Friday, June 6, 2008

Fieldwork at Wissad and Maitland's Fort

Hopefully many of our readers know that Mo has been in the field for over a month on a small Greek island with very limited access to the web. I've been in Jerusalem, but with very little time before the beginning of the summer season and not much of interest to tell.

However, in the middle of May, Yo joined Prof G and Dr. AW for fieldwork at two sites: Wissad and Maitland's Fort. The focus was primarily on the Wissad Pool's area where AW and G planned a season of survey and mapping; we hoped to add just a few day's work to the season at Maitland's Fort. Longtime readers of this blog will recall Prof G's work in beautiful Wadi Ramm (mentioned in this blog on September 17 and August 29, 2007), which is easily accessible from the main desert highway just north of Aqaba.

Not so Wissad. Wissad is about 4 hours drive over dirt track from Azraq, already about 1 1/2 hours to the east of Amman. Readers may recall several visits to Maitland's Fort, most recently made with Mo on Boxing Day; Wissad is two additional hours to the east past Maitland's Fort. This remorte area in the 'badia' of eastern Jordan is a remote area of basalt thinly covering sand or limestone, with the occassional dry lakebed (known as a 'qa') separating these rocky areas. Here is a picture of the basaltic landscape.

The lakebeds, although dry now, are clearly active at times and provide water for the bedouin flocks. Here's a picture of Prof. G walking across a qa during a day of hot survey.

In such a remote location, with no roads and no cell phone reception, we had to bring everything we might need with us, all in one small truck. Using a trusty Toyota rented from S., we brought 3 tents, enough water for many days, a gas cook stove, bedding, food, extra diesel, TWO spare tires (good thing too, as we got a flat tire the first day before we even got to the site!) and plenty of beer. Here you can see Dr. AW unpacking when we first arrived at Wissad.

If you look just past the truck in the photo, you can see very light colored rock (actually, basalt), with a very straight line. These are all basalt boulders, and the lighter stone demarcates the line of sediments in the pool deposited by the pools of water. There probably would have still been water in the pools, but the badia police told us that the bedouin came with trucks and sucked the water out for their flocks elsewhere. So this would have been a very desirable spot for many thousands of years, despite the remote and rugged nature of the area.

So, what were we doing here? Prof G and Dr AW had visited before and wanted to begin documenting the area; establish the boundaries of their survey area, get a better understanding of what is there, and begin recording some of the structures. What is particularly interesting about the area is the high number of burials which range from tumuli (piles of rocks) to 'tower tombs' (the remains of tower-like structures built over chambers, as well as enclosures that are similar to modern sheep pens and probably served the same function. Everything is made out of the local basalt.

Here is picture of a "tower tomb":

And the picture above is a small circular structure, possibly with a standing stone (whitish upright stone).

Two primary questions to answer:

1) When were these different structures built?
2) How did they function?

In order to determine function, we can see by parallels to structures in other regions that many of these were certainly tombs. Others are less clear; large piles of rubble area probably collapse, destroyed or looted tomb structures. Some were clearly looted, and that allows us to see the interior chambers. (probably there was nothing there for the looters, who in these far-flung places are typically looking for gold).

The dating of the tombs is tricky. We were only surveying, not excavating, so we had to rely on material in and around these structures on the surface. There is very little material culture, and what is on the surface is not necessarily associated with the architecture. Still, if you begin to see a pattern of the material culture then that strengthens the association. So, for example, Prof G - an expert on Neolithic flint tools and production - could tell that much of the flint we were finding was either Pre Pottery Neolithic or Late Neolithic. For example, here is a Neolithic arrowhead, just as we found it:

We also found other arrowheads, some dated to the PPN and some to the Late Neolithic. The most symmetrical, beautiful flint object we found was discovered by Prof G. in an area where we also found a concentration of great rock art. The flint object may have been a knife, possibly even Chalcolithic (although I have never seen such a tool in the regions where I work in the Chalcolithic).

The rock art in this area is amazing. Concentrated in two areas, there were a number of identifiable themes. Animals were prevalent, of course, possibly reflecting a prime area for hunters: overlooking the pools that would have drawn animals. Animals included ibex, with the long curving horns arcing back to their rear:

The one above included other animals as well, possibly gazelle, and an odd creature that we couldn't decide on: hyena? Lion?

Another theme in the rock art were circular structures joined by a single wall or line. In some, there was an animal in the very center, possibly a gazelle or other cervid. Could these be depictions of 'kites' (enclosures used by hunters out in the desert to corral animals), or simply corrals of pastoralists? The animals depicted look more like wild animals rather than domesticated goats. You can sort of make out this type of rock art in the shot below.

Although we spent just about 12 days doing archaeology in the area (without a shower or bath), there was more to the landscape than archaeology. We started with a full moon and by the end of our time there, the night sky was wonderful, with Iridium flashes, many satellites, falling stars and constellations. We saw some wildlife, including a jackal, many lizards, including two amazing yellow lizards that looked as thick as my arm, and ran incredibly fast. One of them ran, the other stayed in place:

On the third day there, early in the morning, I discovered a small (c. 80 cm) snake in my path. Rather than dart away under a rock, s/he spent all of its time flaring its neck, and taking an aggressive, threatening pose. Perhaps this is the 'false cobra' which certainly would be a good name. When asked, the badia police who were visiting us one night said that it is poisonous, but I'm still unsure. But this little snake wouldn't back down! (too bad the light was poor, or I had the camera on the wrong setting!).

After four days, a gang from ACOR and the CBRL came for a visit. They brought with them coolers that had some cold beer, iced water, and many other special treats such as apples, bananas, oranges, Caol Ila, and too many other good treats to list here. We spent the evening chatting, eating E!'s amazing mole chicken that had been frozen - this was the most amazing wonderful flavor, even though it had only been four days of tinned food! Here's the gang.

We were actually very lucky because most days were merely hot, rather than blazing, must-quit-early hot. But a few were pretty hot. So what do you do? Get out of the sun, obviously. So we built our own shade where spent some time huddled in the afternoon, putting wetted bandanas over our heads to cool us -- which works beautifully -- and to keep the incessant, nasty, annoying flies away.

The picture above was actually taken later when we returned to Maitland's Fort, where it really was quite hot. Wet kerchief works well as an air-conditioning unit not only for the head, but for other things such as beer, as long as there is a breeze.

Finally, for amusement, or because we had been in the sun too long, we sought transformative experiences through nature.

Although our efforts at aerial photography were thwarted early on by the demise of the camera, we had a very successful field season -brief as it was - and discovered many new sites, burial structures, and artifacts. We spent most of our time at Wissad, but also spent two days at Maitland's Fort before heading back to Amman. I think we all hope to return soon to follow up at both sites.