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Discovery of Qatar’s Oldest Pearl | Dr. Ferhan Sakal

A local excavation mission led by Qatar Museums, including experts from different local and international institutions, has recently discovered the oldest known natural pearl bead in Qatar. This month, we feature an informative discussion with Dr. Ferhan Sakal, Head of Excavation and Site Management in the Archaeology Department at Qatar Museums, who led the project and discovered the pearl to learn more about this discovery, how it came about, and its significance.

  1. Can you tell our readers a bit about the process that went behind the pearl’s discovery and how was it determined to be the oldest one found yet?

The initial discovery was made during the field season 2020 as we were excavating prehistoric graves as part of our NPRP project, 'Human Populations and Demographics in Qatar from the Neolithic to the late Iron Age', led by Sidra Medicine in cooperation with Qatar Museums’ Department of Archaeology and Tor Vergata University Rome, and funded by the Qatar National Research Fund (Grant No. NPRP10-0208-170411). The project aimed to retrieve prehistoric skeletal material which then underwent advanced paleoanthropological and molecular analyses to provide clues about the migration movements, health conditions, and diet of the prehistoric populations of Qatar.

One of the difficulties we often face is dating the graves, as there are mostly no grave goods that can give clues about the period the grave belongs to. This was also the case in this grave, where we found the pearl. We were not able to date the bones with conventional carbon dating as this is bone collagen (a protein in bone and skin) based. Unfortunately, bone collagen is not well preserved in a hot climate like that of Qatar.

Therefore, we used a new carbon dating method based on bioapatite (a mineral component of bone) and dated the pearl around 5560-5470 BCE, 1000 years earlier than previously announced. Other natural pearls found during archaeological excavations in Qatar are mostly from the late Islamic period when pearl fishing and trading was the main source of income. Until now, no natural pearl had been discovered in a prehistoric site, which makes our discovery the oldest natural pearl in Qatar and one of the oldest in the world. The oldest natural pearl in the world was found in Marawah, Abu Dhabi which dates around 5800-5600 BCE.

  1. The pearl was found in a grave, can you tell us a bit more about what else was discovered there?

The grave was discovered at the cemetery of Wadi Al Debaian which is located just a few kilometers south of Al Zubarah archaeological site in northwest Qatar. In total, three graves from the same period were excavated which were all next to each other and were similarly built as simple pit graves. In two of them, only the buried person was discovered, and they did not have any grave goods. Therefore, we were not expecting to find any grave goods in the third grave.

However, when we sifted the soil removed during the excavation as standard procedure, we were able to find the pearl bead. Sifting or screening is a method used in archaeological excavation to recover objects and other remains that are very small and would be overlooked during the removal of the sediment. Since the soil that contained the pearl was excavated from the area of the skull, we can even say surely that it was placed somewhere in front of the buried persons’ face. In the same grave, we also found a pin-like object which is still under study.

  1. In our last interview with you, we learned about the discovery of a ritual grave with camel skeletons. What is the significance of these discoveries and what do they unravel about the past?

There is no direct link between these two discoveries as they are around 5500 years apart from each other. But both discoveries give us clues about how people cared for their deceased and how they prepared them for the afterlife. We learned about their burial practices, beliefs, and ceremonies. As we were able to understand the importance of the camel accompanying its owner to the afterlife, we also see that the pearl bead was important enough to be placed in the burial of the deceased persons. It has possibly played a special role in the lives of these people, who took the quite dangerous challenge to dive for pearls. Since the pearl was perforated it was probably used as jewelry and belonged to the buried person.

  1. Based on this discovery, what can we tell about the societies that existed at that time?

We already know that the Neolithic populations of Qatar were mostly living in coastal areas and were probably fishermen. Sherds from pottery made in southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) found in Neolithic sites of Qatar underline that they were in contact with those areas in the north. Most probably they were trading with each other. Another hint for this trade connection is the Obsidian (volcanic glass) originating from Anatolia (modern Turkey) that was found in Wadi Al Debaian. This very special material was traded from Anatolia over Mesopotamia to Qatar. We also knew that in the Neolithic period, people living on the coast of eastern Arabia were diving for pearls since in several Neolithic sites from Kuwait to Oman pearls have been discovered. But until now we did not have any proof that the Neolithic populations of Qatar were also pearl diving. Based on our discovery, we can now say that these people were not only fishermen but also pearl divers.

  1. What is the historical and sociological importance of this discovery in the present day?

Pearls, pearl fishery, and trade are a very important part of the Qatari national identity and cultural heritage. One of the famous landmarks in Doha, located at Corniche, is a fountain in the form of an oyster shell with a pearl inside. Every year there is a Dhow festival at Katara Cultural Village and the Senyar Competition to celebrate the country’s pearl diving traditions. Our discovery now provides the oldest known evidence of this tradition in Qatar and underlines the importance of the pearls and pearl fishery for the region and its people during almost all the periods of human occupation. Archaeological discoveries like this create a direct link between populations that are several millennia apart from each other and provide help to modern societies to appreciate the prehistoric populations of their country.

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