The Past Performative: Thinking through the Azraq Community Archaeology Project

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By: Alison Damick and Ahmad Lash

All individuals belong to multiple fluctuating communities. How can archaeology help inform, and learn from, different communities? In this abridged piece from Near Eastern Archaeology, Alison Damick and Ahmad Lash explore how archaeology has engaged with the many communities that live in the town of Azraq in eastern Jordan.

Figure 1. Aerial view of South Azraq and the Azraq Wetlands. Photograph taken by D. Kennedy, courtesy of APAAME.

Figure 1. Aerial view of South Azraq and the Azraq Wetlands. Photograph taken by D. Kennedy, courtesy of APAAME.

The Azraq Basin in eastern Jordan is a 13,000 km2 limestone basin between the arid steppes to the west and the volcanic “Black” Deserts to the east and south. With one of the largest and most reliable fresh water sources in the area, the oasis has been an important stopping point for animals and humans throughout history. The first recorded human occupation in the Azraq Basin dates to more than 300,000 years ago. The basin area hosts many documented archaeological sites, including prehistoric, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic era material.

Figure 2. Location of Azraq within Jordan.

Figure 2. Location of Azraq within Jordan.

The town of Azraq is located in the middle of the oasis at the last highway intersection in Jordan and on the crossroads of the highways to Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Modern Azraq is made up of roughly 12,000 individuals living in two villages: North Azraq, also known as Azraq al Durzee, along the Iraq highway, and South Azraq, also known as Azraq al Shishan, along the Saudi highway. North Azraq is primarily made up of Arab Druze of the Bani Ma’roof tribe, most of whom emigrated from Syria and Lebanon at the end of World War I. South Azraq has historically been inhabited by Chechen Sunni Muslim immigrants who arrived in the immediately before World War I. Many of the local Bedouin, mostly of the Bani Sakhr tribe, but also Ruwalla, Sirhan, and Howeitat, are the self-identified “native people” of the area. They have camped in the oasis for centuries and settled more permanently around the town as it became established on the trade routes and offered more resources. Beginning in the 1950s, the Jordanian government also actively encouraged Bedouin settlement, which included a housing project in central Azraq. The Bedouin now make up a significant percentage of the resident population, primarily in South Azraq. Rising numbers of seasonal and itinerant workers are also present in both North and South Azraq.

Damick-and-Lash_FIgure-3

Figure 3. Lash’s map of the Druze families according to the rooms they originally occupied in Qasr Azraq.

How to protect Azraq’s sites from various threats, including environmental degradation and erosion, increased vehicle traffic, construction projects and illicit digging, is a growing concern. Coupled with this is increasing awareness of the close relationship between archaeology in the contemporary world and the narrative of the past. While the Azraq Basin has long been known for its research significance, until recently very little attention has been paid to the relationship between archaeology, archaeologists, and the modern resident communities.

Ahmad Lash began ethnohistorical research in Azraq in 2006. The Community Engagement Program for the Epipalaeolithic Foragers in Azraq Project (EFAP) was initiated in 2008 by Alison Damick and Lisa Maher and expanded into the Azraq Community Archaeology Program (ACAP) in 2009, in partnership with the British Institute in Amman, the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, and the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN). Our activities have included Lash’s oral histories project and reconstruction of ancestral Druze homes in Azraq Castle, educational programs for school children from across the different areas and communities of Azraq (including on-site mock excavations and other trainings), seminars, site visits, and outreach events for adults (including some where alumni children participated as “educators”), and collaborative video and news programs.

Figure 4. The 2008 excavation team with Ahmad Lash at Qasr Azraq.

Figure 4. The 2008 excavation team with Ahmad Lash at Qasr Azraq.

Outside of the oasis, the archaeological sites of the Azraq Basin are remote and dispersed, and the few contemporary villages have limited infrastructure. As a result, traditional tourism development is unlikely to bring much economic benefit, nor is it a particularly attractive scenario for any of the parties. We have therefore directed our efforts towards different kinds of collaboration and development, to make our projects meaningful to people living in and around Azraq.

Figure 5. ACAP-sponsored visit for Azraq residents to Qasr Amra.

Figure 5. ACAP-sponsored visit for Azraq residents to Qasr Amra.

This required first understanding the local contexts of ‘past-making’ and valuation and how they are tied to the places of Azraq. Qasr Azraq, the multi-period basalt fortress in the middle of North Azraq, has long been protected by the Department of Antiquities and set aside as a tourist venue but it is also a central feature of the village, encountered and understood as part of the village topography. Lash’s early work to identify the ancestral homes of the Druze families within Azraq Castle included collecting oral histories and creating maps that linked these families to their own pasts and stories. This, combined with his recruitment of a local team to help excavate parts of the Qasr in 2006 and 2008, brought archaeology into a conversation with the personal histories of people living in the area.

Figure 6. Past, present and future: one of the student participants from the field days gives a presentation at Azraq Heritage Day in 2010.

Figure 6. Past, present and future: one of the student participants from the field days gives a presentation at Azraq Heritage Day in 2010.

It also began to establish archaeology as part of the living memory of the community. As part of the EFAP Community Engagement Project and ACAP, we drew the prehistoric sites into that conversation through the doing of archaeology. Working with children meant that we were also able to draw the past not just into the present, but into hopes and projections for the future. This came full circle in our last major event, Azraq Heritage Day in 2010, when one of the young students gave a talk to a room full of adults, including his family, about prehistoric archaeology and his experiences working with us.

Archaeological projects interested in their broader communities must address the issues of presentation and representation. Site visibility is a practical and conceptual concern. Many sites in the Azraq Basin are remote and difficult to detect, lacking physical features such as visible architecture commonly associated with archaeological sites. Archaeology often takes place out of sight from visitors and resident communities.

Figure 7. Visibility: the Epipalaeolithic “mega-site” Kharaneh IV is visible only as a slight rise and a darker shade in the sun, due to the density of lithics.

Figure 7. Visibility: the Epipalaeolithic “mega-site” Kharaneh IV is visible only as a slight rise and a darker shade in the sun, due to the density of lithics.

By relocating the regional archaeological conversation within Azraq itself, and increasing opportunities for local residents to participate, we enhanced the visibility of both the archaeological process and the kinds of knowledge it produces.

Conceptually, visibility is also how we talk about site and landscape as archaeological terms, and in conversation with heritage, tourism, and general public interests. What makes a site or a landscape visible as an archaeological entity, and to whom? For instance, prehistoric sites require very different types of mediation and imagination to bring them to life as archaeological places.

This mediation, however, can lead to positive and negative results – illicit digging and collecting often come hand in hand with broader understanding of “sites” and their value. There is also reluctance in both government and academic institutions to consider the more recent historical and contemporary material record as archaeological. Material later than 1750 CE is not protected under Jordanian heritage laws, but archaeologists at times work to preserve it in the context of its association with older ruins. This was the case at Qasr Azraq in 2009 when local Department of Antiquities representatives worked to preserve the Druze walls within intact, as part of the cumulative material history of the Qasr.

Figure 8. Producing places the archaeological way: students learn how to use the GPS to map sites during a field day at the Azraq Wetlands Reserve in South Azraq.

Figure 8. Producing places the archaeological way: students learn how to use the GPS to map sites during a field day at the Azraq Wetlands Reserve in South Azraq.

Visibility is one way of talking about accessibility. As noted, many sites in the Azraq Basin are distant from the town of Azraq, part of a broader landscape of mobility and seasonal settlement by different Bedouin groups. Where does one locate a local community, and how is access negotiated? Of the various interested stakeholders – the Jordanian and international publics, the archaeological community, tourists, and inhabitants of Azraq who have historically used the basin–the latter are the most underserved by archaeological practice. But importantly, they already participate in some way with archaeological projects in the area.

Figure 9. Accessibility: school children from Azraq visit Kharaneh IV for the first time, and learn about prehistory from archaeologists dressed as “ancient Kharanehans.”

Figure 9. Accessibility: school children from Azraq visit Kharaneh IV for the first time, and learn about prehistory from archaeologists dressed as “ancient Kharanehans.”

Nonetheless, due to the remoteness of most prehistoric sites, many non-Bedouin Azraq residents had never visited any of them before our project. Without similar activities, many will likely not return. But there is significance to their having been able to go at all. Such visits help build trust, encourage more general participation in research projects and give Azraq residents direct experience of sites that existed only as imaginary points of interest for others passing through.

Simply increasing physical accessibility to specific sites, however, is problematic. Not only is this logistically challenging but it poses complex issues of property claims and potential destruction. To address this tension in our project, we attempted to create a much closer relationship between ACAP and the RSCN and to link the discussion of environmental sites and landscapes to those concepts as they are understood culturally.

Figure 10. Fragility: the extremely dense prehistoric strata at Kharaneh IV are also very fragile. Photo courtesy of the EFAP archive.

Figure 10. Fragility: the extremely dense prehistoric strata at Kharaneh IV are also very fragile. Photo courtesy of the EFAP archive.

Prehistoric archaeologists increasingly look to landscapes as more meaningful than traditional “sites,” and this perspective should be integrated into understanding how landscapes are imagined and addressed in the present. Interpretively, this means thinking about how remoteness and difficulty of access influence the understanding of Azraq. Distance, obscurity, and difficulty of access might actually be positive and meaningful to the construction of place and history. Practically, we might consider eco-tourism programs, such as the RSCN bike tours, that emphasize physically engaging with the landscape in more sustainable, responsible, and interconnected ways without sacrificing a sense of remoteness and distance. The sites will never get the same traffic, and income, as convenient bus-stop sites like the “Desert Castles.” But it may encourage longer stays in Azraq village, as opposed to day-trips from Amman that will benefit the economy and produce more sustained relationships.

Another solution is to bring the archaeological landscape to the people. This is usually achieved by a museum or visitors’ center. Plans to develop a museum in Azraq are ongoing, which also addresses the problem of fragility raised by site or landscape development. Many prehistoric sites cannot physically sustain the same traffic as monumental sites, and require creative thinking about how to safely make them visible and accessible.

Fragility, however, is also a conceptual term referring to archaeologists’ fear of losing particular kinds of information about “sites.” This represents valuing academic knowledge over the kinds of loss that others might experience in these places. We need to be concerned with the fragility of sites and over-development, but we also need to think about why such fragile places are respected as economic assets.

Museums, moreover, produce narratives in a localized way. The distinction between narrative and storytelling is useful; narrative is historical and recounts series of events over time whereas storytelling can interrupt, expand, and mobilize the narrative. Storytelling describes particular places and times – what daily life, certain kinds of activities, or performances for other places and times might have looked like. Narrative is important, but it can also be more isolating and ideological than storytelling.

Figure 11. Storytelling: learning about knapping flint from one of the “ancient Kharanehans” brings team members and school children together around a moment of daily activity.

Figure 11. Storytelling: learning about knapping flint from one of the “ancient Kharanehans” brings team members and school children together around a moment of daily activity.

Most early community archaeology was conducted where descendent communities were both locatable and disenfranchised relative. This is not the case in Azraq where most inhabitants neither have nor claim direct ancestral links to the prehistoric societies in question. But issues of class, precedence and disenfranchisement are more complicated.

For instance, Druze are generally privileged in Azraq and were among the first “sedentary” settlers of the village, but they are an underrepresented minority population in Jordan. On the other hand, the main Bedouin families claim ancestral precedence and have standing within the Jordanian class structure. But their traditional livelihoods are increasingly threatened by limitations on mobility and the transformation of grazing territories. The recent history of Azraq is shaped by human movements related to industrialization, urbanization, and regional conflict rather than traditional paradigm of settler colonialism, out of which post-colonial community archaeology developed.

Promoting a past stretching back to “deep” prehistory in Azraq is therefore politically meaningful in different ways than elsewhere. The richness and diversity of occupation in the Azraq basin generate pride of place and the necessity for people throughout history to negotiate its unique environmental situation has contemporary significance. As such, we have been able to produce conversations and activities that emphasize the importance of place and its continuity of occupations, identifying with it and its stories, rather than on any single narrative. Places contain stories, mundane or fantastical such as fishing off the roads during flood seasons, and the hypnotic power of hyenas. Archaeological research can engage with its own story-making, through its access to the intimate moments of making a meal, notching a blade, or laying an ancestor to rest. Doing so, it opens spaces for sharing stories from one type of knowledge to another.

We advocate an approach to producing and sharing the archaeology of Azraq that takes account of how it is enmeshed in the lives of its modern residents. This means paying attention to the strengths of archaeology itself and taking seriously the ways of knowing produced locally, from storytelling to grand narratives. The strength of a community-based and driven project is that it is generated through the experiences of archaeological practice and place-making; they are our only resources. For the future we hope to continue collaborative efforts to expand ACAP’s local involvement and long-term presence, and hopefully eventually produce locally-based ecotourism. We also hope that we will see an Azraq museum come to fruition, in a way that emphasizes resources local people actually engage with, as opposed to just what “looks right” for tourism.

Alison Damick is undertaking Ph.D. studies in the Anthropology Department at Columbia University in New York. Ahmad Lash is the Head of the Archaeological Loans Sector in the Excavation and Survey Directorate at the Department of Antiquities of Jordan.

 

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