Blooming dolmens!

By Jamie Fraser (Project Curator – Ancient Levant, British Museum)

In March 2015 I submitted my PhD thesis “Dolmens in the Levant”. For six weeks I had worked frantically in the library at the American Centre for Oriental Research in Amman, attacking my keyboard like a pianist the Rach 3, dreams haunted by an unfinished Chapter 9, or a bibliography missing any author with a name starting with ‘C’. Oh the elation near midnight at the end of the month, when I clicked ‘submit’ on the University of Sydney’s webpage; the burden slipped from my shoulders; my head became light; and I ascended, weightless, the library stairs to the Residences above, where the Director poured me a scotch, agreed that she too could hear heavenly choirs, and suggested I go home to bed.

I awoke three days later like Dorothy in Oz, keen to explore a new technicolour world. “Let’s go dolmen hunting!” I cried to my friend Isabelle Ruben, an archaeologist, botanist and long-time Amman resident, whose books include a Field Guide to the Plants and Animals of Petra. Isabelle readily agreed, but on condition we visited the Wadi Zerqa, a likely spot to find in bloom the famous Black Iris of Jordan. “You hunt your dolmens, I’ll shoot my flowers”, she replied, reaching for her camera and macro lens.

Zerqa river, Wadi Zerqa

Zerqa river, Wadi Zerqa

7. Isabelle Ruben, shooting flowers

Isabelle Ruben, shooting flowers


The Zerqa is the second largest tributary of the River Jordan. It rises near Amman, then drops almost 2,000 m in elevation as it flows through the escarpment to the rift valley below. Known as the Biblical Jabbok, the wadi was supposedly the place where Jacob fought with an angel, and these resonances drew scholars such as Capt. Conder (1889) and Dr. MacKenzie (1911) of the PEF. However, it was the psychedelic carpet of wild flowers that drew Isabelle and me: poppies, anemones, daisies and buttercups – it was enough to stir the heart of any battled-wearied thesis survivor. Just as I was about to burst into song, Isabelle pounced. “Aha!” she cried, whipping out her macro lens like a great white hunter on safari, “Iris nigricans – the Black Iris of Jordan!” Although their petals range from purple to black, their beauty, Isabelle explained, belies a remarkable reproductive machine: three upright petals help advertise the flower to nectar-gathering insects; three drooping petals draw the insects to the stamen within. Unfortunately, their beauty has also seen numbers decline, and the iris is now protected by law.

Close up of a Black Iris.

Close up of a Black Iris.

After sniffing our last Ranunculus, we crossed the Zerqa to the Wadi Rayyan, one of the most fertile wadis in Jordan. The well-watered Rayyan has long been known, somewhat ironically, as the ‘dry’ or ‘barren’ Wadi ‘Yabis’. Scholars explain this incongruity by identifying in the toponym ‘Yabis’ the name ‘Jabesh’ Gilead, a town mentioned in the Bible in relation to Kings David and Saul and their battles with the Philistines and Ammonites. Regardless, the wadi was renamed the ‘verdant’ Wadi Rayyan in the late 1990s, with possible associations to the Rayyan door named in the Qur’an as one of the Gates of Heaven through which the virtuous may pass into paradise.

 A dolmen surveyed at Tell er-Ras in the Wadi Rayyan

A dolmen surveyed at Tell er-Ras in the Wadi Rayyan

The Wadi Rayyan is also renown for its dolmens. Dolmens are megalithic tomb monuments that were probably built as stone charnel houses by village communities at the start of the Early Bronze Age, c.3800-3000 BC. Early travellers were fascinated by these megalithic monuments, which seemed so familiar to the European experience; indeed, in his Survey of Eastern Palestine (1889), Conder declared dolmens to be “one of the most interesting features of the survey expedition”. Although they once numbered in their thousands, many cemeteries are now destroyed, and descriptions by travellers such as Conder are the only accounts that some dolmen fields ever existed. As part of my postgraduate research, I had surveyed over 100 dolmens on the north side of the Wadi Rayyan, and I was back to validate reports of a smaller cemetery near the Byzantine period site of Deir el-Halawa on the opposite ridge.

A dolmen near Deir el-Halawa in the Wadi Rayyan

A dolmen near Deir el-Halawa in the Wadi Rayyan

After parking the car at the bottom of a hill, we climbed through olive orchards towards the ridge-line above, which marked the south side of the wadi. We weren’t disappointed: although overgrown and partly collapsed, we found at least 15 dolmens scattered across the hill-side, their upright slabs, rectangular chambers and megalithic capstones highly distinct. I took a few notes, then we headed to the Deir el-Halawa ruins at the top of the hill, almost falling into a massive rock-cut cistern on the way.

Tell el-Maqlub in the Wadi Rayyan, possibly ancient 'Jabesh-Gilead'

Tell el-Maqlub in the Wadi Rayyan, possibly ancient ‘Jabesh-Gilead’

The ridgeline affords a spectacular view over the impressive site of Tell el-Maqlub (the ‘upside down mound’). The tell is strategically located on a perennial stream at the only point where the steep-sided wadi can be easily crossed, and it is no coincidence that the Roman road between the Decapolis cites of Pella and Jerash ran right past the site. This location makes Tell el-Maqlub the best contender for the Iron Age settlement of Jabesh Gilead itself, although no archaeological work has ever been conducted on the mound. Feeling the weight of my trowel in my back pocket, I sighed, turned around, and traipsed back down the hill with Isabelle, passing more dolmens covered in wild flowers on the way.


Our 150th Birthday

By Adam John Fraser, PEF Librarian

150 years ago on this day the Palestine Exploration Fund held its first public meeting. The meeting took place in Willis’s Rooms in London’s St James’s Square at 3pm.

Fig 1. Detail from the PEF Minute Book for the first meeting of the Fund in 1865.

Fig 1. Detail from the PEF Minute Book for the first meeting of the Fund in 1865 (PEF Minute Book 1). Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

The resolutions passed at this meeting outlined the Fund’s structure and aims.  For the enjoyment of our readers, these resolutions, the Fund’s original mission statement, are included below.

1st Resolution

Proposed by The Bishop of London

Seconded by Viscount Strangford

That a Fund be formed for the purpose of promoting the exploration of the Holy Land and that the following Noblemen and Gentlemen do constitute the Committee and Officers with power to add to their number. 

2nd Resolution

Proposed by A.H. Layard Esq. MP

Seconded by Count De Vogüé

That the exploration of Jerusalem and many other places in the Holy Land by means of excavations would probably throw much light upon the archaeology of the Jewish people.

3rd Resolution

Proposed by Sir Roderick J Murchison

Seconded by Mr Palgrave

That in addition to the praiseworthy research that have recently been made by Frenchmen, Englishmen, and travellers of other nations in the Holy Land, it is highly desirable to carry out such a systematic survey as will completely establish the true geological and geographical characters of that remarkable region.

4th Resolution

Proposed by Professor Owen

Seconded by Rev. H.B. Tristram

That it is desirable that the animals, plants and minerals of the Holy Land be collected and that the facts requisite for their systematic history be noted by competent observers on the spot.

5th Resolution

Proposed by The Dean of Westminster

Seconded by The Dean of Canterbury

That the Biblical Scholar may yet receive assistance in illustrating the sacred text from careful observers of the manner and habits of the people of the Holy Land.


Fig 2. Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Dean of Westminster (PEF-Portrait-Stanley). Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

6th Resolution

Proposed by The Bishop of Morny & Ross

Seconded by Dr William Smith

That the thanks of the Meeting be given to his Grace the Archbishop of York for his conduct in the chair.

The men who proposed these resolutions were some of the brightest minds of their generation. Many of them had conducted their own travels in the Middle East and were independent scholars who studied the languages and customs of the region.  Although some of them were Biblical scholars the Fund was a secular organization. One of the most renowned archaeologists of the mid-Victorian period Austen Henry Layard (who discovered Niniveh and Nimrud) helped shape the Fund’s research focus.

Professor Owen (who eventually established the Natural History Museum in South Kensington) ensured that the PEF was not entirely concerned with the ancient history of the land but also that it collect current specimens, both plant and animal.  The Dean of Westminster’s proposal that the local customs of the people of Palestine be recorded (albeit for religious study) resulted in unique and unparalleled records.

150 years ago these Committee members put forth motions to ensure the PEF’s specific and unique identity. We remain committed to the ethos of these first resolutions by continuing to champion research in the Levant today.

Fig 3. Detail of the Palestine Exploration Fund's official Committee list.

Fig 3. Detail from an early PEF publication (PEF/1865/1/84/1). Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.