The Significance of the Bronze Age Trade in the Arabian Gulf
Archaeological findings and the study of records and literary sources in the countries of the Arabian Gulf indicate that trade was bustling in the region in the Bronze Age. These artifacts provide insights into the far-reaching economic relations between ancient peoples and states. The trade was not a bare exchange of goods and materials that the partners could not obtain locally; it resulted in spreading ideas, technologies, and cultural exchange.
The territories and states that flourished around the Arabian Gulf in the Bronze Age were Mesopotamia (Sumer and its successors Akkad and Old Babylon), Magan (today’s Oman Peninsula), and Dilmun (today’s Bahrain). Some of the products and resources they produced or exploited were unique for a specific location; the inhabitants of those sites could trade the surplus of local products and resources for the goods that were scarce or unavailable with them. Mesopotamian civilization developed around the two great rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates. The area was rich and fertile, favorable for agriculture and animal farming. The Sumerians and their successors grew wheat and barley, raised sheep, goats, and cattle, produced wool, cloth, and leather hides. They early recognized the benefits of seafaring and became courageous sailors, though the interest in seafaring was defined by the possibility of doing business. Trade was the main source of Sumerian wealth; small princes of Sumer, as well as religious temples, were practical and daring merchants. People of Magan also grew cereals and raised goats and cattle. Hunting and fishing were an integral part of Magan economy; the meat of wild camels and sea products constituted the local diet for a larger part. The land of Magan had deposits of copper, silver, and black stone. Dilmun grew superb dates, harvested fish and shells, copper, and tin. Due to its geographical location, it became a cross point of trading routes from east to west and from north to south, and a meeting place for merchants of the Bronze Age. The land had an elaborate infrastructure of harbors, seaports, markets, and warehouses. Merchants bought goods that arrived in Dilmun from India or Afghanistan and traded them further to Magan, Mesopotamia, or even Mediterranean, and vice versa.
The peoples living by the sea lived from its products. Though traders and caravans had well established the commercial land routes by the Bronze Age, the ancient merchants soon mastered seaways as the safest, cheapest, and fastest way of transportation. The trading routes through the Arabian Gulf connected the ancient civilizations from the Indus Valley to Syria. Long before the introduction of any coin system, the states of Mesopotamia, Magan, and Dilmun established active barter exchange. Dilmun became a cross-point of the trade routes and a distribution center.
The initial purpose of exchange was trading economic surplus for the goods and materials not available locally. Exchange of practical commodities and valuables enriched the counterparts and increased their quality of life. Excavation of grave goods sheds light on the scope of commercial relations. For example, grave goods found in Magan include carnelian beads from Gudjarat in India, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, pottery from east Iran, and ivory combs from the Central Asia or the Indus Valley. Instead, Magan was a source of silver and black stone (gabbro or diorite) that were highly valued in Mesopotamia. Written sources about merchant Lu-Emilla of Ur say that he brought wool, fish, plants or plant products, cloth, leather hides, and sesame oil to exchange them for copper ingots in Magan. Dilmun exported copper, tin, and high-quality dates to Lagash for barley, wheat, flour, onions, oil, cedar wood, dresses, and silver. Archaeologists find pottery and beads from the Indus valley throughout the lands of the Arabian Gulf; the elaborate seals of Old Babylonian origin were popular in the near east and reached as far as the Crete. Ivory and small ivory or bronze figurines arrived in Dilmun from the Indus valley, and Dilmun traded them further to Sumer.
Another aspect of exchange, though not immediate, was the exchange of technologies. For example, domestication of cattle did not develop simultaneously across the Near East, it spread from some regions to others, and the cattle was imported sometimes too. Thus, the bones of domestic cattle found in Saudi Arabia with great probability could be those of zebu, Indian humpbacked cow. Hence, domesticated zebus were brought directly from the Indus Valley or from southeast Iran, where they had appeared earlier. In the graves of Magan, archaeologists found canine bones belonging to dogs or jackals; domestication of dogs and their use for watching and hunting was another technology that deserved copying. Another example is the elaborate pottery excavated in Umm an-Nar. It refers to 2500-2000 BC, a period when Magan had no own tradition of working with clay. The pottery samples of neighboring Mesopotamia differed in shapes, technique, and decoration style. Taking into consideration the complexity of the vessels, the technology could only be imported from southeast Iran.
The exchange mostly served utilitarian purposes; most of the commodities were objects of necessity and involved simple barter deals. Trading in luxury items that could identify the buyer’s wealth or social status could also occur in the same manner. However, exchange of valuables between the states could be reciprocal to maintain partnership or strategic alliance, to solicit support from a more powerful ruler, or to demonstrate the donor’s superioriority. Ancient records say that a king of Magan sent a ship loaded with gold to Shulgi, the king of Ur, in 2069 BC. In this case, the donation indicated Magan’s subordination to Ur at that moment.
Exchange of ideas was another result of trade. Naturally, people tried to implement good ideas they saw with their counterparts. In that manner, Magan circular towers were such an excellent idea for the defense that they were reproduced from local materials across the continent (so-called Martello towers). Their shape and the way of construction was such a good idea for their purpose that neighbors and successors duplicated it almost without changes up to the recent times.
Migration of people that resulted from trade was not massive and did not cause a demographic shift. The migrants were seamen, merchants, craftsmen and settlers from other lands who came via trading routes and stayed in the new countries. They introduced new technologies (as it could be with Iranian-type pottery found in Magan), religious beliefs and practices, and other elements of culture. For example, in some of the graves excavated in Magan, the dead were cremated, which was a recognizable Indian practice. They also introduced their religions and traditions that either dissolved in the new country or enriched its culture.
Trade in the Bronze Age Arabian Gulf followed several schemes. It could be a down-the-line trade, exchange through intermediaries or emissaries. To facilitate the trading process, foreign merchants could set up colonies with own infrastructure. For example, Dilmun (Bahrain) harbored such merchant colonies. Lu-Emilla, a seafaring merchant, who was active in 2028-2004 BC, during the reign of the last king of Ur, worked as a commercial agent for the temple of moon god Nonna. According to historical records, he traded wool, fish and other goods with Magan for copper ingots. Another trader whose activity was reflected in his correspondence and trading records, Ur-Enki, was an emissary working for the king of Lagash Lugalanda and his wife. Obviously, Mesopotamian merchants traded for commission. Individual merchants trading for own profit and privately owned merchant syndicates appeared in a later period of Sumerian history. It is interesting that the profession of a merchant was not limited to men; temple records say about Amad-Ningal, a woman-merchant from Ur.
Long before the development of any coin system, in the period between the middle of the fourth and the third millennia BC, some areas around the Arabian Gulf already specialized in trade. The necessity fostered the development of warehousing, distribution, and banking; the exchange system started using value-based rates and commodities. Creation of the first states engendered the conflict of interests between individual merchants and the state, hence resulting in the elaboration of taxation and government interference in trade. The concept of crediting also roots in the Sumerian times; a loan was given to a merchant based on the evaluation of his business. Letters of credit became a useful invention that enabled operating costs on distance. Finally, active international trade evoked the idea of a uniform currency standard. At the end of third millennium BC merchants could recalculate the value of goods in silver. Silver served to Sumerian bankers as a standard equivalent in assessment of business value and interest.
Renfrew and Bahn cite Wallerstein’s idea about the possible role of trade in the state-forming process. Under certain circumstances, the flow of goods can facilitate the unification of the territories on the economic basis. The sites with favorable trading position had preference over those located off the trading routes. Such sites rapidly expanded and gained significance as commercial and economic centers; they often became capital, which increased their significance further. In the natural manner, settlements located around the greater marketplace developed subordination. Trade alone did not play an exclusive role in formation of states; however, it was a significant factor. The city-states of Mesopotamia formed unities according to this principle. On the contrary, the shift in Dilmun’s significance from a sacred place to a place of commerce, bustled the importance of the island and contributed to the economic prosperity of its dwellers. Though it has never developed into an empire due to the small size, it preserved its independence as trading cross-point for a long time.
To recapitulate, the significance of Bronze Age trade in the Arabian Gulf was in economic exchange and communication that fostered the development of the region. The settlements, tribes, city-states, and states of the Gulf profited from commodity exchange greatly. On the one hand, it enabled trading off their surplus. On the other hand, they obtained goods and raw materials that were necessary or valuable but unavailable locally. Communication in the process of trade involved exchange of ideas, technologies, and other forms of cultural exchange. In that manner, domestication of cattle, various pottery technologies, copper and iron smelting, and metalworking spread across the Near East. Trade resulted in gradual migration of people and cultures. Trade partially contributed to the state-forming process. Finally, Bronze Age trade in the Arabian Gulf set most of the modern commercial schemes, concepts, and standards.