Dr. Hans Georg K. Gebel and Prof. Dr. Hamzeh Mahasneh
in collaboration with Dr. Bilal Khrisat and Dr. Julia Gresky
Wadis Sahab al-Abyad and al-Asmar: Qulban Beni Murra and Its Late Chalcolithic/ EB Environments
Location and Objectives of Season
The fifth season of the Eastern Jafr Joint Archaeological Project again took place in the wilderness of the Wadis as-Sahab al-Asmar and al-Abyad (Fig. 1), located north of Jabal at-Tubayk at a distance of up to 30 km N and NW of the Saudi border, and c. 120-130 km east of al-Jafr. The major objectives of the season were 1) to obtain anthropological material from burials to approach understanding the Late Chalcolithic/ EB populations in the area (for insights in demography, mortality, morbidity, transhumance, kinship, social organization, etc.), 2) to excavate structures at Wadi as-Sahab al-Asmar 6 and map the settlement's layout (for insights in the nature of occupations and stratigraphy), 3) to hydrologically prospect by georadar certain areas at Qulban Beni Murra, Wadi as-Sahab al-Asmar 6 and Mshash al-Asmar for their potential wells or other installations of water management, 4) continuing the general survey, 5) the documentation of recent Bedouin land use, and 6) gaining informal insights on opportunities for heritage education, which may prevent local Bedouins from looting the graves of the area. Apart from standard survey and excavation techniques, field techniques included Differential GPS and georadar.
The research questions relate to the formation and transformation of unknown Late Chalcolithic/ EB occupations in the area which formed sepulchral landscapes: Increasing evidence – including radiometric – witnesses a local transition from pastoral "well cultures" in the 2nd half of the 5th Millennium BC to sedentary oasis cultures in the 1st half of the 4th millennium BC (cf. also the previous Munjazat issues). This transition would have taken place as a consequence of drier conditions after 4000 BC, and also would demonstrate that arid Jordan participated – if not as an "incubator region" on its own – in the most important socio-economic achievement of the Arabian Peninsula in historic times: the establishment of permanent settled life through the introduction of the oasis economy after 4000 BC.
Significant Results of the Season
- Rescue operations at the looted cairns of Wadi as-Sahab al-Asmar 8:11 and 9:41-42 (Fig. 3), as well as Qulban Beni Murra C4, secured information for the remaining anthropological material and grave goods (Fig. 6). It became evident from layers untouched by recent looters that most of these graves had been looted at least once before (already in Late Chalcolithic/ EB times?), resulting in a complete misplacement of the skeletons and the related fracturing. The statue fragment found last season in Asmar 8:11 must have reached the surface through such an action. Asmar 8:11 was found freshly looted (as a consequence of this find; Fig. 5) together with its neighbouring cairns. The amount and preservation of the secured human remains are sufficient for basic insights into the EB population of the area. The excavation of cairns Qulban Beni Murra B16 and G1 and of Asmar 6:1 and 35 revealed the grave structure (ashlar lines facing East with cairns/ cairn chambers attached to the West) but provided no preserved remains.
- A general plan (Fig. 2) was recorded for one of the newly found (in 2010) "inselberg settlements" (Wadi as-Sahab al-Asmar 6, Fig.) of which Structures 1-5 were excavated. The functionally diversified structures (on-slope successions of curvilinear and round pens, domestic structures (Fig. 3), silo-type features (Fig. 4), hearths, platforms, terrace walls; in the footzone: cairns with/ without ashlars, mshash wells?, etc.) may belong to the later Late Chalcolithic/ EB occupation of the area (1st half of the 4th millennium BC). A striking result is that round structures of up to 10 m in diameter (sometimes with central ashlars) served domestic purposes, which was evident by successions of stone bins, fireplaces, and floors. A stratigraphy of structures has to be expected on the slopes.
- The georadar and hydrological survey (by Bilal Khrisat and Patrick Keilholz) supported earlier insights that the wells at Qulban Beni Murra must have benefited from a sub-surface narrowing of the bedrock (the "QBM neck") pressing up the aquifers' water; evidence also highlighted the potential of an oasis location for Mashah Sahab al-Asmar and for hillfoot water harvesting at Asmar 6. Infiltration tests in the upper gravel beds at Qulban Beni Murra completed this year's scientific field agenda.
- Apart from recording new cairn and other sites in the drainage system of both wadis, including one Upper Early Palaeolithic concentration and one major Middle Palaeolithic, the general survey recorded two more but minor cairn and grave structure fields at Qulban Beni Murra (Areas G and H).
- The project continued to record elements and information of recent and sub-recent land use. Among others, striking information was gathered on the previous samh flour/ bread making from a plant still to be identified, the social and economic consequences of the disruption of Bedouin migration routes following the border closure between Saudi Arabia and Jordan after 1986, and on the al-Howeitat's "natural pharmacy".
- By informal interviews with various stakeholders, a number of insights were gathered on the chances to combat looting in the vast region by heritage education.
This season highlighted the immense potential of the area to document a new chapter of Jordan's history, that of unknown pastoral groups of a "Green Desert" becoming oasis farmers at still favoured locations as a consequence of climate change after 4000 BC. These Late Chalcolithic/ Early Bronze Age cultures were widely aceramic, and must have flourished according to recently obtained radiocarbon dates between 4400 and 3600 BC (J. Pokrandt, pers. comm.). The complexity of the funeral fields and (partly megalithic) grave types and of the "inselberg settlements" in the area on the one hand indicates a societal development over c. eight centuries, while on the other hand some common features appear to attest symbolic and ritual continuity of these supposedly tribal societies.
The continuous and accelerated looting of graves by Howeitat Bedouins in the region is an alarming and very severe threat and damage to Jordan's cultural heritage. Immediate action has to be taken to minimise illicit digging in these sepulchral landscapes through heritage education, assisted by controlling measures and raising protective awareness among officials.