The State of Qatar occupies a small peninsula roughly 160 km, (99 mi.) long and, at most, 80 km (50 mi.) wide (about 10,437 sq km, or 6,471 sq. mi.), on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula. It borders the Eastern Province of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Western Region of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A generally flat, semi-desertic area with a maximum elevation of 120 m above sea level, Qatar's topography ranges from a limestone plateau (Dukhan Heights) opposite Salwa Bay on the southwestern side of the peninsula, through sandy desert throughout most of the interior, to low-lying sabkha, or salt flats, along much of the east coast.
The archaeological exploration of Qatar dates back to 1956, when a Danish expedition from the University of Aarhus, under the direction of Peter Vilhelm Glob, discovered several lithic sites and burial mounds there during a brief visit. This was followed by Danish fieldwork, concentrating mainly on lithic sites, between 1957 and 1964, and ultimately by the publication of the first major work on Qatar's pre-history by Holger Kapel (1967). In 1973 a British team, led by Beatrice de Cardi, conducted a season of survey and excavation (di Cardi, 1978). An important French mission under the direction of Jacques Tixier worked in Qatar from 1976 to 1982 (Inizan, 1980; Hardy-Guilbert, 1984), and In 1988 a Japanese team under the direction of Masatoshi A. Konishi, Takeshi Gotoh, and Yoshihako Akashi returned to the site of Umm al-Ma', the scene of some preliminary investigations by the Danish expedition thirty years earlier, to excavate two burial cairns (Konishi, 1989).
Kapel grouped the lithic material discovered by the Danish expedition into four categories: Qatar A, a Middle Paleolithic industry in the Levalloiso-Mousterian tradition; Qatar B, a Mesolithic blade-arrowhead industry; Qatar C, a Late Mesolithic scraper culture; and Qatar D, a Neolithic industry characterized by tanged and barbed arrowheads and fine, pressure-flaked bifaces. The work of the French mission showed conclusively, however, that all of the material assigned to groups A, C, and D is late prehistoric, dating principally to the late fifth and fourth millennia. This is borne out by the presence, on some sites belonging to this group (such as Khor F.P.P., an abbreviation used to designate this particular site at Khor, of which there are many), of imported pottery from Mesopotamia of the Ubaid 3–4 type.
The earliest material found by any of the teams working in Qatar is Kapel's Qatar B (e.g., at Shagra), excavated by the French at site 36 near Acila in western Qatar. This complex includes blade arrowheads that compare closely with material found on Pre-Pottery Neolithic B sites in Syria and Israel; it probably represents the remains of the hunting camps of a mobile population that originated in the Syro-Palestinian desert region and colonized eastern Arabia sometime around 5000 BCE. Pollen analysis suggests that site 36 may have been situated alongside a lake ringed by halophytic plants, reeds, and trees, no doubt a watering hole that attracted game.
The later prehistoric sites, on the other hand, provide evidence for the intensive exploitation of fish (particularly Sparidae) and shellfish (Turbo, Veneridae, and oyster). The local population at this time was in contact with Ubaid-period Mesopotamia. This was demonstrated, inter alia, by the presence of small numbers of Ubaid 3–4 sherds in the simple pit burials the French team excavated at Khor F.P.P. At least two other exotic materials, carnelian and obsidian, also reached Qatar at this time as beads.
Qatar's later pre-Islamic past is poorly represented in the archaeological record. An early to mid-second millennium BCE site at Khor excavated by the French mission yielded small numbers of Barbar city II red-ridged sherds, probably originating on Bahrain, as well as a small amount of so-called Wadi Suq pottery with close parallels at Tell Abraq in the UAE. These were found in connection with the stone foundations of several small huts or tents. The British team similarly found red-ridged pottery at the site of Bir Abaruk 3. The presence of large quantities of the shellfish (gastropod) Drupa concactenata at Khor led to the suggestion that purple dye may have been produced at the site, but some malacologists dispute this.
Some slight indication of Qatar's occupation during the Hellenistic and/or Parthian period was provided In 1961–1962 by a single sherd found outside of a cairn burial excavated by the Danish team. It belongs to a type of pottery well represented at the major Hellenistic metropolis of Thaj, in northeastern Saudi Arabia. In 1962–1963 the Danish mission carried out excavations at a settlement on Ras Uwainat Ali, just north of Dukhan on the west coast of the peninsula, where more Thaj-type pottery was recovered. The presence of the toponym Kadara polis (cf. Qatar) on Claudius Ptolemy's map of Arabia and of the tribal name Catharrei in Pliny's Natural History (6.32.149) also gives a hint of occupation in Qatar in the Hellenistic/Parthian period. Contemporary, or just slightly later, remains of Parthian or Sasanian date were also discovered at Mezruah, south of Khor, where the Danish expedition uncovered two camel burials, one of which contained a glass vessel. Comparable camel burials are now known in Oman, the UAE, eastern Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
The Islamic archaeology of Qatar was investigated by Claire Hardy-Guildbert for the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique between 1977 and 1986, when an inventory of more than two hundred monuments was made. Excavations were also conducted by the French team In 1979 and 1982–1983 at the site of Murwab, a large rural site covering about 125 ha (309 acres) in northeastern Qatar. Material dating to about 800–850 CE was recovered during the course of excavating a small fort, private houses, two mosques, and a cemetery. The most important later Islamic site in Qatar is surely al-Huwaila, which appears on Carsten Niebuhr's map of the Arabian Gulf as Huäle. (Niebuhr was the surveyor on the Danish expedition of 1761–1767 charged with exploring Arabia.) Al-Huwaila was the principal town on Qatar until the nineteenth century. Finally, at various points along the east coast of Qatar, cup marks, small holes, gaming boards, and representations of ships have been carved into the surface of rock outcrops. Although the dating of these features is difficult, it has been suggested that they are the work of pearl divers working off the coast of Qatar in the last several centuries who whiled away their free time playing board games and carving pictures of local seacraft.
- de Cardi, Beatrice. Qatar Archaeological Report: Excavations, 1973. Oxford, 1978. Final report of the 1973 British expedition.
- Facey, William. “The Boat Carvings at Jabal al-Jussasiyah, Northeast Qatar.” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 17 (1987): 199–222.
- Hardy-Guilbert, C. “Fouilles archéologiques à Murwab, Qatar.” In Arabie orientale: Mésopotamie et Iran méridional, de l'âge du fer au début de la période islamique, edited by Rémy Boucharlat and Jean-François Salles, pp. 169–188. Paris, 1984.
- Inizan, Marie-Louise. Préhistoire à Qatar. Mission Archéologique Française à Qatar, vol. 2. Paris, 1980. Final publication of the work of the French mission under Jacques Tixier on the Qatar peninsula. Supersedes all earlier publications on the prehistory of Qatar by the Danish, British, and French missions.
- Kapel, Holger. Atlas of the Stone-Age Cultures of Qatar. Aarhus, 1967.
- Konishi, M. A., et al. Excavations in Bahrain and Qatar, 1987/8. Tokyo, 1989.
- Potts, Daniel T. The Arabian Gulf in Antiquity. 2 vols. Oxford, 1990. General survey of the archaeology of the Gulf region, with references to the occupation of Qatar in all periods.
D. T. Potts