Thursday, November 1, 2007

Maitland's Fort

Prof G and A were planning to survey and excavate in the eastern area of Jordan, in the region known as the badia, approximately two hours east of Azraq by dirt tracks. I knew of A by reputation and publications, but only met him for the first time recently at the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL), an institution very near ACOR in west Amman. A. told us about a site first identified by a RAF pilot by the name of Flight Lieutenant Maitland. Maitland flew the mail route from Cairo to Baghdad in his small plane during the 1920s, sometimes landing on desert airstrips along the way. Along this stark, beautiful landscape he observed various plateaus in the area, many of which are capped with a stratum of basalt. On one mesa he noticed numerous structures, some fairly substantial, and suggested that this might be a "hill-fort". According to Alison Betts, from the air, Maitland's 'hill-fort' reminded him of a Welsh Iron Age hill-fort, Tre'r Ceiri, which was heavily fortified. This was because the top of the mesa exhibits a vertical rock face breaking into rectangular chunks which from a distance could look like intentional masonry. Maitland had left only a rough sketch of a nearby site, known as Tell A, which mentioned that it was 1 1/2 miles from his "hill-fort".
The Google Earth image shows the location of Azraq, the only town in that part of Jordan; the yellow line to the south is the Saudi/Jordanian border.

Given that vague reference and the remoteness of the region, its no wonder that later in the 20th century, the location of Maitland's fort was unknown. As part of a larger survey conducted by the British Institute of Archaeology and History at Amman (now the CBRL), Betts sought to identify the location of Maitland's fort, reporting on it in the 1980s. Through detective work at the British Museum, a photo published by Maitland, and intimate knowledge of the area, she and her team were able to identify the site.
I joined up with J, known as the Queen of the Chalcolithic in some circles, who borrowed a truck from the CBRL and plugged the coordinates of Maitlands hill fort into her GPS.

This was necessary because the drive takes nearly two hours over dirt tracks directly west from Azraq. In many places the track is marked by stone cairns, but these are sometimes missing or destroyed.

In the picture below, you get a sense of the open desert with the mesas in the distance. To the left of the photo, you can just make out one of the stone cairns marking the road. This dirt track used to serve as the road to Baghdad, and travellers such as Gertrude Bell would have ridden in buses that bumped along this track.

We arrived only slightly late for our appointment with Prof G and A. For scale, you can barely make out their truck (actually, Said's truck), at the base of this mesa. This is the next mesa down from Maitland's fort, but looks very similar in size and configuration.
After an amazing picnic lunch supplied by J, we headed over to the next mesa where the "hill-fort" identified by Maitland is located. Although fortifications at the top of the mesa are not actually man-made, they could serve the purpose of protection. Access is relatively easy from only one point on the site, a path leading up through a crevice in the natural fortification ringing the top of the mesa. The path leads up directly past some burial cairns and other structures.

Below, looking south towards Saudi Arabia (about 20 kms to the south), you can see a dust storm approaching. It had rained the night before, and this also looked like rain - but turned out just to be dust and wind.

At the top, a complex array of stone structures are evident, probably dating from different periods. Some are large enclosures (for animal pens?), while others are burial cairns. Determing the date of these structures is very difficult because there is so little in the way of material remains (flint tools, pottery, coins, etc) that could give us some clue. Although it is possible that there are some material remains buried in some of the burial cairns and within other structures, scarce material remains would not be surprising if pastoral nomads were frequenting the site.

Some of these structures, particularly the large enclosures you see in the picture below, may have served as animal pens for sheep and goat.

Others clearly did not serve that purpose, and the fact that they many are collapsed doesn't make it much easier to understand how they functioned.

Above, you see two lintels in an apparently joined structure. No idea when it was built or its purpose.

In the photo below, you can see structures in the foreground. We are looking south, and notice how all along the edge of the mesa are structures of similar size and spaced rather evenly, particulary when you consider that many are either collapsed, looted, or both.

A number of structures were built with flat slabs placed upright, like stelae. Below you can see Dr. J doing her best Vanna White impression with a particulary nice stele.

There was also some rock art (as well as inscriptions) pecked in to stones on top of the 'fort.

Some structures are built with standing stones, in an arc, facing to the south, similar to structures Prof G identified in Wadi Ramm and mentioned in earlier posts.

Similar to many other sites, some of the cairns on top of this site have been looted, leaving behind small fragments of bone and not much else. Below, A. examines a looted stone structure.

We camped at the site, just below. Our hosts built a wind break out the vehicles and everything from the back of the pickups. This was effective and we had a wonderful evening of delicious food (lamb steaks from Australia!?) cooked over open coals and many other delights. Happily, there was no rain that night.

The next day, we visited "Tell A", a much larger mesa just over a mile away. Although there are some structures on top of that site as well, the density is slight compared to Maitland's Fort. Dating these structures was just as difficult, although I did find an Acheulean hand axe at the foot of the "tell", so we know that there was some Paleolithic presence the area.

On the top, pecked rock art was were some other structures made of the local basalt.
This was truly a fascinating part of Jordan that I had never visited, and it was wonderful of our colleagues to take time from their field work to meet us and spend the afternoon at the site. Many thanks to Dr. J as well for coordinating the vehicle and the feast!


Sue said...

Bones?? I didn't see any bones.

Cool hand axe and carvings and location! I think I'm jealous...

MMK and YMR said...

They were very small, and my one photo would only look like a white spec. Nothing like all those bones found everywhere in Ireland!

Frances Goodman فرانسيس said...

Man, as usual that is so cool!

AMP said...

Super cool post! But what is a lintel? :)

MMK and YMR said...

How could you go to Palmyra and NOT know what a lintel is? (This from Ms. Mo, who just drove from TO, starting at 3 am!).

Serge said...

Wow, makes me really want to get back into the field. Great site and great reporting. Now get back to that martini drinking.