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Fieldwork in 2013

FIELD SURVEY IN 2013

 

With the kind permission and full support of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, a team of archaeologists from Leiden University (The Netherlands) carried out a second campaign of survey in the Jebel Qurma region, some 30 kilometres east of Azraq, in Jordan's northeastern desert. The research took place between May 6 and July 11, 2013. We thank the Department of Antiquities of Jordan for all help and support of the Jebel Qurma project, and in particular our representatives Naser Zoubi and Khaled al-Janideh.    

 

The Jebel Qurma region

 

 

The interior of the Jebel Qurma region: a gently undulating landscape of basalt-covered plains and vast mud flats

 

The first season of field survey in 2012 covered an area of about 7 by 4 kilometres, in the middle of the overall study area (see Fieldwork in 2012). 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.    

 

 

The Jebel Qurma study area with the area surveyed in 2012 (in red), the area surveyed in 2013 (in green), and the area surveyed in the  Hazimah plain (in blue).

 

In 2013, we continued the intensive field walking in an area about 6.5 km long and up to 3 km wide, into the direction of Wadi Rajjil and to the west of the area surveyed in 2012 (see the map above). While the 2012 field season yielded 116 sites from different periods, the 2013 season added some 200 find spots large and small to the extant corpus. In addition, we carried out a first prospection in the Hazimah plain in front of the basalt range (up to the Saudi border), which revealed another 49 sites in an area thought to be to be virtually devoid of archaeological remains until recently. The area covered until now, with each site recorded in detail, provides a first detailed insight into site distribution and site variability, as well as into local artefact assemblages and patterns therein.     


 

The sites located in 2013 in the basalt range (in green) and in the adjacent Hazimah plain (in blue).

 

Epi-Palaeolithic and Neolithic occupation

In 2013, a series of prehistoric sites of Neolithic and Chalcolithic date were found in the Jebel Qurma region, although their number is still limited vis-à-vis the relatively large area under study and the enormous time depth involved (at least some 3000 to 4000 years, between roughly 7000 and 3000 BC). More sites may be identified once the lithic materials and other finds have been fully analyzed. The precise dating of many sites is still problematic, due to either limited artefact distributions or the rather generic nature of the artefactual finds. 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 local material-culture finds – predominantly flint and, to a much lesser extent, pottery – is underway and will hopefully contribute to a better insight into matters of chronology.


A circular Epi-Palaeolithic structure at QUR-1


A single group of small enclosures at QUR-1, next to Wadi Rajjil, yielded many greyish-white flints, wholly different from the usual dark-grey to brown flints found in the Jebel Qurma region. The assemblage contained some naviform cores and many large small, thin blades with virtually no retouch (other than use wear). A single tall blade with a retouched tang may represent a so-called Jilat Knife, typical for the Epi-Palaeolithic period, ca. 14,000 BC.  So far, a handful of other  sites from this period have been found in the Jebel Qurma region.

 

QUR-1 near Wadi Rajjil: a Late Neolithic burin site with extensive enclosures


With the exception of the so-called "desert kites" (see below), there is very limited evidence for an Early Neolithic presence in the Jebel Qurma area. A Late Neolithic phase of occupation in the area is represented by a number of sites, most of them in the form of groups of often large, stone-walled enclosures, associated with flake-dominated lithic assemblages and tools predominantly in the shape of concave truncation burins on short thick flint blades. In addition, there were usually borers, small blades and a few arrowheads in the shape of Haparsa Points. In 2013, these so-called “burin sites” were found at (at least) four places (QUR-1, 6, 20 and 21), located at the foot of the basalt-covered hillocks, with easy access to wadi floors. Although burins occur from the mid-eighth millennium onwards, the burin sites of the northeastern desert probably date to the Late  Neolithic period, at about 6400-6100 BC. 


         Large stone-built enclosures at the burin site of QUR-6

QUR-20, another Late Neolithic burin site, comprising an extensive cluster of enclosures. The site is low on the slope of the basalt-covered mound, close to a wadi

 

A very large Late Neolithic to Early Chalcolithic site at Jebel Qurma

A third phase of prehistoric occupation in the Jebel Qurma region is represented by the site of QUR-6, a truly spectacular habitation site, with regard to its huge size and its hundreds of well-preserved, stone-built structures. QUR-6 is located at the northern side of the large and heavily basalt-covered hill of Jebel Qurma, where Wadi Rajjil runs out of the harra onto the wide Hazimah plain.

The site of QUR-6 covers an area of at least 700 m long and 160 m wide, i.e. some 8.3 hectares. The site may be even much larger if we include the settlement remains on the far eastern side, indicating a size of about 1100 by 160 m, or 12 hectares. In this respect, QUR-6 is one of the largest prehistoric sites in Jordan and the Levant in general.

 

 

The large hill of Jebel Qurma, seen in the distance from the northeast. The entire lower flank of Jebel Qurma is covered with prehistoric remains

 

More than 200 (!) free-standing stone-built structures have been identified, most of them in the low and gently sloping, basalt-strewn area at the foot of Jebel Qurma. They occurred in different forms. While the smaller buildings (“huts”) were circular or U-shaped, the larger ones were 8-shaped, with often more than one opening. 

 

 

A stone-walled "hut" at QUR-6 (structure 91)

 

The 8-shaped structures were up to 6 m long and 4 to 5 m wide and had two compartments, although there were also installations with three or even four compartments. They stood to a height of up to one metre in some cases. Sometimes the huts were attached to circular or oval, stone-walled enclosures.

 

 

An 8-shaped hut at QUR-6 with two compartments (structure 94)


A string of circular, stone-walled enclosures, with our without huts attached to them, is found high on the slope of Jebel Qurma, with a distribution parallel to the lower-situated huts. These relatively small enclosures are almost always located near erosion gullies and wadis draining the mound of Jebel Qurma, and sometimes the wadis even cut through them. The wadis, it seems, also served as passages into the higher located, heavily basalt-covered parts of Jebel Qurma.

 

 

A small enclosure high on the slope at QUR-6 (structure 87)

 

Highly interesting, we were able to locate a large number of narrow pathways linking the huts in the basalt. Although some of these paths have also been used by modern Bedouin herdsmen and their livestock, they appear to be mostly of prehistoric origin.


 

Prehistoric pathways through the basalt

 

A large assemblage of lithic material has been collected from QUR-6, mainly from the open areas surrounding ng the huts and from the various enclosures. So far, virtually no flints came from the huts themselves, due to the fact that they were all filled in with wind-blown sands. The recovered lithics clearly represent a flake-oriented industry, with tools centred on tabular (cortical) scrapers in different shapes (often skilfully and finely retouched along their edges), drills and borers and some Haparsa-type arrowheads. There was also a variety of scrapers and many ad-hoc tools on flakes. No burins were found. 


A large and complete tabular scraper, with fine retouch along its edge (from QUR-6)


With regard to its vast size and the many structures, the site of QUR-6 may have been used for living and working by several hundreds of people. However, a series of questions remain, such as: was the site inhabited in its entirety at any given moment or should we assume a series of smaller habitations different in time and space? What was the duration of settlement? And was the site used year-round or on a seasonal basis? It is important to realize that the site of QUR-6 stood not on its own. Several other sites, large and small, in the Jebel Qurma region have installations and lithic assemblages identical to QUR-6 (such as sites QUR-371 and QUR-391).


  Prehistoric structures at the site of QUR-371, similar to those found at QUR-6

  Prehistoric structures at the site of QUR-391, similar to those found at QUR-6

 

Late Neolithic or Chalcolithic “wheels”

A fourth phase of prehistoric settlement in the Jebel Qurma region is represented by the so-called “wheels”: large circular stone structures up to 70 metres across, with extensive enclosures in the centre, surrounded by an outer ring of small huts. We found a large number of these wheels during our 2012 fieldwork in the Jebel Qurma region; the survey work in 2013 revealed another three of these large installations (sites QUR-13, QUR-361 and QUR-461).

 

 

The remains of a prehistoric "wheel" high on top of QUR-13

 

The wheels are often found in groups of two to seven installations, with each wheel located at the top or high on the slope of a basalt hillock at close distance of each other. Their locations offer extensive views over the surrounding countryside and are near to wadis, extensive mud flats or the gravel plains, providing ample access to water and grazing grounds in the wet season.

 

 

Large stone-built enclosures form part of the "wheel" at QUR-13

 

Tabular scrapers and other flint tools, as well as small but consistent quantities of coarse, handmade and heavily mineral-tempered pottery, indicate that these enigmatic structures so characteristic of the northeastern desert date in the Chalcolithic period of the fifth to fourth millennium BC. At present the ceramics found at these installations represent the earliest pottery known in the Jebel Qurma region.


The wheel at QUR-361, with the Hazimah plain in the distance

 

The “desert kite” at QUR-21

 

The so-called “desert kites” are among the most exciting and impressive archaeological monuments in the Jebel Qurma region and the desert in general. These were large game traps, used for the capture of large numbers or even entire herds of wild animals, such as gazelle, oryx and onager.

The funnel-shaped installations had two or more long and low, diagonal walls with a star-shaped enclosure at the apex. The enclosure served as the actual “killing field” and is many dozens of metres across, whereas the walls guiding the animals to the enclosure extend for many kilometres atop of the basalt-capped hillocks and across the rolling hinterland and the mud flats.

 

 

A  desert kite in the Jebel Qurma region: site QUR-21 (photo: APAAME_20081102_DLK-0128)

 

For the larger part, the guide walls were very low, with a height of no more than a few roughly piled boulders, altogether some 30-50 cm high. Only near the star-shaped enclosure, the walls tend to have large stones set on edge, which may have served as hides for the hunters.


 

 

 

 

 

One of the guide walls of the QUR-21 kite, which extends for many kilometres across the basalt and the mud flats

 

During the fieldwork in 2013, a very large and well-preserved desert kite was documented in detail at the site of QUR-21, located relatively deep inside the basalt expanse, at the convergence of several wadis draining the hinterland. This impressive installation revealed a long and complex history of use, although its usage was periodical and not continual. The kite at QUR-21 is dated to the Neolithic period of the seventh millennium BC, although the structure, it seems, was also used in much later, Roman/Safaitic, times.


The desert kite at QUR-21. A: kite walls. B: kite enclosure (trap). C: Late Neolithic enclosures. D: Safaitic enclosures (photo: APAAME_20081102_DLK-0128)


The best evidence for dating comes from the extensive group of enclosures set on top of the original enclosure wall of the kite, thereby partly destroying this earlier wall. The lithics found inside the group of enclosures yielded a considerable number of concave truncation burins on short thick flint blades, typical for the Late Neolithic period, ca. 6400-6100 BC. Hence the kite in its original shape must have been a construction of the earlier seventh millennium BC or even before (although there is, remarkably enough, no lithic material to support this conclusion).

 

 

The desert kite at QUR-21: the kite trap and its later added enclosures (photo: APAAME_20081102_DLK-0128 (detail))

 

A most interesting discovery were two rock engravings, found next to each other at short distance of the kite, on top a low basalt-covered hillock termed QUR-606 and overlooking parts of the kite. These carvings show the kite in its original shape, but without the enclosures associated with the burins; they depict structures later destroyed by the construction of the burin-period enclosures. Obviously, these two unique engravings were made after the original building of the kite but before the construction of the burin-period enclosures. Hence they are undoubtedly of an early Neolithic date, indicating that they must have been made somewhere in the early seventh millennium BC.


 

The two rock carvings from QUR-606, depicting the nearby kite of QUR-21

 

The Late Neolithic enclosures associated with burins did not hamper the use of the kite as a trap for large game in any way. They merely replaced (on a larger scale) some hut-like features originally found in this location at the northern end of the star-shaped trap, obliquely opposite the long funnel and the trap’s entrance.


 

Part of the Late Neolithic enclosure at QUR-21


It seems reasonable to conclude that the enclosures had a direct relationship to the kite and its use as a trap. Or stated in other words: the Late Neolithic people reused the much earlier kite installation for their own subsistence needs, with a focus on the hunting of large game.

Apparently people in the late seventh millennium BC still fully exploited the potential of the kite, although perhaps at specific times of the year only, when the migratory herds of gazelle arrived in the region.


  

The exploitation of large game in prehistory: gazelle  

 

The surface finds do not provide evidence for the use of the kite at QUR-21 in later prehistoric periods. It seems that the installation was left to its fate for thousands of years, until it was reused in the Roman/Safaitic period of the first centuries AD. At this time, another group of enclosures was built, due next to the entrance of the trap. The newly built enclosures contained a relatively large quantity of typical grey or red, wheel-made, corrugated pottery – probably import products from the Roman urban centres in the western Levant.


 

QUR-21: Safaitic enclosure of the first centuries AD


Several burial cairns with Safaitic inscriptions and pictorial engravings were built at this time in and around the kite, and similar inscriptions were engraved on the kite’s walls. The hunt, it seems, was still a major subsistence practice in the desert in Roman/Safaitic times, as can be derived from the abundant pictorial evidence showing hunting scenes and the textual data referring to hunting practices. In this respect it may very well be the case that the Safaitic group(s) at QUR-21 exploited the kite in similar way similar as their prehistoric forebears thousands of years before. Elsewhere in the Jebel Qurma region, we have found small hunter lodges along kite walls, provided with Safaitic inscriptions and/or imported Roman pottery, indicating that the prehistoric kites were still used for the hunt many millennia after their original construction.


A marvellous sunrise and great archaeology: a probably Safaitic tower tomb from the 2nd to 4th century AD at the site of HAZ-47 in the Hazimah plain (photo: Harmen Huigens)


 

QUR-9

 

A camel herd in the gravel plain next to our camp is moving on to greener pastures at the Hazim oasis (photo: Koen Berghuijs).