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Fieldwork in 2014

FIELDWORK IN 2014: SURVEY AND EXCAVATION

Our third field season in the Jebel Qurma region in Jordan’s northeastern desert (some 30 km east of the small oasis town of Azraq) took place from May 6 till July 19, 2014. Our gratitude goes to the staff of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan for all their help and support. We thank in particular the Department’s representatives in the field : Naser Zoubi and Khaled al-Junaideh.


The basalt landscape of the Jebel Qurma region. View from the site of QUR-9 to the east,

Our previous campaigns of field work in the Jebel Qurma region, in 2012 and 2013, comprised intensive survey across a range of different landscapes so typical for the basalt desert, including the steep basalt-covered hillocks and high plateaus; the many wadis which intersect the plateaus; and the extensive, seasonally flooded mud flats. Permanent water sources are absent in the area under study.

The Jebel Qurma study region with the areas surveyed in 2012 (red), in 2013 (green) and in 2014 (yellow) 

In 2014, we continued the intensive field walking in an area several kilometres wide along Wadi Rajjil (see the map). Hundreds of hitherto unknown archaeological sites, large and small, were discovered during this survey, which date from the Palaeolithic up to the modern day. We found stone-walled enclosures, ‘desert kites’, burial cairns, etc. . In addition, we documented several thousands of rock engravings, Safaitic and Mamluk inscriptions, and modern Arabic texts on stone. These finds show that the desert region is extremely rich in archaeological remains from many different periods!


The sites newly found in the basalt range in 2014

In addition to the survey work, we also embarked on a programme of excavation in the Jebel Qurma region in 2014, with soundings at several sites in the region.

The 2014 excavations at the site of QUR-11

The precise dating of many sites is still probematic, due to either the rather generic nature of the artefacts or a lack of artefacts altogether. Moreover, archaeological research in the basalt desert in general is seriously hampered by poo chronological control, because of the paucity of well-dated, excavated sites in the area for comparative purposes. Our current programme of both survey and excavation will considerably contribute to a better insight into matters of local chronology.

A desert landscape



The Survey Work in 2014

Palaeolithic

Palaeolithic tools occur in substantial quantities in several parts of the basalt area surveyed in 2014. The material did not significantly cluster to form ‘sites’ but mainly occurred as extensive strays, some of which denser than others. Particularly the Middle Palaeolithic, from roughly 300,000 years ago to 30,000 years ago, seems to be well represented, but some possible Lower as well as Upper Palaeolithic artefacts were found as well. No Epipalaeolithic material was encountered in 2014.



Early Neolithic

Early Neolithic (PPNB) occupation of the 9th to 7th millennium BC occurred in the form of several highly impressive  ‘desert kites’, two of which were investigated in 2014 (at the sites of QUR-8 and QUR-203). They add to the two kites documented in 2012 and 2013; another three kites, located further to the east, still await a full investigation. Together these kites cover the entire basalt range of the Jebel Qurma region.

The desert kite at QUR-203 (photo: APAAME_20081102_KHNQ_0159)

The kites are usually considered to be hunter traps for the larger animals of the region, such as gazelle, oryx and onager. The funnel-shaped installations each had two or more long and low, stone-built walls converging on a star-shaped enclosure sited on the crest of a ridge or hill. For the larger part, the kite walls were remarkably low, i.e. no more than a few roughly piled boulders about 30-50 cm high. 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.

Close to one of the kites there was what seems to have been a hunters’ campsite, comprising dozens of hut-like installations at short distance of each other, the majority of which was crescent-shaped, although a few were round or 8-shaped. This site may very well have accommodated the people who made use of the kite.

One of the Neolithic 'huts' at the the site of QUR-8 (Structure 14)

Another Neolithic 'hut' at the site of QUR-8 (Structure 32)


Late Neolithic

In 2014, a large number of prehistoric habitations were found in the survey area along Wadi Rajil, most of which date to the Late Neolithic period, ca. 6400 - 5000 BC. The Late Neolithic in the region begins with the so-called ‘burin sites’, each in the form of small groups of stone-walled enclosures, associated with flake-dominated lithic assemblages and tools predominantly in the form of concave truncation burins on short thick flint blades and, to a lesser extent, borers, small blades and a few arrowheads (Haparsa points).

The site of QUR-210 with its large Late Neolithic enclosures (late 7th millennium BC)

An important burin site was QUR-210, situated low on the slope of a basalt-covered hillock, with easy access to the wadi floor below. The site consisted of a series of rather large, stone-walled enclosures, the surfaces of which were littered with burins. Low on the slope, at the foot of the enclosures, there was a group of both round and crescent-shaped huts, undoubtedly of Late Neolithic date but probably post-dating the burin occupation; most likely these huts date to the early sixth millennium BC.

Late Neolithic enclosures at the site of QUR-210

Interestingly, the prehistoric enclosures were all intensively reused in much later, historic times. They were occupied in the Safaitic period of the first centuries AD, according to the wheelmade pottery found in them and the appearance of Safaitic inscriptions. The occurrence of early Islamic pottery and Mamluk inscriptions in and around some of the enclosures indicates that the site was still frequented in the 7th to 8th century AD, as well as again in the 13th -14th century.  Finally, some of the enclosures gave evidence for use in recent times by Bedouin groups. A typical “desert mosque” may belong to this recent re-use of the enclosures.

QUR-210: the rudimentary ‘desert mosque’ with its semi-circular mihrab, indicating the direction of Mecca

A second phase of Late Neolithic occupation in the Jebel Qurma region, probably dating to the early 6th millennium BC, is represented by a number of sites characterized by dozens of small circular, crescent-shaped or 8-shaped ‘huts’, as well as some relatively large enclosures. The largest of these sites was found in 2013 at the site of QUR-6, with more than 200 huts and enclosures distributed over an area up to 12 hectares. In 2014, three comparable though much smaller sites were found, at QUR-210, QUR-371 and QUR-382. The sites of both QUR-210 and QUR-382 each had around 20 hut-like installations, whereas QUR-371 gave evidence of 58 huts of different shape, which occurred together with four large enclosures. The latter site yielded also two coarsely finished, handmade sherds, one of which was painted.

The Late Neolithic site of QUR-382 with its many 'huts' (early 6th millennium BC)

A 'hut' at the Late Neolithic site of QUR-371 (Structure 32)

A third phase of Late Neolithic (or possibly Chalcolithic) settlement in the Jebel Qurma region is represented by the so-called “wheels”, one of which was documented in 2014: QUR-173. Many more wheels have been investigated in the Jebel Qurma region during our 2012 and 2013 survey seasons. The wheel at QUR-173 was remarkably symmetrical in layout, consisting of two concentric rings of oval enclosures in the centre, with a third, outer ring of twelve circular, crescent-shaped or U-shaped huts. Huts were also integrated in the enclosure walls. The wheel in its entirety measured roughly 60 by 36 m.

The central stone-walled enclosures of the wheel at QUR-173


Safaitic, Byzantine and Early Islamic settlement

Sites of the Safaitic, Byzantine and early Islamic periods are found in astonishingly large numbers everywhere in the area under study, from relatively easily accessible find spots close to wadis and mud flats to the summits of steep hillocks and remote basalt outcrops in the hinterland. Domestic habitations centered on the lower portions of the wadi systems or along the mud flats in the Jebel Qurma region, whereas the dead were brought to the surrounding high plateaus and summits, high above the domestic areas.

The Early Islamic (7th-8th century) enclosure at QUR-11

Many sites probably were campsites for temporary stays, with tents as the main units for living. In addition, people also made use of the stone-walled enclosures, often placed at locations on the lower slopes of the basalt hillocks. Often these enclosures appear to have been prehistoric installations, which were re- used by the pastoralist groups.

The enclosures at QUR-20. The site was used repeatedly over the centuries.

Pottery is found at many sites, although often in minute quantities. These wheel-made ceramics seem to represent mainly cooking pots for daily domestic use, although there were some luxury items as well. The wheelmade pottery usually occurs together with some handmade and heavily basalt-tempered ceramics, considered to be locally produced items. Although it is evident that pottery was used in small quantities per site, it appears that nearly every site, large and small, had access to ceramics; pottery, it seems, was a rather ordinary product among the desert communities.

The extensive site of QUR-212. The site was used in the Safaitic and Byzantine periods, but also by Bedouin groups in the late 20th century.

It is not easy to distinguish the pottery from one period to another and, hence, to attribute dates to the sites where the pottery was found. A detailed study is underway.

Extensive stone-walled enclosures at the site of QUR-20

Whereas the valley floors, the edges of the mud flats and the lower slopes of the basalt hills were the foci of daily living and domestic activity, it appears that the surrounding high grounds, i.e. the summits of the basalt-covered table-mounds and the high plateaus, were the preferential areas for the disposal of the dead. These high locales away from the areas of settlement are littered with burials cairns large and small, and represent a veritable landscape of the dead.

A very large cairn from the Safaitic period at the site of QUR-207

The cairns varied considerably in size, ranging from roughly circular or oval installations only about 1,50 m across and 70-80 cm in height to impressive tombs up to 10 m in diameter and up to 2-3 m in height. The latter were invariably located at prominent high places at the edges of the table-mounds and basalt plateaus, visible from the surrounding plains at considerable distances; they do not occur in the basaltic hinterland.

Two probably Safaitic cairns at the site of QUR-5

The cairns, the large ones in particular, also often carry Safaitic inscriptions and representations, sometimes in (very) considerable numbers. However, many cairns have only one or two rock engravings, or none at all. Many cairns were provided with a circular or crescent-shaped, stone-walled installation in front of them, which may have served ritual purposes at the time of burial or during subsequent mourning.  

A large basalt boulder full of Safaitic rock art at QUR-794

The Jebel Qurma region is extremely rich in epigraphic and iconographic data, in the form of many thousands of petroglyphs, texts in Safaitic script on basalt, and combinations thereof. They date between between the 1st century BC and the 4th century AD. The rock art is predominantly figurative in nature and with clear visual cues for recognition of depicted subjects: wild and domestic animals, warriors, horsemen, camel caravans, dances, hunting scenes, ‘shamans’, etc. The iconography contains visual information on important features from daily life not represented in other types of archaeological evidence. The petroglyphs and inscriptions provide an essential and unrivalled source of information to assess local pastoralist lifeways.

Safaitic rock art at the site of QUR-786 (RA6)

In addition to the Safaitic rock art, we find many petroglyphs and inscriptions that were made by Bedouin groups from the 1920s onwards. There is also a rather small number of medieval inscriptions on basalt, belonging to the Mamluk era of the 13th and 14th centuries.

Safaitic inscription at QUR-372 (RA34)

During the 2014 field season, we have systematically documented 1523 Safaitic and Arabic inscriptions and/or representations, none of which was known before. They add to the 4205 inscriptions and representations uncovered during the 2012-2013 survey seasons, so altogether 5728 rock engravings have been documented so far!

Hunting scene. Safaitic rock art and inscription, found at QUR-370 (RA91)

A battle scene, including horsemen and camel riders with long spears, fighting with men carrying bows-and-arrows. This Safaitic petroglyph was found at the site of QUR-694 (RA3)

Early Islamic graveyard

The site of QUR-829 represents a small graveyard situated on a low natural, flint-strewn outcrop, next to a wadi at the very edge of the basalt range. It comprised six stone-lined graves of both children and adults, which we tentatively date in the early Islamic period (7th - 8th century). Unfortunately, all graves were looted.

View of the looted cemetery at the site of QUR-829

However, the sieving of the looting debris and cleaning of the graves yielded a number of interesting finds. One inhumation appeared to consist of a child between 1-3 years at the time of death, provided with different types of glass and shell beads, probably the remnants of a necklace and armlace. In addition, some bone, iron and bronze fragments were found, most likely once part of hair ornaments.

More looted burials at the site of QUR-829

Another inhumation contained the remains of a child around 7 years at the time of death. In the fill of the grave were 16 pottery fragments as well as an ostrich-shell fragment; these finds suggest that the child had been buried with a small-sized pottery vessel and, perhaps, an item made of ostrich shell. The other graves belonged to adults and did not provide any commodities. One adult grave was partly still in situ: it showed an adult individual lying on the right side, with the head to the west, facing south.


A looted stone-lined adult grave at QUR-829

A similar small (and likewise looted) Early Islamic graveyard was earlier found at the site of QUR-266 (likewise with the occurrence of glass beads in the looting debris).

The looted graveyard at the site of QUR-266


Mamluk campsites and inscriptions

Settlement in the Jebel Qurma region appears to have been resumed for a relatively short period in the late 13th and 14th centuries, i.e. the Mamluk period. Our fieldwork gave evidence of several Mamluk-period sites, which, with regard to their specific location at the edges of mud flats, probably were short-term campsites, with tents as the main units for living.  The sites yielded small quantities of glazed, painted and stamped pottery. Similar pottery was repeatedly found along camel tracks crossing the basalt. In addition, a series of Arabic inscriptions on basalt stone were found in the vicinity of the sites, all of which date to the Mamluk period.

A Mamluk-period Arabic inscription at the site of QUR-740 (RA9)


Modern time: Bedouin campsites

During our survey work we encountered many dozens of modern Bedouin campsites with clear tent remains and associated occupational waste. They are located at the edges of mud flats, at low grounds along wadis and in open, flat places in the Hazimah plain in front of the basalt range. The sites usually comprise between one and six tents; we cannot be certain about the contemporaneous use of the tents, indicating that the actual area of use at each campsite at any given moment was probably much smaller than it seems to have been at first sight.

The rectangular remains of a modern Bedouin tent at the site of QUR-780, close to Wadi Rajil

According to local informants, the Jebel Qurma region went through a dry spell from about 2003 onwards, which resulted in a very restricted Bedouin presence in these years. However, the rather wet winter and spring of 2014 induced the return of the Bedouins to the Jebel Qurma region. At the time of our arrival in the region in early May 2014, no tents had remained; the area was wholly devoid of people. However, we were able to locate a number of tents that had been in use very recently (with ashes still in the hearths). Moreover, we found an Arabic inscription pecked onto a basalt rock and dated: 30 March, 2014. It appears that the archaeological record in the Jebel Qurma region is still growing year by year…

A Bedouin inscription, dated 30 March, 2014


The Excavations in the Jebel Qurma region in 2014

In addition to the survey work, we started a programme of excavations at selected sites in the Jebel Qurma region in 2014. The remains of prehistoric settlement were unearthed at the sites of QUR-20 and QUR-373, dated to the late 9th and late 7th millennium BC respectively. More recent habitations, dated to the 1st millennium AD and beyond, were also unearthed at QUR-20 and QUR-373, as well as at QUR-11 and QUR-210.

Excavating!

Excavation at QUR-20

The site of QUR-20 is located on a low plateau at the very end of a wadi, surrounded by low basalt-covered hillocks. The site comprises a series of enclosures both on the plateau and low on the slope of the surrounding hills. Numerous cairns, petroglyphs and Safaitic inscriptions are found in the vicinity of the enclosures. 

The enclosure at QUR-20

Excavations took place in one of the enclosures, which gave evidence of a thin deposit (15-25 cm in thickness), characterized by many small and shallow, circular fireplaces. Their stratigraphic order suggested a repeated use of the enclosure for short-term stay. A handful of sherds were collected from the deposit.

The enclosure at QUR-20 under excavation

A unique discovery was made at the site of QUR-20: an Early Neolithic hunting hut of the late 9th millennium, ca. 8200-8000 BC. The semi-subterranean structure was about 3 m long and 2 m wide (interior), with a two-stepped staircase in the western wall. The outer wall consisted of piled basalt boulders, with its interior façade carefully finished. Large natural basalt rocks, still in their original position, were integrated in the outer wall.


The Early Neolithic structure at QUR-20, dated ca. 8200-8000 BC

The interior was divided into two small compartments by a small dividing wall in the middle. In one of the compartments there were  two small, ephemeral fireplaces, one against the eastern wall, and another, probably somewhat younger, fireplace roughly in the middle of the structure. Very large quantities of flint materials were collected from structure 7 (both on the floor and from its fill), mainly consisting of manufacture waste. There were, however, many (complete and broken) arrowheads of Early Neolithic type.

Arrowheads of Early Neolithic type, found in the hunting hut at QUR-20

The prehistoric structure stood not on its own but was attached to a curved wall several dozen metres long. This wall was constructed between an extensive natural basalt outcrop on its western end and a deep wadi on its eastern end; it blocked a natural passage for animals form the higher-situated basalt hinterland to the wadi floor below, A series of hut-like features were attached to the wall, which must have facilitated the hunt of the larger animals of the region, the gazelle in particular.


The Early Islamic enclosure at QUR-11 during excavation

Excavation at QUR-11

The enclosure at QUR-11 consisted of three compartments grouped together, altogether about 23 m across, with the walls still standing to a height of about 0.9 m. Excavation in the enclosure revealed a compact, sandy layer with numerous round and shallow fireplaces sunk into it. A short wall slightly off-centre in the middle of one of the enclosure may have been part of a tent structure once placed in it. Associated with this sandy layer and its fireplaces were small quantities of wheel-made, reddish or grey-black ceramics, often with corrugated surfaces. A glass fragment and some tiny metal pieces are also associated with this phase. Several Safaitic petroglyphs were found in and around the enclosure.

Excavation at QUR-11

Several radiocarbon dates taken from charred materials in the fireplaces revealed that the enclosure at QUR-11 was used repeatedly in the Early Islamic period, at about 650-800 AD (roughly the Ummayad period).

Excavation at QUR-11


Excavation at QUR-210

The site of QUR-210 represents a series of large prehistoric enclosures belonging to the late seventh millennium BC (as pointed out above, QUR-210 is one of the typical Late Neolithic ‘burin sites’ in the Jebel Qurma region). Within one of the enclosures were what seem to have been the remains of a tent structure, characterized by a series of elongated, irregularly shaped heaps of basalt which demarcated a roughly rectangular, sandy area with rounded corners, wholly cleared of the basalt rocks and gravel so typical of the original (prehistoric) installation. The cleared tent area was about 7 m long and 5 m wide, with several small and shallow fireplaces sunk into it. The fireplaces tend to cluster in two groups at close distance of each other in the middle of the tent area. Relatively large numbers of wheelmade ceramics are found in association with the fireplaces. Radiocarbon dates made clear that the tent structure was used for habitation in the Mamluk period of the late 13th and, again, 14th century AD.

QUR-210 during excavation

QUR-210 after excavation


Excavation at QUR-373

The site of QUR-373 comprises a series of prehistoric enclosures, which were repeatedly re-used in (much) later times. The site is situated high on the north-eastern slope of a basalt-strewn hill, just below its ridge, protected from the often strong western winds in the region.

The high-situated site of QUR-373 at the start of the excavation

Excavations were carried out in the easternmost enclosure at the site. This structure has a distinctive shape, comprising a large, roughly round enclosure about 16 m across (interior), with another but smaller round enclosure about 6 m in interior diameter placed slightly off-centre in it. Entrances to both enclosures are found on the eastern side. An extensive clearance was found around the entire outer enclosure. Both enclosures were heavily filled in (up to 80 cm in places) with clean wind-blown sand.

QUR-373 during excavation

Excavations took place both in the large outer enclosure (of which roughly one half was exposed) and in the smaller inner enclosure (which was excavated in its entirety). Several phases of use were recognized.

Excavation of the smaller inner enclosure at QUR-373

The installation was originally built in the late 7th millennium BC (the site of QUR-373 is one of the typical burin-related sites in the Jebel Qurma region). A number of fireplaces, some small and oval, others large and keyhole-shaped, were sunk into the lower bedrock or into the thin gravel layer on top of the bedrock (suggestive of stratigraphic and chronological differences). The fireplaces often contained fire-cracked stones.

QUR-373: the large outer enclosure wall, with the smaller inner enclosure (next to the team member) in the centre

Literally thousands of years later, the enclosures were re-used for short-term stays as evidenced by many small, round and shallow fireplaces (without any of the fire-cracked stones so typical of the prehistoric fireplaces) and the ceramics associated with these fireplace, most of which were sherds of small grey-black, corrugated cooking pots with handles.

The inner enclosure at QUR-373 after excavation

In the smaller inner enclosure, an ashy layer about 5-10 cm thick was laid down. Subsequently the enclosure wall appears to have been partly reinforced, by placing a new wall against the original (prehistoric) outer wall.  The added wall stood atop of the ashy layer just mentioned. In addition, some short, protruding walls were erected, which may have served to create small compartments along the enclosure wall. Radiocarbon dates from charred materials from the many fireplaces suggested a use of the enclosure in the late Roman and Byzantine periods, as well as in recent times (late 20th century).

The inner enclosure at QUR-373

A dusty day in the field, in July 2014