The exterior of a pearl box, made of wood, against a black background
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Collection Highlight: 18th Century Pearl Chest

9 August 2022

By Ali Alzuheiri

Meant for storing pearls, this bishtakhtah (sea chest) is just one of many rare treasures in the National Museum of Qatar (NMOQ)’s permanent collection.

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During a 2009 site visit to the port city of Al Zubarah, an archaeological team unearthed this pearl chest - a relic from the 18th century, a time marked by a booming pearl trade.

Originally belonging to a tawash (pearl merchant) who conducted his business on the pearl banks near Al Zubarah, a pearl chest such as this one usually held items key to the sale of pearls, such as scales, pearling books and other tools.

Discovery site

The chest was found in an archaeological site comprising the courtyard of a traditional home that featured clearly defined areas, such as one for cooking and another for the production of date syrup.

Decorative elements, such as a dhow etching in the plaster of one of the walls and on a doorway in the entrance hall, plus the unearthing of the bishtakhtah on its grounds, suggest that the home likely belonged to a merchant family involved in the pearl trade.

The exterior of a pearl box, made of wood, against a black background

The pearl chest, once belonging to a pearl merchant, was found during an archeological dig near Al Zubarah heritage site. © National Museum of Qatar

The pearl chest

This chest consists of four boards connected to each other with corner lap joints. The left and right board have two iron nails each inserted on either side. Initially there might have been two vertical lines of three iron tacks, three of which are remaining in situ and the rest are indicated by shallow indentations in the wood. It is assumed that they were holding decorative items (possibly copper plates), which are common elements to this type of chest.

Five more central tacks, two on each side and one in the middle, were probably holding a decorative copper alloy plate. This is supported by the remains of copper alloy plates around four of the five nails.

Four more nails protrude from the back and front board, possibly originally holding the base.

A look inside

The interior is divided into five shallow and one deep compartment(s) with wooden partition walls, joined together by lap joints. Red coloured textile, dye and possibly the remnants of an adhesive material are scattered across the surface of the chest, indicating that it was possibly lined.

The iron lock survives, and part of the key is still intact. However, the chest is missing its lid and there are only two remaining pieces from the bottom.

When the chest was excavated, the matrix surrounding it and inside it was kept intact. The matrix was removed during the conservation process by the Qatar Museums teams. No objects were found inside other than a few textile fragments.

Visit the National Museum of Qatar to see the 18th century pearl chest on display among a diverse collection of archaeological artefacts, ethnographic objects, architectural pieces, dress and jewellery and modern-day pieces.

Ali Alzuheiri is a Senior Editorial Specialist at Qatar Museums.