by Sarah Wenner
Hidden below an urban façade but nevertheless essential for its shaping, a city’s trash was routinely used in construction processes across the Roman world. Before that occurred, both established and ad hoc frameworks dictated the lifecycles of urban waste, from its initial discard, through its sorting and storage, to its reclamation by or even resale to builders. The management process thus created an economy of refuse in Roman cities, one that was directly tied to the urban construction industry. Working in tandem, these industries transformed a city over time, from its subterranean foundations to the walls that bounded Roman daily life.
The recycling of refuse in Petra, the capital of the Nabataeans (Fig. 1), was an especially critical element in the building process in the long century before the Roman annexation of the Nabataean Kingdom. Many of Petra’s most famous monuments were constructed at the end of the 1st century BCE and the start of the 1st century CE, likely during the reign of Aretas IV (r. ca. 9 BCE–40 CE). These structures include but are not limited to the so-called Great Temple, the connected Garden and Pool complex, Qasr al-Bint, the Temple of the Winged Lions, and likely the theater. But the city continued to grow, and rapidly so, over the rest of the century. Surveys of Umm Rattam, Jabal Ash-Shara, Jabal Haroun, Wadi Silaysil, Wadi Musa, and Udhurh, among others, have found that sites dating to the second half of the 1st century CE dominated all others. As surveys and excavations continue, it only becomes more and more evident that Petra’s population exploded in the 1st century CE, spilling out into any hinterland space available.
During that period of rapid hinterland expansion, several new structures were erected on Petra’s North Ridge, overlooking the city center, including two sub-elite domestic complexes and a villa urbana, complete with a bathhouse (Fig. 2). These structures were made not just of stone but also refuse. When discarded ceramics were mixed with soils, the conglomerate could be used to raise the floor level or make the floor itself.
The question then is, where did the refuse come from if the structures represent some of the earliest occupation in that area of the city? Before the Nabataeans lived on the North Ridge, they interred their dead there. Tombs were cut several meters down into the bedrock and opened into a chamber where numerous individuals could be buried. Families buried their kin in such tombs for generations, moving the decomposed bodies to the side to inter new family members. During and between burials, the living mourned the dead, dining both in the tombs themselves and on flattened surfaces by tomb entrances. And each ritual dining episode produced significant amounts of ceramic refuse. As excavation has shown that just five of the rock-cut shaft tombs on the North Ridge were used to burry over 120 individuals, the refuse produced from the decades of dining with the dead in and around all the tombs that honeycomb the North Ridge must have been immense. Based on the similarities between the dining refuse and the materials used to create the domestic structures’ floors and leveling fills, the builders must have recycled the ritual debris that then littered the North Ridge. As competition for building resources was especially high at this time in the mid 1st century CE, when Petra’s residents were building in any open area they could find, builders turned to whatever materials were available, even if the materials were scattered across the surface and likely difficult to collect.
A few decades after the Nabataean houses were built, residents renovated several units. Unlike the earlier floors that seemingly recycled ritual debris, the new floors, installed in the late 1st or early 2nd century CE, contained materials that were more typically associated with domestic life: cooking vessels, food remains, and storage and serving equipment. In the decades between the original construction activities and those at the turn of the century, Petra’s residents produced ever more refuse that they likely stored in a convenient location near to their home but out of the way of traffic. These dump piles did not grow exponentially, however, as they were seemingly recycled in building fills nearly as quickly as they were produced. Only one Nabataean-period dump has been identified in Petra at this point, and archaeologists are split as to whether it truly dates to the Nabataean period or if, instead, it represents clearing activity after the Roman annexation. Based on the dearth of Nabataean dumps and the prevalence of Nabataean building and rebuilding over the 1st century and into the 2nd century, we can argue that refuse had the potential to be a resource, and a valuable one at that, during periods of urban growth.
But just as cities were not always in periods of growth, the value of refuse did not remain stable over time. Building initially resumed in the decades following the Roman annexation, but the construction industry slumped later in the 2nd and through the 3rd century CE. Many of Petra’s Nabataean-period monuments fell out of use during that time, as did several of the houses on the North Ridge and elsewhere in the city. What do appear to have grown, however, were the urban dumps. On the North Ridge alone, excavation recovered approximately 40 cubic meters of domestic and industrial waste piled against the city wall and another approximately 20 cubic meters of domestic debris dumped into just one of the now out-of-use rock-cut shaft tombs. As there was no building on the North Ridge during the Roman period, and building was generally decreased elsewhere in the city, the industry that previously consumed the materials in great quantities had little use for it. As a result, it grew in increasing amounts until residents moved away entirely.
Based on the trends in one area of the city, refuse could be a hinderance in periods of low building activity or a valuable resource in times of urban growth. Questions still remain, though. Did Nabataean builders prefer certain sources or types of refuse? Was ease of access, to other building materials but also debris deposits, a factor? Is it possible to discern how long discarded materials remained exposed to the elements before they were recycled in fills? Did the builders of elite structures consume urban refuse in similar quantities as builders of sub-elite structures did? To answer these questions, I have begun to look at other archaeological contexts, including the Petra Garden and Pool Complex, the Upper Market, surveys of Petra’s hinterland, the Byzantine period structures in Bayda, the bathhouse and Nabataean dump at Humayma, and the Nabataean caravanserai and Roman fort at Khirbet al-Khalde. With these additional datasets, we can better articulate the complex but invisible urban system that produced, managed, and consumed urban refuse within the Nabataean kingdom.
Sarah Wenner holds a PhD from the University of Cincinnati in classical archaeology; her dissertation examined the role of discarded materials in shaping urban spaces throughout the Roman empire, with case studies from Petra, Pompeii, and Segedunum (UK). She has worked on many Roman sites and projects in Jordan, including Petra, Udhruh, Wadi Ramm, and Aqaba, and is assistant director of the Petra Garden and Pool Complex excavation, ceramicist for the Khirbet al-Khalde project, and co-editor of the Petra North Ridge Project’s final report. Wenner’s ACOR NEH Fellowship (2023–2024) project, South Jordan Ceramics as a Lens to Site Formation Processes, expands on her dissertation research for her first book project, which considers how southern Jordan’s ancient ceramic tradition contributed to the site formation processes of Petra and surrounding sites from the 1st century BCE through the 5th century CE.