Saturday, May 30, 2009

Prehistory in Jordan, the Paleolithic, and the Biggly Wiggly

A recent conference organized by the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, the Council for British Research in the Levant, the American Schools of Oriental Research and the German Protestant Institute recently ended. The conference included one day of site visits, and two days of research presentations, many presented by the leading specialists of Jordanian prehistory, and their students.
A contingent of prehistoric archaeologists who work in the environs of Azraq had thought that with all of these archaeologists in one place at the same time, site visits would be a good idea so that different projects could compare the results of excavation, both current and older. This was an auspicious year, as there are several active projects in the field near Azraq, as well as some senior archaeologists who had worked in the Azraq wetlands before it was drained. (Until the mid-1980s, the Azraq wetlands was an extensive oasis with ample fish, animals and birdlife, including migratory species. In the mid-1980s, the growing population of Jordan needed additional water, and water from Azraq was pumped until virtually the entire swamp was dry, wiping out species). Traveling in convoy, we left Amman via the airport highway, stopping to get gas on the way out. In this particular strip mall is a Biggly Wiggly, playing on the Piggly Wiggly markets of the American South, which typically features a smiling pig. For those unfamiliar with pronunciation in this part of the world, the sound of "P" is very difficult for Arabic speakers, and is typically pronounced as a "B". The person who made this sign is well aware of this and clearly has a good sense of humor about it...

After filling our tanks, we head out to Wadi Jilat, where Andrew Garrard and a number of his students worked on Eplipaleolithic to Neolithic sites. As he joined us for this expedition, he lead the way out to find the Jilat sites, which only a few of the senior prehistorians among us had visited in the past. On the way out, our lead car went on ahead looking for a quarry for "Dabba marble", a greenish rock type popular during the Epipaleolithic for the creation of beads. In the picture below, you can barely see the vehicle searching for the Dabba marble area (which it seems we had already passed by this point).

We were following the soccer mom vehicle, an "SUV" type that really wasn't made for this type of travel; this was apparent when we had to stop and change the flat.

Finally we arrived to Wadi Jilat, where a series of sites were investigated and documented by Prof. Garrard and his team. The wadi is very nice, with some dramatic incising in places, with small canyons such as the one below.

These sites ranged from Epipaleolithic to early Neolithic, some very well preserved.

At one Epipaleolithic site (I've forgotten the number of this one), someone spotted an interesting shape in the wall of a looter's trench. And amazingly it turned out to be a beautiful example of a small Natufian footed basalt vessel, finely ground and with a carefully incised line around the rim exterior.

Dr. M. (Director of excavations at Kharaneh, showing off Epipaleolithic basalt 'chalice')

Unfortunately, even in such a remote area, where there are few antiquities worth much to a looter, bulldozers have done incredibly damage to some of the sites, such as this one. The damage to such fragile early sites is stunning when mechanical equipment is used.

Nevertheless, it was a beautiful day with a number of great sites and a fascinating tour. In addition to the prehistoric sites, there is a much later (Ottoman?) dam up the wadi with water, although murky and muddy.

Can you spot the toads? (I didn't realize I was taking the picture of two of them, until I downloaded the images later). We won't talk about what they are so happily floating in.....

DR. T, Associate Director of ACOR, the freshly minted PhD. Doesn't he look fresh and minty?

After these visits, we drove from Wadi Jilat to Kharaneh. There we had a quick lunch (much of it provided by Dr. B, via tasty leftovers from an ACOR reception a few days before!).
The "castle" is well known to tourists and archaeologists alike, but the incredibly rich Epipaleolithic site about one kilometer to the south of the Umayyad structure is not as well known. We were updated on the progress of the excavations (where we visited on this blog last year, see ......). The site is so rich that they on longer attempt to separate the cultural, botanical and faunal remains in the field, but back in their lab in Azraq. This is a massive undertaking, to separate all of the material caught in 4 mm and 2 mm screens!

The directors of excavations of Khareneh, DR. T. Richter and Dr. L. Maher, giving a site tour (Richter is second from left, Maher in blue next to him).

After we visited their excavations, we returned to Azraq, where we were treated to amazing hospitality by the dig team; an amazing array of grilled meat, hummus, salads, and most importantly, beer and EVEN mojitos by some very inspired dig team members. Karaoke of the Eagles and Meatloaf notwithstanding, it was a delightful evening.
The next day we visited on-going excavations at Druze Marsh, where the compaction and concretion is so hard that the excavators are using CROWBARS to break the matrix into hard lumps for "sieving" -- which is largely impossible. Below are their excavations of this Middle Paleolithic site, with a small team of experts led by Michael Bisson, April Nowell and Carlos Cordoba.

Above: C. Cordoba and A. Nowell give a detailed stratigraphic description of their excavations at Druze Marsh in "downtown" Azraq.
Finally, we visited additional excavations in the Azraq area, many of them conducted many years ago by senior leaders of prehistory. Unfortunately these are difficult to describe (by such mentally challenged later prehistorians such as Yo) and are not so photogenic. However, Prof. G. did point out this early ancestral spider exeskeleton near the excavations.

Our blog may be quiet for the next few weeks, as Yo heads out to Wisad Pools, and Mo has little internet access. Wish us luck in our endeavours, and we hope to return with new photos of ancestral species, stuffed monkey visitors and exciting sites of the Middle East.


Andrew J. Graham said...

Great to see all is well in Azraq and Kharaneh...though Dr. L. has been remiss on the Kharaneh Blog....a huge shout out to all my archaeology colleagues in Jordan for 2009. It is cold and wet in Canada!

AMP said...

Awesome post! Good luck digging, Yo and Mo!

Avery said...

Great post and amazing pics of the desert. Hope you have a great dig season and look forward to future posts.
Shit covered toads--no comment!

Em said...

We borrowed the British Arch in Jordan's 4X4 and headed out to Qasr al Tuba near the Iraq border back in '95 for a weekend. We got lost en route but found what looked like an old campsite. We also found some boulders with pre-Arabic pictographs of animals enscribed on them. Percy Toop had the audacity to take one and brought it back to Canada. I have pics of the site but they are stuck in storage in Kelowna, BC. I was looking for those Suluba tribe and those desert kites that Helms wrote about.

Em said...

I'm curious about that spider exoskeleton--is that real?
We are enjoying a duststorm here in Abu Dhabi and reminds me of the khamsin/shimal in Jordan.