Throughout Eastern Arabia, various Iron Age (1st millennium BC) sites have exhibited a fascinating set of artifacts-ceramics with the decoration of a snake. Sarouq Al Hadeed, where Sanisera is currently excavating, is one of those sites. Sarouq is known for its’ remarkable number of artifacts; excavations have uncovered hundreds of metal objects such as complete bowls and pitchers, incense burners, jewelry, and daggers. Yet it is the pottery with moulded snake decoration that is perhaps the site’s most mystifying objects.
A map of the Iron Age sites in southeastern Arabia.
The presence of large jars with the representation of a snake in relief applique at Sarouq Al Hadeed suggests the existence of a snake cult within the Oman Peninsula, although very little is known about what this religious practice entailed. Supporting evidence for the cult’s existence, however, was strengthened by the discovery of copper figurines of snakes at a site in the peninsula called Al Qusais (Dubai). In addition, a snake cult with iconography similar to what has been found at Sarouq has also been noted in Egypt, Mesopotamia and the southern Levant, verifying, in the minds of many scholars, the existence of this cult.
The snake has long been understood as a symbol associated with fertility, soil, water and the underground world. While this motif is known throughout Iron Age Arabia as a ritual symbol, one scholar has suggested that snakes were a common feature of southern Levantine folk religion all the way from the Bronze Age through the Iron Age, especially amongst semi-nomadic desert dwellers. Not only would this make the snake cult a far-reaching and durable one, but it would fit well the description of the various kinds of occupations seen at Sarouq Al Hadeed, which researchers think at one point served as a camp for nomadic shepherds.
Cultic pottery from Bithnah, an Iron Age site on the Oman Peninsula.