Umm at-Tawabin, Ghor as-Safi, Jordan, 2017

By Alexandra Ariotti

In February this year, I excavated the large fortified site, Umm at-Tawabin, positioned on a hill above the town of Ghor as-Safi and Wadi al-‘Arabah in Jordan, along with three Greek volunteers and some local Safi workers. With its vast size (880 x 450 m), strategic location, at least four interior buildings and over one hundred stone circles all fortified by a 2.5 km perimeter wall, this site has never been fully investigated since it was first discovered in the late 19th century until recently.

In 2015, I carried out a survey and study of some surface pottery which provided the evidence for a 1st century BC to 6th century AD occupation in one area especially, the site’s main fort on the citadel. However, to firmly establish the chronology of all of the site’s architectural features distributed over a wide area, the next logical step was to dig some strategically-placed sondages to retrieve pottery and other material and to compare types of building and construction where possible. Five trenches were excavated with Trench I in the middle of Fort A on the citadel and four trenches (II-V) below the fort on the site’s west side.

Work begins up on Umm at-Tawabin’s citadel where we’re hoping to expose the architecture of Fort A, a large defense post overlooking Wadi al-‘Arabah and the southern Dead Sea. Photo by Nikos Angelakis.

Some of our team made up of Safi locals, three Greeks and one Australian digging the fort, with spectacular views all around us. Photo by Nikos Angelakis

Our excavation of Fort A revealed some of the structure’s original architecture including a water reservoir and has produced a considerable quantity of pottery, coins and other finds like a stone slingshot and part of a Nabataean incense burner.

Fort foundations including a water reservoir are at last revealed. Photo by Nikos Angelakis.

This material has so far shown that Fort A was built and occupied from the first century BC onwards, serving as a lookout post designed for defensive and monitoring purposes.

At the same time, our team excavated two of the stone circles (from which the site gets its name “mother of bread ovens” in Arabic) that have been the subject of some longstanding debate concerning their origin and function.

Omar excavating one of the site’s one hundred circular stone installations situated along the west side of Umm at-Tawabin. Photo by Nikos Angelakis.

Stone Circle A (Trench II) did not yield much in the way of interior features beyond a thin layer of ash and a few residual pottery sherds. However, Stone Circle B (Trench III) was found to have been built directly on top of two walls belonging to an altogether different structure/s that dates to a much earlier (Early Bronze Age or Middle Bronze Age) period.

Antonis sieving for pottery and other finds from within one of the stone circles that will help to date these unusual features. Photo by Nikos Angelakis.

Some stratified pottery was found within the circle that I’m eagerly waiting to study. Trench IV was excavated as a probe along a line of very large boulder stones on the southwest side of the site that, together with another parallel line of boulders, forms its enclosure wall.

Two of our Greek volunteers excavating a probe along Umm at-Tawabin’s enclosure wall on the west side of the site. Photo by Nikos Angelakis.

We can now determine how this massive fortification was constructed, as well as the depth of its foundations, made all the more clear by the excavation of Trench V further to the south. This probe was dug across the two wall lines of boulder stones which showed us that Umm at-Tawabin is enclosed, on its west side at least, by a very wide type of case-mate wall. Once a study of the all of the finds recovered by excavation (as well as some surface sherds recently collected) has been completed, I hope to better understand the occupational history of Umm at-Tawabin which may now be much broader than previously thought, for example, with origins that date to the Bronze Age.