Dating the Fortress of Umm Tawabin, Jordan

By Alexandra Ariotti

Over two field seasons in 2017-2018 that were co-sponsored by the PEF, I excavated the impressive fortress site of Umm Tawabin (‘Mother of Bread Ovens’ in Arabic) overlooking the northern Wadi ‘Arabah in Jordan for the Ghor as-Safi Project (Figure 1. Aerial view of Umm Tawabin facing northwest. Photo by APAAME_20160927_REB-0186). From the time of its discovery by a PEF expedition in 1883-84, Umm Tawabin had never been excavated in spite of its spectacular setting and its numerous and varied archaeological remains that include a citadel with the ruins of a fort (Fort A), three other collapsed stone buildings (Forts B-D) and over 100 unusual circular stone enclosures all spread out over an area 880 by 450 m in size which is fortified by a 2.5 km long, 4 m wide casemate wall. Because very little had been published on the site, questions about its size, function/s and dating had been the subject of some debate until our survey (2015) and excavations (2017-2018) which have addressed these and other issues for the first time.

With a small team of local workers from the nearby town of Safi, alongside four Greek and Australian volunteers, I dug eleven probes around the site, the largest being up at Fort A on the citadel, with smaller probes excavated within Forts B and C, three of the stone circles and lastly, across sections of Umm Tawabin’s fortification wall to collect pottery, coins and other finds, as well as faunal and botanical remains (Figure 2. Umm Tawabin Trenches I-XI location map 2017-2018. Image by A. Ariotti, Figure 3. Digging Fort A on the citadel, 2017. Photo by N. Angelakis).

Our main dig at Fort A produced a large quantity of stratified pottery dating to the Late Hellenistic-Early Roman period from the 2nd century BC to the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, much of it Nabataean, and a few sherds of a 4th to 6th century AD date, over 30 coins, some lamp fragments, part of an incense burner, a belt buckle, whistle and a stone catapult, among other objects (Figure 4. Incense burner and catapult from Fort A. Photo by A. Ariotti, Figure 5. Whistle made from a shell from Fort A. Photo by A. Ariotti). Elsewhere, we did not find any cultural evidence that could be used to date the buildings and features around the site although we did have botanical remains which proved to be very useful. Therefore, I decided to apply for my fourth PEF grant in 2021 to submit eight wood charcoal and charred seed samples from Forts A-C and Stone Circle B for radiocarbon dating to 14 Chrono Lab at Queens University Belfast (UK). Together with the pottery and other finds, these radiocarbon dates have crucially helped to determine Umm Tawabin’s history of occupation and its functions over the long-term and in doing so, to better understand the cultural, political and socio-economic history of the Ghor as-Safi region. 

Our excavations on the citadel uncovered some of Fort A’s interior walls, and a small water reservoir and large underground cistern (Figure 6. Fort A excavations in 2018 with the small water reservoir on the left and the underground cistern on the right. Photo by A. Ariotti). Four radiocarbon dates from the reservoir’s deposits have corroborated the dating of the fort attested also by the pottery and other cultural material. Along with the pottery, the calibrated radiocarbon dates confirm that the reservoir was built in the 2nd century BC during the earliest phasing of the fort and that its deposits accumulated over three to four hundred years of continuous occupation. The adjacent cistern was first laid bare by looters following our 2017 excavations and then partly excavated in 2018 as I aimed only to expose the top of its walls instead of digging it in entirety due to time constraints. Excavation of the cistern yielded very little pottery, but a calibrated radiocarbon date has verified that it was used between the 1st century BC and 1st century AD.

Two probes were dug within Forts B and C to the south of the citadel, both buildings constructed with large dressed ashlars and unworked boulder stones which, along with some Bronze and Iron Age surface pottery across this part of the site, led us to initially speculate that these buildings may be earlier in date than the fort on the citadel, for example, with origins pre-dating the 2nd century BC (Figure 7. Fort B facing south, Figure 8. Digging Fort B, 2018. Photo by A. Ariotti). While we did not recover any pottery or other finds, two calibrated radiocarbon dates from Forts B and C have now provided the evidence for an occupation dating between the 11th and 10th centuries BC. 

Lastly, three stone circles were dug on the west side of Umm Tawabin, although only one of them produced some evidence to suggest that rather than forming the bases of soldier’s tents as has been the prevailing interpretation of the circles since the site’s discovery, the majority of these installations may, in fact, represent seasonal, temporary human and/or animal shelters, perhaps built and used (or reused) by Bedouin at least 130 years ago or more when they were first documented (Figure 9. Stone Circle B before excavation facing east. Photo by A. Ariotti, Figure 10. Antonis and Omar digging the stone circle, 2017. Photo by N. Angelakis).

Excavation of Stone Circle B not only revealed that the stones forming a circle on the ground did not extend below the surface, but also that it was built directly on top of two walls belonging to an altogether different structure (or structures) dating to an earlier period. Importantly, we identified some charcoal and charred seeds among the excavated deposits which may indicate that people were eating or depositing food waste in this structure. Because the only pottery recovered from this circle was largely non-diagnostic and residual, it was my hope that radiocarbon dating of a charred seed would be key to addressing issues of the its function, dating and last period of use, with Stone Circle B being representative of the majority of these installations. Indeed, the radiocarbon date produced a calibrated 11th to 9th century BC date range which cannot be associated with certainty to the stone circle itself, but more likely to the two early walls uncovered by excavation on top of which this circle was built. 

Overall, these radiocarbon dating results are really exciting for us not only because they have been used to bolster the pottery and other cultural material found during excavation that attests to the sequence of occupation at Umm Tawabin’s citadel, but because we also now have the evidence, well-stratified, for a habitation ranging between the 11th and 9th centuries BC at other parts of the site below the citadel. Altogether, the eight radiocarbon dates from Umm Tawabin offer clearer insights into its chronology, alongside the relative dating of the pottery and other finds that point towards a sequence of occupation spanning millennia. I now hope to publish these results in a PEQ article that includes an explanation of the C14 sample selection and methodology, and the implications for dating the buildings from where the samples were collected (and by extension, the site as a whole). The results will also be incorporated into a forthcoming site/excavation report that will present a more detailed sequence of Umm Tawabin’s chronology and status as an easily defended fortified site that served a defensive and monitoring purpose, at one time supplementing the local Hasmonean and Nabataean defense systems and then the Roman limes Arabicus, and now with evidence of occupation dating to the Iron Age II period (1000-332 BC).

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