Landscapes of Survival: Pastoralist Societies, Rock Art and Literacy in Jordan's Black Desert
Jebel Qurma project on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JebelQurmaProject/
LoS project on twitter: https://mobile.twitter.com/SurvivalScapes
Project overview: http://www.landscapesofsurvival.org
The ‘Black Desert’ in northeastern Jordan is a vast expanse of rough basalt boulder fields and endless gravel plains. Despite the many environmental constraints and severe ecological marginality, the basalt desert appears to be astonishingly rich in all kinds of archaeological remains. High-resolution satellite imagery and new fieldwork in the Jebel Qurma region near the Saudi border revealed hundreds of previously unknown habitation sites and burial mounds and thousands of rock carvings and inscriptions in Safaitic, all dating between roughly 200 BCE and 800 CE. These were the works of pastoralist groups with a mobile lifeway centred on hunting-and-gathering, sheep-goat herding and camel nomadism.
‘Landscapes of Survival’ is a multidisciplinary research programme which aims to bring the rich, new datasets (settlements, burials, rock-art, inscriptions) in a single interpretive framework, which has not been done before. It focuses on the social, political, economic and ideological strategies which allowed the local peoples to successfully exploit their inherently marginal landscapes between 200 BCE and 800 CE. The programme investigates pastoralist lifeways and the treatment of the dead in the desert, the role of rock-art in signing the landscape, and the implications of widespread literacy among the local peoples.
The proposed research into the social structures and fabrics in the Black Desert, and their embedding in the natural and cultural landscapes, elaborates on new insights from archaeology, iconography, epigraphy and the natural sciences. This integrated research effort will put our current, fragmentary knowledge of the cultural significance of the vast desert and its ancient peoples in a completely new light.
The ‘Landscapes of Survival’ project is based at the Faculty of Archaeology of Leiden University (The Netherlands), and is funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). The project takes place under the auspices of the Jebel Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project.
Landscapes of Survival conference (Leiden, 17-18 March 2017): http://www.landscapesofsurvival.org/conference/
International Conference on The Archaeology and Epigraphy of Jordan’s North-Eastern Desert
Abstract: The so-called ‘Black Desert’ of Jordan and beyond has a an amazingly rich archaeological and epigraphic record. Current fieldwork in the region produces a wealth of fascinating new data sets. The magnitude of the local record demonstrates thriving desert lifeways and challenges any preconceived ideas of marginality or cultural insignificance. In this conference we will bring together scholars working on the archaeology and epigraphy of Jordan’s North-Eastern desert and beyond, in order to explain the prominent achievements of the indigenous peoples through the ages and to develop new, comparative perspectives on desert cultural landscapes. Guiding themes are regional perspectives and diversity, chronologies, population dynamics, transitions, habitation and burial practices, local identities, mobility and landscape, ecology and environment, connectivity, social and ideological strategies, the meaning of literacy, marginality and periphery, the role of rock art, and the constitution and meanings of local material culture.
Organisers: Peter Akkermans and Ahmad Al-Jallad
Abstracts of papers: http://www.landscapesofsurvival.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/ABSTRACTS-Leiden-Conference.pdf
The Badia in Early Islamic Times - Karin Bartl (Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Jordan)
The northeastern steppe of Jordan today forms an inhospitable landscape with so little natural resources that its use for settlement seems unattractive. However, various investigations in recent decades have shown that the modern situation does not correspond to settlement activities in prehistoric and protohistoric periods, which were based on different ecological conditions. This also applies to the Late Roman / Early Byzantine period and the Early Islamic / Umayyad period (3rd - 8th centuries), in which individual buildings such as watchtowers, castra and ‘desert castles’ as well as sporadic settlements are evident in the region. The variously documented hydraulic installations attest to sophisticated water management practices for this period and indirectly point to a more humid climate than today. A denser and more species-rich vegetation can be assumed, corresponding to richer fauna, and therefore generally more favorable settlement conditions. Settlement of the steppes in the Umayyad period is based on Late Antique traditions, but precise dating of the sites is sometimes difficult and in most cases is based on architectural and ceramic typologies. The comparatively large variety of architectural structures is striking and most likely is associated with different concepts of use. The Umayyad settlement forms the final climax of the pre-modern usage of the badia. The period after 750 CE is characterized by a decrease of habitation. Reasons for this could be natural disasters such as earthquakes, political events such as the relocation of the center of Caliphal rule, or regional climate changes due to increasing aridity.
The Lucky Steppe: the Jordanian Badia in Late Antiquity - Alan Walmsley (Sidney, Australia)
In recent years much attention has been paid to documenting and describing the many Late Antique (ca. 400- 650 CE) village settlements of the Jordanian steppe, extending from the southern slopes of the Hauran to Arabia. Spawned by the empire-wide initiatives of Diocletian, the villages of the badia gained an unprecedented visible presence through the adoption of stone as a building material, thereby preserving local styles of planning and architecture that prevailed for over half a millennium. During this period the badia was a strategic geopolitical and cultural zone that brought fame and fortune to the Arabs who lived there, making it the ‘lucky steppe’. The richness of recent historical and archaeological research is manifest in the many publications that have appeared over the last few decades, notably those from the excavations of the late Michel Piccirillo east of Madaba, the detailed works of Bert de Vries at Umm al-Jimal, and the information-rich publications of the late Irfan Shahid. My current interest is to advance the comprehensive and transdisciplinary evaluation of this historical and archaeological material to reveal the distinctive social structures, belief systems, and ways of daily life shared between the villages and the pastoral countryside, and in which the chief protagonists – the Arab Christian tribes of the Jordanian steppe – featured prominently. This paper highlights some of the new advances in these areas. Once viewed in some quarters, as marginalized border-lands on the fringe of Byzantium, new methodological approaches and the exceptional survival of source material reveals that the Jordanian steppe holds many insights into the developing social and economic profiles of late antiquity in the wider eastern Mediterranean. These profiles record an Arab Christian way of life that deeply informed the developing cultural horizons and political structures of Syria-Palestine in Late Antiquity, and trended with profound influence into and throughout early Islamic times.
Desert Life: http://www.mareonline.nl/archive/2017/01/19/desert-life
The war put an end to archaeologist Peter Akkermans’ digs in Syria; he ended up in a Jordanian patch of no man’s land and discovered all sorts.
“You might think: what am I doing here? These far-away countries don’t really count. Everybody just assumes there’s nothing there.”
Using a map, Peter Akkermans points out a region shaped like a new moon; it contains stretches of land in Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and the northern part of Jordan. “The key to everything is the Fertile Crescent.” This region is regarded as archaeologists as a goldmine, because it was farmed from a very early period. “Nobody ever visits the deserts.”
But he did. His field of research is (literally) in East Jordan, where he ended up by necessity. Akkermans spent 25 years working Syria, in Tell Sabi Abyad, where he conducted large-scale digs. “But the war forced us to leave. In 2011, one week before our departure, the fat hit the fire and I couldn’t reach it.” It was a terrible blow to the research: in 2014, Akkermans told Mare how the jihadists plundered the warehouse where all the finds were kept.
He had always been interested in the outlying areas and ended up in a patch of no man’s land, close to the border with Saudi Arabia. Based in a deserted oil camp, he and his team of twelve PhD students and degree students comb through the empty area of desert every year. The camp is on the verge of collapsing and partly buried in sand, Akkermans explains.
Metre by metre, the team is attempting to document an expanse of land measuring three hundred square kilometres. “We are pioneering; we want to reconstruct life in this area”, Akkermans continues. By which he means: all life, from 9,000 BC up to the present day. “Drawings of little lorries done by modern nomads and coins from 1973 – we include all these things.”
This arid, stony desert region soon proved to have countless signs of previous life: traces of a green country that was once heavily populated by nomads, hunters and herdsmen.
“On the satellite pictures – Google Earth is ideal for this sort of thing – you can see all sorts of structures. There are traces of walls, huts or houses, paths, barrows and stables. However, a number of questions remained: “When was it built? When was it deserted? We needed to be on the ground to find the answers, and that’s where we noticed details too small to show up on satellite images.”
On the ground, the archaeologists found more than a thousand rocks with inscriptions and drawings on them. The desert must have teemed with life.
“The drawings are scratched or hacked into the surface – there are no paintings. They show camels, but there are gazelles, emus, lions and hyenas too and people shooting at the animals with bows and arrows; they are often accompanied by inscriptions in Safaitic writing: lists of parents’ and forefathers’ names. They say things like ‘name, son of, son of, son of ….’ and can go back thirteen generations. It’s a huge memory.”
The drawings date from around the early part of the first century AD while other remains could be as much as eleven thousand years old. “We only have tiny clues to work with and preservation is a major problem. The bodies in the barrows were only covered by rocks, so they have totally disappeared due to the affects of the weather, insects and dampness. Even in the barrows that have survived intact and have never been robbed only contain dust sometimes; entire bodies can decompose here.”
The landscape must have looked very different. “We have found wood remains, dating from the third century A.D., from seven different species of tree, species that need water all year round. It must have been much more verdant, with plenty of water; perhaps there weren’t any woods, but there would have been copses.”
The fact that the deserts weren’t always deserts was revealed last year, when, after many years of drought, it started to rain again. “Immediately, flowers shot up and large pools formed. The countryside was completely transformed; animals could find food again so the nomads returned too.”
He suspects that the region used to attract lots of herdsmen with livestock but few farmers. “The ground is very stony – even our hiking boots don’t last long. This area would be a farmer’s second or third choice. However, others need room to let their animals graze and perhaps there was some ad hoc agriculture in the low-lying parts.”
He hopes he can bring a forgotten area back to life with this project. “People always ignore these areas, so the records are very one-sided, as if these people never existed. So many activities are missed: people could draw and write; they had wishes and dreams too.”
“Many stories about them are disparaging: they are barbarians, living on the furthest boundaries of the kingdoms so they had a bad reputation. In the tales told by the Romans, for instance, only the tribes burn down the forts. But were they independent? Did they have any interactions with cities? How intensive was the contact? We just don’t know.”