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FIELD SURVEY IN 2012
Fieldwork in 2012 focussed on the extensive basalt range between Wadi Rajjil and Wadi al-Qattafi, east of the small town of Azraq, close to the Jordan-Saudi border. The region has not been studied in any detail by archaeologists before – a scholarly negligence which, it appears, is totally unjustified. Our fieldwork showed that the region is extremely rich in archaeological remains, from the Palaeolithic up to the modern era. There are many hundreds of circular stone dwellings, animal pens, burial cairns, stone land markers, desert kites and other hunting installations, rock drawings, Safaitic and medieval Arabic inscriptions on stone, and so on – the silent and long forgotten testimonies of ancient people often referred to as “The Old Men of Arabia”.
Wadi Rajjil, entering the Hazimah plain. To the right we see the prominent, dark basalt-covered mound of Jebel Qurma (Photo: APAAME_20111027_DLK-0333)
The 2012 field season covered an area of about 7 by 4 kilometres, in the middle of the overall study area. It comprised a wide and representative range of landscape features and micro-environments so typical for the basalt range, including the steep and often difficult to access, basalt-capped hillocks; the vast, gently undulating basalt plateau extending beyond the hillocks; the many wadis, large and small, which intersect the plateau and debouche into the surrounding gravel plains and mud flats; and the extensive stretches of seasonally flooded, silted-up mud flats, which receive their water from the drainage wadis and surface run-off. Permanent water sources are absent in the area under study.
Altogether, 116 sites have been located, recorded and sampled in 2012, providing a first insight into site distribution and site variability, as well as into local artefact assemblages and patterns therein. The precise dating of the sites is often still problematic, due to either the rather generic nature of the artefactual finds or a lack of artefacts altogether. Archaeological research in the basalt desert in general is seriously hampered by poor chronological control, because of the virtual absence of well-dated excavated sites in the area for comparative purposes. A detailed study of the artefactual finds – predominantly flint and, to a much lesser extent, pottery – is underway and will hopefully contribute to a better insight into matters of chronology.
Palaeolithic remains, in the form of lithic stray finds, occur throughout the basalt range, foremost on the top of the basalt-capped hillocks along the steep ridge at the edge of the basalt plateau and the wide gravel plain in front of it.
Two Neolithic flint-knapping sites in the basaltic research area: sites QUR-29 (left) and QUR-329 (right)
Neolithic occupations were found at a series of places, with most sites probably belonging to the sixth millennium BC or Late Neolithic. They occurred in the form of very small flint-knapping sites, each a few meters in diameter and full of lithic debris and tools, and sites characterized by small circular or U-shaped huts at short distances of each other. The huts are usually little more than small clearances in the basalt, with low, roughly piled stone walls encircling each clearance. At least two sites revealed flattened areas about 5-6 meters across marked by small, angular-cut basalt blocks, the meaning of which remains unknown (platforms?).
Neolithic platform (left) and round hut remains (right) at site QUR-239, in the midst of the basalt
The study area contains a number of so-called desert kites – hunter traps for the larger animals of the region, such as gazelle, oryx and onager. The funnel-shaped installations had two long and low, stone-built walls converging on a star-shaped enclosure or "killing field" sited on the crest of a ridge or hill. The walls of these installations were very long, running for many kilometres atop of the basalt-capped hillocks, across the rolling hinterland and into the mud flats.
A desert kite in the study area: site QUR-26
The kite wall (QUR-26) stretching for many kilometres in the basalt landscape
The kite's killing field: the star-shaped enclosure or trap
For the larger part, the walls were very low, i.e. no more than a few roughly piled boulders, altogether some 30-50 cm high (often hardly visible against the surrounding boulder fields). These guide walls seem to have been made by collecting and piling the stones from one direction only, thus creating a pathway along the entire length of the installation. Only near the star-shaped enclosure, the walls tend to regularly have large stones set on edge, which may have served as hides for the hunters. The mere size of the kites and the very considerable labour invested in their construction leave no doubt that these installations were the result of joint group efforts, rather than the work of ambitious individuals. The date of the kites in the study region is unknown for the moment, although the few lithic finds in and around them suggest a prehistoric origin.
The roughly piled kite walls (site QUR-26)
Interestingly, the kites seem to have been used for long periods, as they were regularly expanded and/or modified. “”Mini-kites” just stretching for a few hundred metres and incorporated in the long walls of the original (and much larger) kites occurred as well. Small hunter lodges along the kite walls, provided with Safaitic inscriptions and/or Roman-style pottery, indicate that the kites were still used for the hunt thousands of years after their original construction.
A kite wall atop of hillocks partly buried in the sand
A most interesting find were the series of large circular stone structures up to 70 metres across, with extensive enclosures (animal pens?) in the centre, surrounded by an outer ring of small huts for living. These so-called "wheels" are often found in groups of two to seven installations, with each wheel located at the top of a basalt hillock at close distance of another. Their location offers wide vistas and is near to wadis and extensive mud flats, providing ample access to water in the wet season. Arrowheads and other flint tools, as well as small but consistent quantities of coarse, handmade and heavily basalt-tempered pottery, indicate that these enigmatic structures so characteristic of the northeastern desert date into the fifth or, more likely, fourth millennium BC.
Sites QUR-147 (right) and QUR-148 (upper left) seen from the air: two typical "wheels" (Photo: APAAME_20081102_DLK-0166)
A typical wheel of the fifth to fourth millennium BC: site QUR-147 seen from the neighbouring wheel site QUR-148. The large burial cairn in the middle is of much later, Safaitic date and fits in the first centuries AD.
Another prehistoric wheel: site QUR-148, seen from its neighbour, site QUR-147. The low stone walls are clearly visible.
Significantly, the basalt desert seems to have been abandoned at the end of the fourth millennium BC, for reasons unknown so far. For thousands of years the wasteland seems to have been left vacant; despite the intensive coverage of the study area, we did not find any site or artefact which could be dated with certainty in the Bronze Age or Iron Age.
The so-called pendant graves, usually comprising a large cairn at the head then a tail of smaller rectangular chambered cairns, may perhaps fit into (part of) this time span, as they seem to post-date the wheels (in at least one instance, a pendant is constructed atop of a wheel, indicative of stratigraphic and chronological difference). Unfortunately, however, none of the pendants yielded any associated surface finds so far, so their precise date remains unclear.
A pendant grave atop of a basalt mound in the research region: site QUR-32
The same pendant grave (QUR-32) seen on the ground; the individual graves of the tail are clearly visible on top of the basalt mound
The individual graves of the tail (site QUR-32) in more detail
Habitation in the basalt range seems to have been resumed not until somewhere in the first millennium BC, with the arrival of the so-called Safaitic groups in the region. For several hundreds of years, up to the fourth or fifth centuries AD, they appear to have exploited the basalt desert in a very extensive way. Safaitic occurrences were found in astonishingly large numbers everywhere in the area under study, from relatively easy-to-access find spots close to mud flats to the summits of steep hillocks and remote basalt outcrops in the hinterland. These people must have had an extraordinary knowledge of the basalt range and its opportunities for human use.
This is the site of QUR-64, situated high on top of a basalt-capped hillock, with a large mud flat in front of it. The site has remains of prehistoric settlement, probably going back as far as the sixth millennium BC, but it has also significant remnants from the mid-first millennium BC to the fourth century AD. There were many circular installations, burial cairns as well as large stone-walled corrals from this period. In addition we found hundreds of rock carvings and texts in Safaitic script - an ancient North Arabian dialect, related to Arabic but distinct from it.
A most prominent indicator of Safaitic presence are their innumerable inscriptions and carvings in stone, which have been found by the thousands throughout the basalt wasteland of northeastern Jordan and beyond. Current knowledge about the Safaitic groups is severely biased, in the sense that it is almost exclusively based on the study of selective texts and the cairns which contain these inscriptions. Little or no attention has been paid to architectural or other features beyond the texts proper, and no comprehensive, regional-based insight into site distribution and site variability was available until now.
A large Safaitic burial cairn and other installations at site QUR-64, probably dated in the 1st to 3rd century AD.
A major outcome of the new research within the frame of the Jebel Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project is that, for the first time, we may begin to develop a Safaitic archaeology, in addition to the common Safaitic epigraphy. Safaitic presence in the basalt range occurs in many different forms, including numerous large and small burial cairns in different forms: from simple heaps of stones and ring cairns 70-100 cm high to monumental, chambered tower tombs up to two or three metres high with corbelled roofs, often with a circular or crescent-shaped stone-walled enclosure to the east in front of them.
Monumental Safaitic burial cairns at sites QUR-64 (left) and QUR-27 (right)
There were also small Safaitic camp sites in basalt outcrops; hunter lodges integrated into much earlier, prehistoric features; stone markers at high grounds; and extensive stone-walled enclosures comprising both large animal pens and areas for living and working, provided with fireplaces and other installations.
Safaitic structures at site QUR-64, dated between the 1st to 3rd century AD
As pointed out above, inscriptions on basalt rocks and drawings of camels, gazelles, ostriches and other wild animals are among the most common features at the Safaitic sites. During the 2012 field season, we were able to systematically document over 1700 (!) Safaitic inscriptions and/or drawings, none of which was known before.
Safaitic drawings and inscriptions on basalt found in 2012. They date in the 1st to 3rd centuries AD.
Small quantities of imported Roman-style pottery was found at a series of Safaitic sites, suggestive of a small-scale yet regular interaction between the Roman urban communities of western Jordan and the desert tribes of eastern Jordan. Often, small quantities of flint tools are found at the Safaitic sites, suggesting that these groups still made regular use of lithic implements (in addition to metal tools and weapons regularly depicted on the Safaitic rock drawings).
An isolated occurrence on high ground: the Safaitic site QUR-232 atop of the mound in the middle of this picture
An extraordinary small find was a silver Hellenistic-Seleucid coin at the surface of a looted Safaitic tomb at site QUR-238, deep inside the basalt range, bearing the name of Antiochos VII Euergetes and minted in Tyre at about 130/129 BC.
Seleucid silver tetradrachme of Antiochos VII Euergetes, 130/129 BC
Byzantine and later medieval (Islamic) habitations have been traced in rather low numbers. They occur predominantly on low grounds, at the edge of the mud flats and along the wadis at the interface of the basalt hillocks and the gravel plains in front of them. Most sites of this period seem to consist of stone-walled enclosures up to 35 metres in diameter, which were most likely used as animal pens and shelters for the domestic herds (protecting them in winter from the strong, cold winds).
The sites contain small quantities of pottery, including some green-glazed and painted sherds. Shapes suggest that the assemblages mainly comprise a few water jars. The pottery of this period is difficult to date, due to the lack of well published ceramic inventories from excavated sites.
A number of sites throughout the basalt range gave evidence of late medieval Arabic inscriptions on stone, which, for reasons not yet understood, all appear to date within a very short period in the mid-14th century AD, between 1341 and 1348. These Mamluk-period inscriptions each bear the names of different individuals and tribal backgrounds.
Arabic inscriptions from the mid-14th century AD
Interestingly, many modern Bedouin camps encountered within the study area revealed small but consistent quantities of ancient (i.e. medieval to sub-recent) pottery, suggesting that these places for seasonal stay were regularly visited over the generations and centuries (perhaps not surprising when taking into account that the camp grounds are not chosen at random, but carefully selected at strategic locales, close to temporary water sources and land for pasturage). The other way round, it appears that many of the stone-walled enclosures of Safaitic or even prehistoric origin gave evidence of modern re-use by Bedouin tribes. The modern Bedouin groups in the Jebel Qurma region make regular use of installations often thousands of years old; they rarely construct(ed) these features themselves.
The remains of a bedouin tent in the flint-strewn plains
A perfectly straight bulldozer track, many kilometres long and made in the 1980s, because of oil-exploration activities in the Jebel Qurma region. There are several such tracks in the area. They went out of use long ago and are passable today only by heavy equipment (if at all). Unfortunately the tracks appear to have often cut through archaeological sites… (Photo: Hannah Plug)