Blog TWHS Visits

WHC 2017: Dilmun Burial Mounds

The Burial Ensembles of Dilmun and Tylos (renamed to: "Dilmun Burial Mounds") are nominated by Bahrain to become a WHS later this year. This move forward is quite surprising, as in the past these burial fields have been known as sites with ‘issues’. “In a New Age, Bahrain Struggles to Honor the Dead While Serving the Living” wrote the New York Times in 2009, while CNN similarly reported in 2013: “In Bahrain, development chips away at world's largest, oldest burial site”.

Hamad Burial Mounds

The Dilmun civilization existed in what now is Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and coastal Saudi Arabia. It controlled the Persian Gulf trading routes and was an important trading center from the late fourth millennium to 800 BC. Tylos was the name used by the Greeks to refer to Bahrain after the Dilmun period (ca. 6th to 3rd century BC). While burial mounds or tumuli are quite a common sight all over the world, these Bahraini ones from the Dilmun and Tylos eras “have the highest density of mound fields in a limited territory and the highest concentration of mounds in one single field”.

The excellent Bahrain National Museum is a good start for learning about this ancient period and the tradition of tumulus construction - they even have an original burial mound on show that has been moved from Hamad. During my visit to Bahrain in 2011 I further visited 5 out of the 11 locations that are part of this Ensemble: the A’Ali tumuli, the Hamad Town Tumuli (cluster of 3 locations) and Saar Heritage Park. The latter two are also separately on Bahrain’s Tentative List.

Sign prohibiting the extraction of sand and stones (A'Ali, 2011)

In my memory, the visits to Hamad and A’Ali have blurred into one. I can only distinguish between the photos of the two based on the digital time stamps. Both are dusty fields in an urban setting, and I found them as neglected as is described in the reports above from the NYT and CNN. The high density of the mounds is the most distinguishing feature of the sites, like a giant mole has been at work. Technically though they weren’t constructed as mounds or tumuli: they were cylindrical stone towers, surrounding a grave chamber. Only natural erosion and the drifting sand has turned the landscape into what it looks now.

The other burial site is located at Saar. Saar Heritage Park consists of the remains of a village, with streets, a temple and a cemetery. It appears that only its cemetery will be part of this nomination. It is characterized by two large tumuli. Saar definitely is the most interesting site to visit, though it all has to be considered from an archaeological perspective.

One of the tombs at Saar

There’s no doubt that these are important archaeological sites in Bahrain and the wider region. So why have they suffered so much neglect? Partly of course this is because of the growing pains of a fast developing and overpopulated country. It also seems that local people that live next to the locations have little appreciation and awareness about the mounds. For WH inscription, the main question will be whether the Bahraini state has turned the conservation issues around and have presented a perfect picture to the visiting inspectors from ICOMOS.

Els - 11 February 2017

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Els Slots 12 February 2017

This is the source that I used:

Solivagant 12 February 2017

Am interested in this comment above - "Technically though they weren’t constructed as mounds or tumuli: they were cylindrical stone towers, surrounding a grave chamber. Only natural erosion and the drifting sand has turned the landscape into what it looks now."
Do you have a reference for it?
We have both seen the mounds in situ and the cut-away reconstructions in the National Museum and my understanding was that, although there are different types of interior tomb and mound size across many centuries and that they have no doubt become eroded from their original pristine shape, they all were indeed "mounds" and not "cylindrical stone towers". Inside, beneath the earth, are different types of interior chambers according to period and status of the family but externally all were covered by earth/sand to create a proper "mound".

Now of course it is possible for "Mounds" to have low "side walls" keeping the mound "neat"- I think of some Korean tombs and also the Etruscan ones at Cerveteri (though those walls tend to be carved into rock with an earth "dome").

This is the "best" academic article I have been able to find on the subject and it contains cut-away diagrams of early and late mounds
Figures 2 A and B would seem to show that both early and late tombs were presented as "mounds".