Extreme Archaeology of the Black Desert, Jordan

Yorke Rowan, on behalf of the Eastern Badia Archaeological Project (EBAP) team

Our adventures in extreme archaeology in the Black Desert of Jordan bring known expectations. We know that the long first day includes loading a Toyota Hilux and larger cargo truck; various stop offs to pick up water tanks, ice, and fuel; driving two hours off road through the rough basalt; arriving to unpack, build camp, inhale dust and flies; ending with the inevitable search for the first night’s meal. The sore limbs, chapped lips, more flies, snakes and melted ice are also all known. What was unknown during the 2018 expedition was the two days of torrential rains, wind and lightening. The soggy beginning brought on by this unusual weather episode encouraged us to appreciate the warm days that followed, and the pleasant discoveries of a region that can look so starkly unwelcoming. Logistics are a challenge in an area without cell phone reception and far from food and water, even for our small team of ten people.  

Figure 1

Returning to Wisad Pools for the first time since 2014, a primary goal of the Eastern Badia Archaeological Project was to complete the excavation of building W-80, a large structure with multiple building phases and occupations. These episodes indicate people lived in the building sporadically over at least 700 years during the Late Neolithic (C14 indicates intermittent occupation from the mid-7th to mid-6th millennia cal. B.C.). Situated on the southeastern edge of the harra (basaltic landscape), Wisad Pools consists of a short drainage (c. 1.5 km long) that flows from a plateau to a qa’ (mudflat) about ten meters lower in elevation. Natural and blocked sections of this drainage created nine pools, surrounded by hundreds of collapsed basalt structures, which until now had no known age or function. The pools of water attracted people and animals for millennia. Using basalt boulders and slabs as their medium, people pecked rock art representing animals and hunting traps, and the occasional human. Yet most of the animals depicted are not found in our excavations.

Figure 2

Continuing the excavation of the large structure W-80, we were surprised to find deeper, continuing deposits. Although very good news, this required establishing the connections between depositional phases and structural remodeling that occurred later in the building’s life. For example, the narrow entrance of the main northeast door was created by inserting a wall section into the earlier, much wider entrance. By removing this blocking wall to expose an earlier, roughly paved entrance, a working platform rich in artifacts was discovered. We found a large pierced mother of pearl plaque tucked away at the base of the later entrance.  Below this level at the same threshold, a large worked block of red ochre was unearthed, pressed vertically into the ground. At a slightly higher level, we have reported on a cache of caprine/gazelle astragalae (Rowan et al. 2015a: Fig. 11a).

Figure 3

Conducted in 1 x 1 m squares and 5 cm spits, the excavations of these earlier interior layers had smaller hearths, ashy deposits, and small grinding slabs with handstones. In the later occupations, surfaces included massive grinding slabs and deep fire pits, suggesting significant changes not only in the structure but also its use. Around the central standing stone we discovered a concentration of mandibles and crania from gazelle, suggesting a foundation deposit.

Figure 4

In the same shallow pit a polished sphere strengthens the idea this was a ritual deposit. Another cache of caprine/gazelle astragalae found at the base of this pillar leave little doubt that these were intentional ritualized deposits.

After four seasons of excavation at Wisad Pools, our perceptions of the area are becoming radically transformed. We cannot attribute all of the many structures to the Late Neolithic period, but evidence points to a substantial building and reuse of the area during this time. The impressive structures and rich deposits hint at the repeated use by hunter-herders who returned and lived near the pools, possibly for substantial parts of the year. Although we might see this arid landscape as bleak and barely habitable for short periods, those soggy first days remind us that the ancient inhabitants developed strategies to thrive and build hamlets in the Black Desert despite the many unknowns.


Figure 1. The team surveys their soggy surroundings after the final rain at Wisad Pools (Photo: Y. M. Rowan)

Figure 2. Petroglyph depicting ibex and two hunters (Photo: A. C. Hill)

Figure 3. Mother of pearl plaque found at the threshold (Photo: G. O. Rollefson)

Figure 4. Cache of gazelle mandibles and crania fragments at the base of the central pillar in W-80 (Photo: B. Heidkamp).