by Yorke Rowan
Material culture provides a glimpse into the important objects that people created, exchanged, and carried with them for functional and symbolic purposes. The study of archaeology requires a suite of specializations and perspectives, but material culture remains a fundamental source of information. In his pioneering volume In Small Things Forgotten (1977), James Deetz argued that seemingly small and insignificant objects capture a fundamental part of our existence. Although primarily interested in North American historical archaeology, Deetz emphasized the need to understand artifacts as more than just typological entries. For the people living and visiting the landscape of the Black Desert in Jordan, the rich material culture was not solely for the functional purposes of survival but evoked connections with other people, places, and meanings.
Climatic conditions in the southern Levant during the 9th and 8th millennia BCE created environments in which increased cereal and pulse farming, and animal husbandry, fostered population growth and higher-density settlements. By the Late Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (c. 7500–7000 BCE), larger settlements emerged in the region from southern Jordan to southern Syria. Some of these villages were abandoned around 7000 BCE while others suffered a depleted population. In contrast to the well-known fundamental changes that occurred across southwestern Asia during the early Neolithic, the subsequent Late Neolithic (LN) is poorly documented and was once considered a “hiatus” in the southern Levant. Even less well understood, the marginal steppes and deserts outside the “Fertile Crescent” were often viewed as underpopulated and of little significance to the larger neolithization process. Until recently, few structures were known in the steppes and desert to the east dating to the 8th to 6th millennium BCE. These “small things remembered” provide another glimpse into what was once thought to be a hiatus.
Since 2009, the Eastern Badia Archaeological Project (EBAP) has examined two areas, Wisad Pools and the mesas along Wadi al-Qattafi (Fig. 1). Both are located on the margins of the harra, the volcanic Black Desert of Jordan. These sites were used intensively by prehistoric hunters and herders from the early 7th to mid-6th millennium BCE. Based on the many substantial, well-built Late Neolithic structures and the botanical evidence for trees (oak, willow, acacia) and marshy plants, mounting lines of evidence paint a picture very different from that of the bleak and desolate desert we see today. Rather than brief, temporary visits of small groups of people passing through, we now believe that people built and occupied substantial structures organized into hamlets, spending much of the year hunting and herding. Many questions remain, of course: where did these people come from? We know that they were hunting gazelle, onager (wild donkey), hare, and a few other animals, but to what degree did herding of domesticated animals play a role? Did the escalation in gazelle hunting with animal traps (“desert kites”) increase the role of hunting in exchange across the region?
Wadi al-Qattafi is a major drainage basin about 60 kilometers east of Azraq where a series of about 30 basalt-capped mesas loom 40–60 meters over the desert floor. Various collapsed structures found atop the mesas and along their lower slopes include animal pens, tower tombs, desert kites, and cells. The EBAP team excavated four structures along Wadi al-Qattafi; two are small huts atop Maitland’s Mesa (Mesa 4; Fig. 2) that provided no artifacts or carbonized remains. In the other two structures were found arrowheads, beads, animal bones, and various small finds dating to the Late Neolithic, although these finds were possibly separated by as much seven to eight centuries. Sixty kilometers farther to the east, the extensive site of Wisad Pools includes over 500 ancient structures concentrated around a series of about nine pools. Three structures excavated over the past decade date to the Late Neolithic, with some structures built in the earliest stages of the this period. In addition to the variety of structures around the pools, over 400 petroglyphs are pecked into the basalt, primarily depicting horned animals (such as ibex, kudu, and cattle), camels, and desert kites (Hill et al. 2020).
In the decade since the EBAP was established, our understanding of the recently defined Black Desert Late Neolithic (Wasse et al. 2020) has been transformed. The multi-faceted and far-reaching changes documented at Wisad Pools and Wadi al-Qattafi during the later 7th and earlier 6th millennia cal. BCE seem to be part of wider, regional transformative processes playing out concurrently along the arc of the upper Mesopotamian and Levantine desert line. Emerging evidence suggests that sites such as Wisad Pools and Wadi al-Qattafi, as crossroads on the steppe, played important roles as hubs of cultural exchange between disparate regions during the Late Neolithic period. Long-distance contacts may have formed an essential component in interregional networks that are largely unexamined for the later prehistoric periods in the southern Levant, particularly during the Late Neolithic period.
To study this potential nexus of interconnected spheres, a critical component is the analysis of the small finds collected from the excavations of these five Late Neolithic structures. Chipped stone and animal bone constitute most finds, but the stone and shell beads, palettes, rings or bracelets, ochre, shells, and other small objects signify important elements of personal identity, status, and connectivity. By identifying the material type, potential origins of material, documentation of form and metrics, and parallel types from roughly contemporaneous sites, a database for comparative study with the wider Neolithic world will be established. Most non-flint small finds are beads manufactured from a variety of materials such as limestone (Fig. 3), bone, Dabba marble (Fig. 4), and carnelian. While limestone and bone probably originated locally, Dabba marble derives from farther away, perhaps to the southwest, near Wadi Jilat. Carnelian sources are not well known and be in the south, in Saudi Arabia, or even farther away.
Other unusual objects hint at connections with more distant lands, such as the incised cone (Fig. 5) and the large mother-of-pearl plaque (Fig. 6). The shape of the incomplete incised cone is reminiscent of Mesopotamian tokens, commonly made of ceramic, the function of which continues to be debated. Secreted inside of a reconfigured doorway, the mother of pearl originates far from the Black Desert and must have been a prized possession. Another intriguing artifact is the labret, made of hard gray stone, an item thought to decorate either the lower lip or the ear (Fig. 7). Known from Mesopotamian contexts, the labret hints at connections to the east or northeast. The study of small things remembered contributes to a reconsideration of the putative lacuna of occupation in the region.
Deez, J. 1977. In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life. Garden City: Anchor Press/Doubleday.
Hill, A. C., and Y. M. Rowan. 2022. “The Black Desert Drone Survey: New Perspectives on an Ancient Landscape.” Remote Sensing 14(3) [special issue: Jesse Casana and Elise Jakoby Laugier (eds.), Remote Sensing of Past Human Land Use]: 18 pp. DOI: 10.3390/rs14030702.
Wasse, A., G. O. Rollefson, and Y. M. Rowan. 2020. “Flamingos in the Desert: How a Chance Encounter Shed Light on the ‘Burin Neolithic’ of Eastern Jordan.” In P. M. M. G. Akkermans (ed.), Landscapes of Survival: Pastoralist Societies, Rock Art and Literacy in Jordan’s Black Desert, 79–101. Leiden: Sidestone Press.
Yorke Rowan, ACOR NEH Postdoctoral Research Fellow 2022–2023, is an anthropological archaeologist and research associate professor at the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum (formerly the Oriental Institute) of the University of Chicago. He focuses on later prehistory (Late Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Early Bronze), with thematic research interests in death, prehistoric ritual performance, and material objects mediating these human actions. His most recent publications include The Social Archaeology of the Levant: From Prehistory to Present (2019, Cambridge University Press, co-edited with A. Yasur-Landau and E. Cline) and “The Black Desert Drone Survey: New Perspectives on an Ancient Landscape” in the journal Remote Sensing (2022) with A. C. Hill. He co-directs the Kites in Context Project and the Eastern Badia Archaeological Project, both in the Black Desert of Jordan.