Fuel Provision for the Copper Industry in Islamic Period Southern Jordan

By Ian Jones

This study, supported by the Palestine Exploration Fund, is part of the broader University of Californa, San Diego Edom Lowlands Regional Archaeology Project (ELRAP), directed by Prof. Thomas E. Levy and Dr. Mohammad Najjar. The focus of this study, in particular, is fuel provisioning for the Middle Islamic period (1000-1400 AD) copper industry in Faynan, based on analysis of material from ELRAP excavations at Khirbat Faynan (KF, Fig. 1) and Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir (KNA, Fig. 2).

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Fig 1. A view of Wadi Faynan from the Middle Islamic slag mound at Khirbat Faynan. Sources of wood suitable for charcoal are not particularly plentiful in this landscape.

Fig. 2. The mountains around Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir, as seen from the highest point of the site.

Fig. 2. The mountains around Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir, as seen from the highest point of the site.

Faynan presents some interesting challenges and opportunities to archaeologists. While things like pottery are surprisingly rare at many sites in Faynan, copper smelting debris is plentiful, to say the least. Luckily for this project, charcoal, in particular, preserves quite beautifully in Faynan (Fig. 3). This fact often prompts our field school students to ask, “Where did all of this charcoal come from?”  It’s an excellent question, too. Looking around Faynan, it’s difficult to avoid noticing that there aren’t all that many trees. In much earlier periods, the landscape was much wetter, but during the Middle Islamic period, Faynan probably looked similar to the way it looks today. Producing even a small amount of copper, however, can require a surprising amount of wood. Current estimates for the ratio of tons of charcoal consumed to tons of copper produced range between 10:1 and 100:1.

Fig. 3. Former UCSD undergraduate Kat Huggins excavating a pit feature filled with charcoal and kitchen waste.

Fig. 3. Former UCSD undergraduate Kat Huggins excavating a pit feature filled with charcoal and kitchen waste.

So, where did it all come from? Work in the 1980s by a German team led by Hans Baierle showed that the Middle Islamic charcoal from KF was made up mostly of oak and juniper, trees that grow on the plateau to the east, but not in the lowlands of Faynan. The first radiocarbon sample that we processed at KNA, however, was a piece of charcoal from white saxaul, a desert shrub that can still be found growing at the site. This led us to wonder whether the use of plateau species at KF was the result of the environmental impacts of Roman copper smelting. Baierle’s analysis of the Roman charcoal from KF showed the presence of a number of desert species, such as saxaul and acacia, that simply don’t show up at the site during the Middle Islamic period. Were the populations of these plants near KF overexploited during the Roman period to the point that Middle Islamic smelters were forced to obtain trees from the plateau, while those near KNA, 7 km to the north, were left relatively intact?

The charcoal identification, being performed by Dr. Brita Lorentzen is still ongoing, but the results we have now suggest a more complicated picture. Desert species are not entirely absent at Middle Islamic KF — although white saxaul is — but they are quite rare. At KNA, desert species, and especially saxaul, show up much more commonly than at KF. All of that is basically as we expected. Surprisingly, though, copper smelting contexts at KNA also contained a good deal of oak and juniper charcoal. While it is possible that stands of juniper existed closer to KNA, the closest source of oak was probably the plateau, more than 10 km to the east. It seems, then, that the populations of saxaul and acacia in Wadi Faynan had not yet recovered after their exploitation by the large Roman copper industry of the early 1st millennium AD, but also that these plants were not a sufficient source of fuel even at KNA. Continuing analysis of this material will allow us to make more definite conclusions about fuel provisioning by the Middle Islamic copper industry, and will hopefully also allow us to discuss shifts in these provisioning strategies over time, as we compare the charcoal identifications to our radiocarbon dates and ceramic analysis.

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