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Burial Mounds Linked to Time of Christ : Excavation Uncovers Tylos Culture

May 01, 1988|BRENDA SMILEY | Associated Press

MANAMA, Bahrain — The roughly chiseled features and downcast eyes are all that remain as reminders of the little girl who lived here more than 2,000 years ago.

Nearby, looking down at her in the excavation, stood another little girl, this one from the modern village that had been built atop the ancient Saar burial mounds where the chiseled stone was found in February.

The village girl's hair was cut short, like that of the girl in stone. They could have been sisters had they not been born 20 centuries apart.

The "little girl tombstone" is one of five identified as belonging to the Tylos culture, which existed on this island in the Persian Gulf about the time of Christ.

Regional Burial Site?

The thousands of ancient graves on Bahrain, 30 miles long and 10 miles across at its widest point, once gave rise to a theory that it was used as a regional burying ground.

However, Danish archeologist Bruno Frolich, said, "There is no existing evidence that requires us to assume that the dead were anything other than inhabitants of Bahrain island."

Over the years, many of these burial sites have been obliterated by population and urban growth, a process that continues. The Saar mounds are being excavated under pressure from developers who own the property and are impatient to have it cleared.

"Our problem is that the construction of new buildings is coming very quickly," said Abdul Aziz Sowaileh, Bahrain superintendent of archeology. "Bahrain would like to build houses, houses. And everywhere you dig in Bahrain, you will find some evidence of the prehistoric or ancient past.

"So we can't preserve all the mounds, but we try to do our best to preserve as many as we can."

'Baby Graves'

At this site, known as the "baby grave," 85 graves radiate from the center of a giant burial mound, with the most recent at the outer edges.

Thirty-five jars containing skeletal remains of infants were also found here, giving the site its name.

Sowaileh said that some burial jars, pottery and skeletal remains probably will be removed and exhibited in Bahrain's new national museum.

Ancient writings suggest that Bahrain may have been the Garden of Eden described in the Old Testament. The Sumerians of what is now southern Iraq knew the island as Dilmun, during the Bronze Age, about 4,500 years ago.

Rich Archeological Area

Succeeding cultures built atop earlier ones, making this a rich area for archeologists. Although most of the Saar mounds, a few miles west of Manama, Bahrain's main city, are older, this particular site dates from the Greco-Roman Period, 200 BC to AD 200, when the island was called Tylos.

For centuries, Bahrain, which is near the Persian Gulf's western shore, has been a stopping-off place for traders, merchants, pirates and armies on the move.

Alexander the Great never reached Bahrain during 13 years of conquering the world as he knew it, but some of his generals did.

Along with skeletal remains, the contents of other graves escaped pillage over the years. One family mound has yielded a trove of about 1,000 items--necklaces, glazed pottery and glassware, some in relatively good condition.

Giant Anthills

The mounds are rounded cones, enclosing burial chambers or grave complexes. From afar, they resemble giant anthills. Up close, they are distinguished from natural formations by their even appearance.

Some rise to about six feet, others are at ground level. At this site, the chambers are generally below ground, cut into bedrock.

Bahrain still has about 100,000 known burial mounds.

In 1880, a British officer-explorer, E. L. Durand, wrote in his journal: "Mighty mounds, bare of vegetation, tower above the palm groves. Mass upon mass, mound upon mound, they stretch on in endless chains all round the slope that falls from the cliffs to the sea."

The 30 Tylos mounds, of which the family site is one, could prove important in the study of the Tylos civilization. Sowaileh said it shows, for example, that people of that time made glazed pottery.

Burial Customs

"We also notice a change in burial customs from this period," he said. "People are buried clothed, their positions are changed, so they are placed on their backs and put into some kind of coffin. We didn't see these things before the Greeks came to Bahrain."

He said the discovery of more than 300 silver Greek coins, some bearing the likeness of Alexander the Great, indicate that ancient Tylos, like modern Bahrain, was a flourishing trade center.

Sowaileh, surveying the grave site as he spoke, said the craftsmanship of such artifacts as the "little girl tombstone" is local.

"There are other tombstones, very similar to this one, that have inscriptions in Greek, and must have been made for the Greek people living here at the time. But they don't have the facial representation like this one," he said, referring to the little girl in stone.

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