Back to Black (the Desert)

A blog on the Eastern Badia Archaeological Project, Jordan

Yorke M. Rowan

The Eastern Badia Archaeological Project investigates two regions located in the Black Desert of Eastern Jordan, Wadi al-Qattafi and Wisad Pools. Both areas, situated along the southeastern edge of the basaltic area known as the harra, may have been more attractive in the past than the current desolate appearance would lead us to believe. Our current focus in the field are the excavation of two buildings at Wisad Pools, an area with hundreds of structures and over 400 petroglyphs. Our survey and excavations suggest that many of the collapsed buildings near the pools date to the Late Neolithic period (6,500-5,000 BC), attracting hunters and pastoralists to spend substantial time in the area.

Returning to Wisad Pools in May 2019, our team was once again prepared for the month of dust, heat, and lack of cool beverages or showers. Our small team included a few newcomers and experienced members, and we were all excited. Little did we realize that once again we would be visited by rain, lightening, and flooding for two days that was by turns fascinating and terrifying (see 2018 season blog)! But once our bedding and tents dried out, sunny desert weather returned and we could get serious. This year our team divided into two small groups, one to excavate and document the foundational phases of W80, and the other to excavate W400, both Late Neolithic structures. Excavations of W80 continued to surprise us, with yet another earlier layer of slabs, some possibly predating the major walls. In addition, we revisited an external area nicknamed the “porch”, only to discover that it also had an earlier phase that seemed to join with the earliest phases of wall construction (Fig. 1). At this earlier phase, the ‘porch’ seemed more closely akin to a hearth-pit, although this will require additional final excavation during 2020. Structure W-80 is the best example of multiple rebuilding episodes that suggests extended seasonal habitation and repeated visits over hundreds of years.

Figure 1. The excavated “porch” of W80 that appears more similar to a pit/hearth in the earliest phases.

The team at W400 had a longer hike from our camp at Pool 1, but we had the pleasure of greeting “dubya” who was often found at his post in the afternoon. He tolerated friendly photographers who kept their distance (Figure 2). Despite his fierce appearance, he tends toward the vegetarian, much like our own fare in camp. At W400, a very different type of building lacked the massive slabs incorporated in all phases of W80. Building W400 is a small, circular building, apparently attached to the large animal pen (Fig. 3). Basalt slabs used for construction were smaller than W80, and not as well suited for construction. Based on the very low walls and lack of large basalt slabs, corbelling of the roof seems unlikely. Moreover, the artifact types and quantity were significantly different. Perhaps most striking is the lack of transverse arrowheads such as those found at W80 by the hundreds. A few arrowheads were found at W400, but burins and drills are more common (Fig. 4). It seems likely that this hut and pen structure served a different purpose than W80, with its massive walls, huge numbers of animal bones, arrowheads, beads, and other small finds. Is it possible that W400 was built and used primarily by pastoralists, who also built the attached pen? And does this overlap in date to a period when W80 was in use? If pastoralists, why are they further away from the water in the pools? We hope to have the chronological phasing delineated more clearly soon, when radiocarbon dates are returned for each structure.

Figure 2. The dubb, an Egyptian spiny-tailed lizard, who watched over our progress.
Figure 3. The hut and pen structure of W400.
Figure 4. Drills from W400 (Photo: G. Rollefson)

Although our sample of three Late Neolithic structures at Wisad Pools is admittedly small, coupled with two more LN structures at Wadi al-Qattafi, an exciting picture of what the Black Desert was like 8,000 years ago is emerging with greater clarity. The discovery of oak (Q. ithaburensis) and willow (Salicaceae) argue for wetter conditions. The many well-constructed Late Neolithic structures, extensive system of nearby kites for gazelle hunting, and botanical evidence for marshy plants and trees strongly hint at an environment distinctly different and more inviting than the present day. Our research suggests that the Black Desert was not always a parched and desolate landscape, but a more hospitable place, particularly during the Late Neolithic.