the Indus region to south‐eastern Arabia (Méry & Blackman, 2004); however, it is possible that upon their arrival in the Omani peninsula, they were emptied and refilled with different foodstuffs or for the transport of other commodities. It is also possible that BSJs were used to transport/store multiple foodstuffs and had secondary or multiple uses" (p. 2-3).

To think that foodstuffs were probably being transported in large quantities across the Arabian Gulf so long ago gives some sense of how interdependent ancient cultures were at times. One can also infer a highly sophisticated management of resources and culinary practices and imports in the Umm an-Nar period, at least around the site at Salūt-ST1. Furthermore, "the significant presence of animal fats in the Salūt‐ ST1 pottery serves as a reminder of the importance of animal resources, specifically of pastoral lifeways and products during the Umm an‐Nar period, which is easy to overlook due to the generally poor preservation of animal bones in archaeological contexts from the Oman peninsula and limited state of research on Bronze Age inland sites," (p. 11). We may not be entirely sure that some of the fatty residues are not from animals like camels, which may also have been eaten, but it is clear that the types of foodstuffs consumed were many and varied, pointing to multiple sources of domestication and provisioning. "The analysis of Indus Black Slipped Jars from Salūt‐ST1 reveals that the vessels had complex use‐life histories; with vessels used for the storage of different types of animal products and possibly plant products," (p. 17). We cannot be sure of what was brought within the containers from Indus areas, but most likely this would have been foodstuffs given that the pots were likely re-used for foodstuffs.

While the purpose of the paper was not to speculate on more than the lipid residue analysis, an incredibly intricate sleuthing task in itself, it makes one wonder and speculate about the management system that would have been required across great distances to transport, inventory, store and protect, exchange and record the transactions, not to mention indicate and control for quality and other attributes that ancient peoples valued. Lipids are microscopic, but the infrastructure – cultural, mercantile and/or political – supporting their transmission and presence must have been extensive – and delicate. After about 2000 BCE the Indus-based portion seems to have vanished with the close of the Umm an-Nar period.

Image: Micaceous Red Indus Black Slipped Jar fragments from Salūt‐ST1.