x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

New findings on snake cult challenge Iron Age theories

New research into a snake cult that lived in the mountains near Masafi during the Iron Age will be presented next week.

New research into a snake cult that lived in the mountains near Masafi during the Iron Age will be presented next week at the world's leading conference on Arabian archaeology. Initial excavations at the Al Bithnah site, between 2000 and 2004, indicated that it had been the meeting place for a religious cult based around snake iconography between 2,500 and 3,100 years ago. Anne Benoist, the French archaeologist who headed the dig, will tell the Seminar for Arabian Studies in London that a new meeting place has been found near the first, with their proximity challenging theories about territorial organisation, religion and collective life in eastern Arabia during that era of the Iron Age.

The artefacts unearthed by Dr Benoist's group include incense burners and posts decorated with snakes, along with signs that copper had been mined and smelted. They indicated a god symbolised by a snake, in common with iconography found elsewhere on the Arabian peninsula, and supported theories that there was an ancient but complex society with separate roles for priests and bureaucrats. At the time, snakes were considered to be symbols of knowledge and prosperity. Similar sites have been found elsewhere in the UAE and in Oman, Yemen, Bahrain and southern Iran, suggesting that there were cultural and trade links during the Iron Age.

Dr Benoist's presentation will be one of dozens at the three-day seminar in the British Museum, which begins next Thursday. Other speakers will address connections between the Levant and Southern Arabian communities in the Pleistocene era, the use of fragments from early Qurans to describe the development of written Arabic, and new methods to investigate sites at the bottom of the Gulf, which was above sea level 18,000 years ago at the last glacial maximum.

jhenzell@thenational.ae