Dilmun and Punt – Part II


In my last part, I discussed the mentions of Dilmun and Punt in Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts and examined their mythical contexts. In this part, I’ll discuss the physical considerations of the two mythical places in archaeological and geologic contexts.

Part I: Mythical References
Part II: Archaeological and Geological Considerations
Part III: Discussion and Bibliography

Archaeological Remains

The pottery found at Bahrain at around 3000-2900 BCE, the period known in Mesopotamia as the Jemdet Nasr, closely resembles that of Uruk, as do the bowls of steatite and chlorite. Oman also has buff-ware painted jars that closely resemble those of Mesopotamia at this time. Together, these correlations in pottery and ceramics are indicative of contact between Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula, and it is Bahrain and the eastern Arabian coast that have variously been suggested as sites of Dilmun. Ubaid-ware characteristics include motifs of marsh or riverine origin and include designs resembling nets, reed-matting and aquatic subjects which are painted on green-grey buff or red ware. During the period that marks the rise of the Ubaid culture, the marshlands of Sumer would have been teeming with fish, game, and wild plant-life, offering an environment in whose new inhabitants would not need to be pressured into food production strategies like agriculture. The Ubaid culture that is most known is at Eridu, but sites have been found as far south as Saudi Arabia (Bibby 1969). It stands to reason that the resources available would have attracted inhabitants; indeed, it does even today, when one considers the Marsh Arabs who dwell in elaborate and complex reed huts.

Various authors have placed Dilmun at Bahrain, but Howard-Carter (1981, p. 223) reminds that Mesopotamian artifacts before dating to before 2200 BCE aren’t present in the archaeological record on Bahrain and, instead, places Dilmun at Qurna, Iraq, which lies just under 75 km northwest of Basra where the Tigris and Euphrates converge. On Bahrain, Bibby (1969) excavated funerary sites called tumuli-tombs which consist of earthen mounds piled on top of graves. Other archaeologists both preceded and followed these excavations who also excavated tumuli, discovering over 172,000 in all. Lamberg-Karlovsky (1982) notes that if the tumuli only contained an average of two occupants, the total cemetery population would be 344,000, which is “an unparalleled cemetery population for the Near East. He goes on to cite literature that reports on surveys which reveal that while the tumuli date to as late as the third millennium, the time of Dilmun, there aren’t data to suggest a settlement of sufficient size to support a cemetery of even 172,000.

The earliest mention of Punt is on the Palermo Stone, which describes King Sahure’s expedition to Punt that retrieved myrrh, electrum and staves. Sahure was pharaoh in the 5th Dynasty, between 2498 – 2345 BCE and the monument, the largest fragment of which now resides in the Regional Museum of Archaeology in Palermo, Sicily, is also significant because it lists rules that both predate and precede Menes, accepted by some to be the first pharaoh of the First dynasty of Egypt.

Another mention of Punt that is, perhaps, the most descriptive is that of the Punt Reliefs at Deir el-Bahri. Breasted (1906a: 102) goes so far as to describe them as “the most interesting series of reliefs in Egypt,” but he is correct that they are almost the “only source of information on the land of Punt.” In addition to these inscriptions and the Palermo stone references, Breasted also lists the other references known to him through various texts (102-103) as:

1) a Fifth dynasty expedition by King Isesi, which brought back a “dancing dwarf;”
2) a Sixth dynasty attempt by Pepi II to send and expedition, which resulted in “sand-dwellers” killing the detachment sent to build a ship on the coast destined to Punt;
3) Pep II’s eventual success;
4) Chief Treasurer Henu’s Eleventh dynasty expedition for Senekhkere-Mentuhotep III;
5) Kentkhetwer’s Twelfth dynasty expedition for Amenemhet II; and
6) an expedition for Senwosret II.

But it was the Hatshepsut expedition in the Eighteenth dynasty that offers the most detail, while the above mentions are cursory and meager in their descriptions of their respective expeditions. The Hatshepsut inscriptions provided both texts and illustrations of the commodities the Egyptians obtained from “the Land of God,” which included gold, ebony, ivory, incense trees like myrrh, resin or gum, ostrich eggs, giraffes, and baboons. The illustrations depict the Puntite houses [fig. 3] as on huts on stilts and the Puntites themselves as brown skinned, rather than black as might be expected if Punt were at the Horn of Africa. Perhaps the most familiar image in the Deir el-Bahri inscriptions is that of the wife of the ruler of Punt. She is depicted as being obese, considered a revered quality among some African cultures since it marks her status as healthy and wealthy.

Geological Considerations

The Persian Gulf was completely dry at around 15,000 BCE according to Howard-Carter (1981, 1987) who cites at least three reports of detailed studies of the Gulf’s geology. The Tigris and Euphrates flowed separately and together to the Strait of Hormuz and emptied into the Gulf of Oman until the rising sea levels rose gradually from 14,000 to 8000 BCE forcing any riverine populations inhabiting the soon-to-be submerged Tigris and Euphrates to retreat to higher ground over time. According to Howard-Carter, the Gulf would have been three-quarters filled by 8000 BCE and completely inundated by 5500 BCE, the time of the Ubaid period.

Bahrain is known for its artisan springs in antiquity, which provided fresh water and, for an island in the Persian gulf may been a frequent stop for sea travelers. Indeed, the springs themselves may have provided fodder for the myths that included passages about Dilmun such as “her city drinks water of abundance” and “her wells of bitter water, behold they become wells of sweet water” from the myth of Enki and Ninhursag. Frequently mentioned in texts associated with Dilmun is the trade of copper and, indeed, copper has been discovered at sites proposed to be the location of Dilmun both on the eastern Arabian coast as well as Bahrain. Copper, however, isn’t found in deposits in either location, and the nearest deposits are located in Iran and the Indus Valley.

Copper was one of the commodities mentioned in the Hatshepsut inscriptions and of great value to Egyptian rulers building pyramids and monumental structures since copper instruments are needed to quarry and form the blocks used in their construction. Copper deposits are known in Egypt and the Sinai but are of limited value due to their size and quality. Wicker states “the only copper deposit known to be worked in ancient times is at Cayönii Tepsi in south-east Turkey near the headwater of the Tigris where the earliest exploitation dates from around 7000 BC and that the copper of Cyprus isn’t exploited until much later (1998, p. 159).” He goes on to suggest that Egypt could have obtained its copper from there before the Third dynasty, though he admits the prospect to be unlikely. Another possible source for copper, Wicker says, is in present-day Uganda both west and north of Lake Victoria and that no copper or gold deposits have ever been located in present-day Somalia, the country that dominates the Horn of Africa.

Copper is associated in trade expeditions to both Dilmun and Punt by Mesopotamians and Egyptians, but no copper is known to have been mined on the Arabian Peninsula. The copper deposits of present-day Uganda, west of Lake Victoria or in South Africa, are locations that are either inland or of considerable distance for either the Sumerians or the Egyptians. That Bahrain and Dhaharan traded in copper is evident in the archaeological record, so this metal must have come from other sources as yet unknown or at least as yet not connected to the Persian Gulf such as from the upper Indus Valley. But also important to the production of bronze was tin, with sources generally thought to be found in mountains of modern-day Iran and Afghanistan.

I looked for other mentions of copper in antiquity that might reveal what sources there were at the relevant periods of Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations but found none that didn’t require active trade networks for the two, though sources in the Persian gulf such as modern-day Oman are eventually used. I think its entirely probable that the need for copper helped drive the Dilmun and Punt legends since there are very real needs that are fulfilled.

In the last part of this series, I’ll end with a brief discussion and list a bibliography for anyone wishing to look into this or related topics further.

Part I: Mythical References
Part II: Archaeological and Geological Considerations
Part III: Discussion and Bibliography