Archaeology Island

Post 1693

Archaeology Island

More than 4, 000 years of history in only 16 square miles By ANDREW LAWLER Monday, February 11, 2013 


(Courtesy Flemming Højlund, Kuwaiti-Danish Mission)

An aerial view of Kuwait’s Failaka Island shows four different sites representing thousands of years of civilization.

A forgotten sliver of land in the far north of the Persian Gulf, Kuwait’s Failaka Island is home now mostly to camels. Its only town is a sprawling ruin pockmarked with bullet holes and debris from tank rounds, and the landscape beyond seems empty and bleak. Even before Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait prompted its sudden evacuation, Failaka in the past century was little more than a quiet refuge for fishermen and the occasional Kuwaiti seeking relief from the mainland’s fierce heat. But just under the island’s sandy soil, archaeologists are discovering a complex history extending back 4,000 years, from the golden age of the first civilizations to the wars of the modern era. The secret to Failaka’s rich past is its location, just 60 miles south of the spot where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers empty into the Gulf. From the rise of Ur, the world’s largest metropolis in the late third millennium B.C., until Saddam Hussein’s attack during the First Gulf War, the island has been a strategic prize. For thousands of years, Failaka was a key base from which to cultivate and protect—or prey on—the lucrative trade that passed up and down the Persian Gulf. In addition, there were two protected harbors, potable water, and even some fertile soil. The island’s relative isolation provided a safe place for Christian mystics and farmers amid the rise of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., as well as for pirates a millennium later Currently, archaeological teams from no less than half a dozen countries, including Poland, France, Denmark, and Italy, are at work on Failaka. Given the political volatility of neighboring nations such as Iraq, Iran, and Syria, the island offers a welcome haven for researchers unable to conduct their work in many other parts of the region. “I started encouraging teams to come in 2004,” says Shehab Shehab, Kuwait’s antiquities director. “And I want to encourage more.” The mainland of Kuwait is mostly harsh desert, with only a handful of significant ancient sites. Even the old town of Kuwait City, dating back two centuries, was long ago demolished to make way for skyscrapers. Thus Failaka is of prime importance to the country’s heritage. Recently, much of the island’s history was threatened by a plan to transform the barren land with its rocky coast into a major tourist magnet, complete with marinas, canals, spas, chalets, and enormous high-rise hotels and condominiums. In the wake of the global economic recession, however, the $5 billion project foundered, and was recently shelved. Shehab has moved into the resulting vacuum, lobbying hard to turn all of Failaka into a protected site in order to enable archaeologists to uncover, study, and preserve this small nation’s past. The government already sets aside more than $10 million annually to cover the costs of foreign projects in Kuwait, and hopes to promote science as well as encourage heritage tourism. “Shehab’s dream is to create in Kuwait a kind of research center for Gulf basin archaeology,” says archaeologist Piotr Bielinski from the University of Warsaw, who is digging at a prehistoric site on the mainland just north of Kuwait City. And excavators on Failaka are making the most of this unique opportunity, exposing evidence of Mesopotamian merchants, religious structures representing three cultures and spanning more than 2,500 years, a pirate’s lair, and the remains of Failaka’s last battle, ample testimony to the island’s millennia-long endurance. Team: Moesgård Museum, Denmark

Era: 1800 B.C.
Culture: Dilmunite

(Courtesy Flemming Højlund, Kuwaiti-Danish Mission)

In the mythology of ancient Sumeria (modern Iraq), Dilmun is described as an Eden-like place of milk and honey. But by 2000 B.C., Dilmunites were leaving their homeland to become seagoing merchants and establish a powerful trading network that eventually stretched from India to Syria. Mesopotamian clay tablets refer to ships from Dilmun bringing wood, copper, and other goods from distant lands. By the nineteenth century B.C., Failaka had become a linchpin in the Dilmunites’ operations. At this point, after the Dilmunites had either ousted the Mesopotamians or merely succeeded them, there are no further signs of a Mesopotamian presence. The Dilmunites constructed a large temple and palace complex almost on top of the houses built by the earlier Mesopotamian residents. A French team that excavated the temple in the 1980s suggested that it was an oddity, possibly related to Syrian temple towers. But recent work by a team from the Moesgård Museum in Denmark points to a building remarkably similar to the Barbar sanctuary in Bahrain, considered the grandest Dilmun structure. The Failaka temple sat on a large platform nearly 90 feet wide and 120 feet long and the temple itself once measured 60 feet square, only slightly smaller than the Barbar temple. The most impressive remains of the Failaka structure are the shattered, mammoth limestone columns that once supported the temple. Such stone is not found on the island. Dilmunites quarried the massive blocks on the mainland, then ferried them to the island, an impressive feat requiring not only extensive planning and coordination efforts, but also large, seaworthy craft. The columns were also highly valued in later eras, and much of their stone was plundered and taken back to the mainland in antiquity. The Moesgård team is now focusing on the so-called palace, originally excavated in the 1960s, that lies about 30 feet from the temple. Work is still under way, but there are signs that it may have served not as a royal residence but rather as an important series of large storerooms to house the goods that made the Dilmunites a formidable economic power.

Ikaros of the Gulf

By ANDREW LAWLER Monday, February 11, 2013

Team: French Institute of the Near East, Syria
Era: 3rd Century B.C.
Culture: Seleucid

(Courtesy Mathilde Gelin)

Failaka’s name is derived from the Greek word for outpost. But Alexander the Great, according to later classical authors such as Strabo and Arrian, gave Failaka the name Ikaros, since it resembled the Aegean island of that name in size and shape. French archaeologists working on the island in recent years have found several stone inscriptions dating to the fourth and third centuries b.c. mentioning the name Ikaros, as well as architecture and artifacts that reveal a bustling community with international ties during that period. The island’s accessible fresh water, easily defended coastline, and strategic location also attracted the attention of Alexander’s successors, who vied among themselves for control of regional trade routes. Antiochus I, who ruled the Seleucid Empire in the third century B.C., built a 60-foot-square fort around a well on Failaka. Inside the fortress compound, one small, elegant temple has Ionic columns and a plan that is quintessentially Greek, including an east-facing altar. This was no simple import, however, but a fascinating amalgamation of designs. The column bases, for example, are of the Persian Achaemenid style, similar to those in the capital, Persepolis, burned by Alexander’s troops in the fourth century B.C. According to Mathilde Gelin from the French Institute of the Near East in Damascus, who is currently working at the site, this unusual pairing reflects a rare fusion of Greek and Eastern cultures—much like Antiochus himself, who was the son of a Macedonian general and a Bactrian princess, likely from today’s Afghanistan. The sturdy fort eventually grew into a bustling port town, with other temples, houses, and larger fortifications, until its eventual abandonment by the first century b.c. Gelin hopes the current excavations will reveal what role the fort and settlement played in both island life and that of the wider region during a time of remarkable cultural mixing.

Hidden Christian Community

By ANDREW LAWLER Monday, February 11, 2013

Team: Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University, Poland
Era: 8th and 9th Centuries A.D.
Culture: Christian

(Courtesy Madalena Zurek)

The center of Failaka is a low-lying swampy area that is now the province of mosquitoes and wandering white camels that belong to the Kuwaiti emir. But a millennium ago, this was a three-square-mile pocket of fertile and well-watered plain cultivated by a small community of isolated Christians in a region populated by Muslims. Previous French excavations revealed several villages and two churches, including a possible monastic chapel. A Polish team led by Warsaw-based archaeologist Magdalena Zurek is now busy excavating nearby sites to understand the extent of the settlements that flourished in the eighth and ninth centuries A.D., several hundred years after the faith inspired by Muhammad swept through the region. “We know nothing about Christians on Failaka,” says Zurek, who suspects that a third church lies near her current excavation of a modest farmstead.


(Courtesy Magdalena Zurek)

Although an old island tradition is that a community grew up around a Christian mystic and hermit, Zurek believes that Christians may have settled in the island’s interior in order to keep a low profile long after others in the region had converted to Islam. The small farms and villages, which were eventually abandoned, may mark the last refuge of Christianity in the region. Yet the larger of the two churches appears to have boasted a lofty bell tower that would have been visible far out to sea, hardly the sign of a community fearful of announcing its faith. There are few written documents of Christian life around the Persian Gulf in late antiquity and the early medieval period, and Zurek hopes that the work at Failaka, together with other excavations of ancient Christian settlements along the Gulf coast, may reveal their hidden history.

Pirate Hideout


Monday, February 11, 2013

Team: University of Perugia
Era: 17th to 19th Centuries A.D.
Culture: Arab/Islamic



(Courtesy Kuwaiti-Italian Mission)

The story of Failaka after the abandonment of the Christian villages remains shadowy. Currently archaeologists are turning their attention to several sites that sit along the northern shore of the island to probe the medieval and early modern periods. The most interesting is located on a high spot overlooking the gulf, facing Iraq. Nearly 30 years ago, a team from the University of Venice surveyed the site, pinpointing a village, called Al-Quraniya, that dates to at least as early as the seventeenth century A.D., and possibly several centuries earlier. In 2010, an Italian team led by Gian Luca Grassigli of the University of Perugia began intensive fieldwork there. The excavators have since uncovered an array of pottery, porcelain, glass bangles, and bronze objects, including nails and coins, dating to between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries A.D. The mound seems to have two large concentrations of building materials, and the archaeologists hope to make a detailed plan of the settlement in future campaigns. Deeper trenches may reveal evidence of earlier settlement, filling in the long gap between the abandonment of Christian villages and more recent times.




(Courtesy Kuwaiti-Italian Mission)

What is clear is that Failaka was still a notable outpost two millennia after Alexander. Just to the southeast of the village is a small square rock fort dating to about the sixteenth or seventeenth century. Some researchers believe that this structure was constructed by Portuguese soldier-merchants who did frequent business in the region. others suspect that Arab pirates built the base to attack the lucrative shipping lanes that led to wealthy Iraqi cities such as Basra or to ports along the Iranian coast to the east. In this era, european, Iranian, and chinese elites had a growing appetite for the gulf pearls that dominated the region’s economy. Pirates were a constant threat until the nineteenth century; British guns and diplomacy put an end to their raids.

 The Battle of Failaka


Monday, February 11, 2013

Team: Awaiting Future Study
Era: 20th and 21st Centuries
Culture: Modern



(Courtesy Mahan Kalpa Khalsa)

By the twentieth century, the advent of air travel and the discovery of oil on the Kuwaiti mainland put Failaka on the margins of the Persian Gulf’s rush toward modernization. For most of the last 100 years, the island was home to a handful of fishermen and villagers, and the only new inhabitants were those Kuwaitis who built beach homes to escape the mainland’s blistering summer heat. In 1990, there were a modest 2,000 full-time residents. But on August 2 of that year, Failaka’s location once again came into play when Iraqi forces attacked the island as part of their invasion of Kuwait. The island’s defenses consisted only of a small contingent of troops, which the Iraqis quickly overwhelmed, and the population was expelled. American forces retook the island in 1991, in turn expelling the 1,400 Iraqi soldiers who had made it their base. After the Iraqis were driven back across the border into Iraq, the Kuwaiti military used what remained of Failaka’s modern town for target practice.


(Courtesy Mahan Kalpa Khalsa)

Today, the houses are riddled with shell holes. And just outside the settlement, protected by a high fence, is the latest evidence that the advantages of Failaka’s strategic position didn’t end in ancient times. Rusted and battered tanks, armored vehicles, and other army equipment damaged and destroyed during the First Gulf War litter the ground. As clearly as the Mesopotamian seals and Greek temples, these burnt and twisted metal shells speak to the island’s continuing role in Middle Eastern history.


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