By: Gary O. Rollefson
Jordan’s Black Desert is a uniquely harsh and inhospitable place. It is a broad band of basalt that stretches across Jordan’s panhandle, running some 145 kilometers from Azraq to its northeastern edge on the Iraqi border, and 115 kilometers from the Syria in the north to Saudi Arabia in the south. In the summer and autumn, this region is bleak and forbidding – daytime temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees F. The rainy season in the winter and spring alleviates the barren nature only slightly with an average annual precipitation of less than 50 mm, most of which falls in one or two widely separated downpours. Few places on earth are as unappealing for human habitation.
But as inhospitable as the hyperarid Black Desert is today, pioneering archaeological research in the 1970s and 1980s by Alison Betts and Andrew Garrard demonstrated the presence of nomadic and pastoralist groups of sheep and goat herders dating to the Late Neolithic period (ca. 6,500-5,000 BC). Yet their reports on temporary settlements in the area reflected modest, relatively temporary camps with insubstantial structures.
But research in the Black Desert over the past five years has dramatically changed our views on the nature of the human life in the arid landscape 8,500 years ago. New evidence suggests that early moves into the arid and hyperarid landscapes were not timid and small-scale but robust and extensive.
Two areas of the region have been investigated since 2008: the basalt-capped mesas of the Wadi al-Qattafi, about 60 kilometers southeast of North Azraq, and Wisad Pools, an additional 50 kilometers to the east. Surveys on foot and from the air have located literally hundreds of vaulted structures built of basalt slabs that served as dwellings at both locations. These are substantial structures and represent considerable investment of labor (many of the slabs weigh a half-ton or more!), although they were inhabited only during the cool winter rainy season and the spring/early summer months. The houses were small, around 5 meters in diameter with roofs only about a meter above floor level; inhabitants would have had to crawl around the interior, but it would have been more efficient to heat the dwellings during the nights when temperatures dropped below freezing. The residents coated the floors (and possibly walls) with gypsum plaster to brighten the interior. Gypsum plaster is easy to produce by burning local gypsum and requires nothing more for fuel than the brush that was readily available in the nearby wadis.
The roofs of all of the houses in both areas had collapsed, but the shells of the structures continued in use later as windbreaks and work areas that involved butchering, stone tool production, and bead manufacture. Animal bones were ample in the Wisad buildings, dominated by wild species, gazelle in particular. Larger steppe and desert fauna such as onager and perhaps oryx were less common. The remains of a dog – useful both for hunting and for keeping herds of sheep and goats in line – were also found in one house during the 2013 season. But sheep and goat bones are very rare, perhaps because there was “free meat” available for the hunting herders (including numerous birds), which allowed them to maintain their sheep/goat herds as a kind of mobile “capital” or reserve.
The residents at these remote sites used other local resources. There were few grinding stones in the excavated house at Mesa 4 in the Wadi al-Qattafi, but milling equipment was abundant in the structures at Wisad Pools. Grinding slabs and handstones were the most frequent items, but in one house we recovered a cache of three large pestles, and in another 11 graduated pestles that ranged in size from 10 to 25 cm in length. Both caches were stashed in recesses under the wall slabs, ready for use when the residents returned, an anticipation that was not realized in either of these cases. Curiously, the number of pestles stands starkly apart from the absolute absence of mortars, suggesting that the tools were perhaps used more as rollers on flat grinding slabs. Overall, the abundance of grinding equipment suggests that cultivation of cereals was practiced during the Late Neolithic period but on an opportunistic basis, as conditions permitted.
Stone tools were numerous in the Wisad buildings, including 42 arrowheads in structure W-66 and an astounding 299 in just one-half of another house (W-80). Often considered to be characteristic of the Chalcolithic period, transverse arrowheads dominated the inventory at around 80%, although point types more typical of the arable regions of the Levant were also present. (Transverse arrowheads are roughly triangular, with the base of the triangle operating as the cutting edge; think “flying razor blades”).
Many of the points had battered edges, suggesting that they had fallen out of carcasses during butchering, although a large number were also pristine, indicating that they were manufactured in the windbreaks, a view supported by hundreds of cores from which the arrowhead blanks were produced. Cortical scrapers (often called “fan scrapers”) and cortical knives are also frequently attributed to the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages, but such tools were present in good numbers in the Late Neolithic buildings at Wisad Pools.
Our surveys have indicated that there are more than 500 structures at Wisad Pools, and among the mesas, there are many more. A “village” of at least 11 corbelled dwellings occurs at the base of Mesa 4, for example, and around Mesa 7 there are more than 280. Although we can’t demonstrate how many were occupied at any one time, there are very strong arguments to be made that the incursion of pastoral groups into the eastern badlands of Jordan was anything but timid and experimental.
The density of structures in both areas suggests that the barren and hyperarid landscape we see today has little resemblance to the situation seven or eight millennia earlier. Pending analysis of paleoenvironmental data, we suggest that the rocks, sand, and cemented silts of today were in fact covered by a substantial topsoil that captured seasonal rainfall, providing for a more luxuriant plant cover that supported not only larger herds of wild animals, but also provided a longer-term pasturage for herds of sheep and goats. Furthermore, we suspect that the present landscape resulted from a rapid and severe process of desertification that developed near the end of the Early Bronze Age.
If this hypothesis is born out the implications for understanding prehistory are enormous; rather than remote and almost otherworldly, as it appears today, the region may have been an attractive and accessible frontier. And if desertification did occur suddenly at the end of the Early Bronze Age, around 2000 BC, then there may be important lessons for today about the continued fragility of life on the margins of the desert.
Gary Rollefson is Professor of Anthropology at Whitman College. He has participated in and directed fieldwork in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Portugal and the United States since 1970.
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