(re-)discovering Late Neolithic sites on the Karak Plateau, Jordan

Pascal Flohr, University of Oxford, School of Archaeology

In October 2019, after the first rains of the season, we headed to the Karak Plateau in Jordan to visit Late Neolithic sites I had identified by desk-based research, and find suitable areas to discover more of these sites. For one week, chipped stone and Neolithic expert Bill Finlayson and I drove around much of the plateau (Fig. 1), documenting sites (Late Neolithic and not  – as archaeologists it is difficult to ignore any ancient remains!).

Fig. 1 Routes driven/walked and sites visited on the Karak Plateau.

The Late Neolithic (from around 8500 to 7000 years ago) is a very interesting period, as it is the time when agriculture became the main form of subsistence for many people in Jordan, and for the first time large numbers were present in the steppe and desert areas with their livestock. Studying the effects of climate change on these early farming societies is also of great interest, as several dry phases occurred. Despite this research value, the Late Neolithic remains understudied in Jordan compared to other periods – an imbalance that this research is helping to address. Following in the footsteps of researchers from the University of Toronto who work in northern Jordan, my research uses targeted survey and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) modelling to identify probable Late Neolithic areas of activity.

The first step is to study Late Neolithic settlement patterns. I chose the study area of the Karak Plateau because it lies on the interface between different climatic zones, from Mediterranean (agricultural rain-fed), steppe, to desert. Within a 30 kilometre stretch the landscape changes from green agricultural fields to apparently empty desert. The boundaries of these zones will have moved with climate change. Present-day open-cast mining gives an added imperative to record this region before evidence is lost.

The site visits were designed to:

1. Locate and describe sites already identified, as many of these sites had been surveyed in pre-GPS days and only described briefly.

2. Assess the prehistoric, and specifically Late Neolithic potential, of different areas. Previous surveys had mostly focused on later periods but I wanted to know if they did not find the Neolithic because it is not there (or easily visible), or because they did not look for it?

Google Earth was very helpful in finding potential locations of the sites, and to find routes to them – otherwise not an easy task on the Karak Plateau where there are many deeply incised wadis. We knew this from the previous year when we had attempted to visit a site and got very close, but unfortunately on the other side of an uncrossable deep wadi (for us at least, the local herder with his flock had no problem at all…).

We visited and documented 35 sites/areas, many further areas were visited to assess the prehistoric potential, and we photographed sites (of any period) that we happened to pass. The information and photos can be found in the EAMENA database. The result were above our expectations, as 17 sites/areas showed high to definite prehistoric potential, and of these 13 showed medium-definite Late Neolithic potential.

Of specific interest are:

LAS 27: described first by the Limes Arabicus Survey in the 1980s. A very large chipped stone scatter on a wadi terrace (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 Documenting chipped stone at LAS 27.

LAS 188+190: A very large chipped stone scatter, Late Neolithic-Chalcolithic, with a promontory closed off by a wall. Remains of structures on both sides of the wall. Fig. 3.

Fig. 3 Aerial photo of LAS 188+190 (©APAAME, photo: Mat Dalton, APAAME_20181014_MND-0145) . The wall is clearly visible but otherwise there is no clue there is archaeology there, while during the site visit the chipped stone and structural remains were very obvious.

Imra’: described in Miller’s Archaeological Survey of the Kerak Plateau as dating from Bronze Age onwards (from 5000 years ago), but we also identified chipped stone dating to Late Neolithic/Early Chalcolithic, so the site dates to around 1500 years earlier than thought.

Fig. 4 The nearby wadi cut a section into the site of Imra’, allowing us to find Late Neolithic/Early Chalcolithic chipped stone at its base.

Finally, while we would always argue that transect field walking is essential to find prehistoric sites, we did find a site while using the car. While having a lunch break next to what we thought was a later cairn or structure with a very nice view over a wadi (Fig. 5), we found a dense flint scatter containing probably Late Neolithic chipped stone.

Fig. 5 The view from the potentially Late Neolithic flint scatter.

We are planning to return in June 2020 for a survey to map the above sites in more detail and to survey additional areas in different environmental zones of the Karak Plateau. So, to be continued!