February 20, 2001

T. Geoffrey Bibby, Discoverer of Gilgamesh's Island, Dies at 83


T. Geoffrey Bibby, an archaeologist who unearthed a 4,000-year-old kingdom on Bahrain, proving the arid island state in the Persian Gulf to be richer in history than in oil, died on Feb. 6 in a hospital near Aarhus, Denmark, where he had lived for 50 years. He was 83.

In the mythology of Sumeria, Dilmun was a secret island where the epic hero Gilgamesh went in search of eternal life. It was portrayed as a place without death or sickness and with an abundance of sweet waters. Using the text of the legend, written in verse on clay tablets, Mr. Bibby and his colleagues established a connection between Dilmun, presumed to be a mythical paradise, and Bahrain, the very real island off the coast of Saudi Arabia.

In 1953, Mr. Bibby and Prof. Peter Vilhelm Glob, a colleague at Aarhus University in Denmark, set off with a team to search for the mysterious realm. After several years of expeditions, Mr. Bibby and his colleagues verified the existence of Dilmun, a "considerable city," under the capital of Bahrain, Manama.

Mr. Bibby concentrated on one site under and around the ramparts of a 16th-century Portuguese fort and on another to the west at Barbar, the site of a temple built in the third millennium B.C.

He discovered enough artifacts to show that Dilmun was the rich capital of an independent kingdom and the center of trade between Sumeria, a region of Mesopotamia that is now Iraq, and a civilization in the Indus River Valley, now Pakistan and western India.

Mr. Bibby also found clues about the early civilization in ancient burial mounds, numbering in the thousands, that he called "the biggest known prehistoric cemetery." He visited them for the 35th and final time in 1997.

Many mounds had been plundered in the distant past. But they yielded further evidence of Dilmun's importance as a commercial hub, a status that, incidentally, Bahrain has been reclaiming now that its oil reserves are waning.

Mr. Bibby told of his digs in "Looking for Dilmun," a highly praised book that remains in print. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of The New York Times wrote, "It's enough to turn us all into archaeologists."

But Mr. Bibby did not confine himself to Arabia. His "Four Thousand Years Ago," a panorama of life in much of the inhabited world from 2000 to 1000 B.C., is also in print.

Closer to home, he wrote "The Testimony of the Spade," a survey of European prehistory of the Stone and Bronze Ages, north of the Alps, from 15,000 B.C. to the Vikings. Its sweep reached from Russia to Ireland, from the cave dwellers of France and the Norse sagas to the "barbarian" tribes described by Caesar and Tacitus.

He also wrote about the "bog people" of northern Europe, particularly Grauballe Man, the well-preserved body of a hanged man circa 190 B.C. and excavated in Denmark in 1950.

Trained as a classical archaeologist and versed in Assyrian scripts, Mr. Bibby was a curator at the Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus and an archaeological field director at Aarhus University. He retired in 1987.

Thomas Geoffrey Bibby was born on Oct. 14, 1917, in Heversham, England. He was educated at Cambridge and served with British intelligence in World War II. At one point, he was sent to join the Danish resistance, which Professor Glob had also joined.

Soon after the war and failing to find work in his field, he took a job with the Iraq Petroleum Company in Bahrain for three years. On a home visit, he met Vibeke Tscherning, a Danish au pair at a vicarage in Britain, and married her in 1949. Visiting her parents, he met Mr. Glob, who by then was a professor of prehistoric archaeology and director of the prehistoric collection of the Moesgaard Museum, at a dinner. They linked up to solve the controversy over the whereabouts of Dilmun, the paradise visited by Gilgamesh, a land given to Ziusudra, the Babylonian Noah, after the flood.

In addition to his wife, who often accompanied him on expeditions, he is survived by a daughter and two sons, all of Denmark.

Professor Glob died in 1985.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company


by Stuart Elliott
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