2018 Excavations at the Fortified Hilltop Site, Umm Tawabin, Ghor as-Safi, Jordan

PEF Blog Report by Alexandra Ariotti

In January 2018, I undertook a second excavation season at Umm Tawabin, an impressive fortified hilltop site (880 x 450 m total area), strategically positioned above the town of Ghor as-Safi and the mouth of Wadi al-‘Hasa, overlooking the northern Wadi ‘Arabah in Jordan, and with panoramic views on all sides. Through survey (2015) and excavations (2017-2018) funded by three PEF grants, my investigation has sought to establish the occupational history of Umm Tawabin as an important link in a chain of fortifications, reinforcing the local Nabataean defence system and later the Roman limes Arabicus, and with evidence of habitation over a much broader time period. The site containsat least four buildings (Forts A-D) distributed over a wide area and over one hundred stone circles all enclosed, for the most part, by a 2.5 km long casemate wall. Our strategy this season was to continue digging sondages (Trenches I, VI-XI) at different locations to obtain pottery and other material, to compare building and construction techniques, and where possible to better understand the site’s chronology.

            Joining our team of local Safi workers this year was an Australian volunteer archaeologist and two Dutch-American archaeobotanists. (Figure 1: The team excavating Umm Tawabin this year. Photo by A. Ariotti. Figure. 2: Archaeobotanists sieving material from Reservoir A in Fort A. Photo by A. Ariotti). Work resumed at the site’s citadel at Fort A (Trench I) to expose the dimensions of two reservoir-cisterns, one of which was partly excavated in 2017, and another that was partially exposed by looters during 2017 (Figure 3: The first week of excavation in Trench I, Fort A up on the citadel of Umm Tawabin. Photo by A. Ariotti). Our excavation revealed some more of the fort’s architecture (much unfortunately demolished through years of looting) including the two water receptacles, and quantities of 1st century BC to 2nd century AD pottery (much of it Nabataean), a shell whistle, twenty coins, some metal fragments, and animal and fish bone (Figure 4: The end of excavation of Trench I, Fort A with its two reservoir-cisterns in view. Photo by A. Ariotti). While Fort A served as a defensive and monitoring lookout post from the first century BC onwards, other components of Umm Tawabin may have earlier origins, and surface pottery scattered around the site suggest an occupation spanning into the Islamic era.

            South of the citadel, we excavated two probes within Forts B (Trench VI) and C (Trench VII), both of which feature internal walls of massive dressed ashlars resembling cyclopean masonry, but neither yielded any pottery (Figure 5: Fort B preserved wall line of massive dressed boulders. Photo by A. Ariotti). Next, we dug probes (Trenches VIII-IX and XI) along the east perimeter wall (Figure 6: Umm Tawabin’s east perimeter wall facing south. Photo by A. Ariotti) to determine whether it matched the west side wall as a casemate construction. We exposed a 3.5 to 4 m wide casemate comprising two parallel walls of large boulders in three sections, confirming that Umm Tawabin was fortified by an extensive casemate wall on its east and west sides, and by two E-W aligned walls on either side of the citadel to the north that together, completely enclosed the site. (Figure 7: Trench XI on the site’s east wall facing SE. Photo by A. Ariotti). Lastly, Stone Circle C (Trench X) on the site’s west side was excavated to collect material that might help establish the date and function of these unusual features (Figure 8: digging Stone Circle C on the site’s west side. Photo by A. Ariotti). Unlike Stone Circles A and B, which both contained ashy deposits with carbonized grains, there was no evidence of human activity. As with Stone Circles A and B, the circle of unworked stones did not extend below surface level nor were there foundations. Excavation results from all three circles in 2017-2018 suggests that they may be late period, possibly Bedouin structures, first documented by the PEF in 1883 so pre-dating this at least. While some of these circles are clearly burials, most may have been seasonal temporary human or animal shelters, the stones on the ground forming the bases of small tent encampments,  with all entrances facing the east providing protection from the winds. Once a study of the all the finds and pottery has been completed, this investigation hopes to present a more detailed occupational sequence of Umm Tawabin as an essentially defensive, fortified hilltop site.