The 2022 survey at Khirbet al-Mudayna al-‘Aliya, Jordan

Diederik J. H. Halbertsma, University of Liverpool, Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egpytology.

In May 2022 we conducted a survey season at the archaeological site of Khirbet al-Mudayna al-‘Aliya (KMA for short), south-central Jordan, with a small team. The site is located in the eastern part the Kerak plateau, on a promontory overlooking the Wadi al-Mukhayris. KMA is a 2.3 ha. single-period site which dates to the end of the early Iron Age period. The early Iron Age followed a cataclysmic time commonly known as the ‘Late Bronze Age collapse’ (ca. 1200 BCE), which saw the demise of great empires. The Levant, which had largely been governed by the Hittites and the Egyptians, suddenly found itself in a power vacuum. This vacuum would, in the late Iron Age, lead to the emergence of well-known kingdoms such as Ammon, Edom, Israel, Judah, and in case of this particular region, Moab.

Fig. 1: the author documenting the site’s massive tower, with the wadi in the background (image courtesy of author)

What happened in between these two periods is not always clear and is often referred to as a period of ‘state formation’, which would lead to the establishment of these kingdoms. Archaeological layers dating to this period are often difficult to reach, making single-period sites such as KMA quite valuable. KMA is all the more interesting as it is a heavily fortified site, but excavations show that from within it functioned as an ordinary Iron Age village.

KMA was securely dated through 14C samples of the site’s construction and eventual destruction. Interestingly, these dates show that the site was constructed around 1060 BCE and already abandoned around 980 BCE. This leaves roughly 80 years for the construction of this massive site, its use, and its sudden abandonment, raising many questions I try to find answers for. Who constructed this site and for what purpose? Why was it abandoned after only ca. 80 years? How does the site fit with the many other fortified villages around the Wadi Mujib? Was this part of an early Iron Age kingdom, or are there other social dynamics at play which could explain the sudden investment in labour?

In order to tackle some of these questions I organised the fieldwork project conducted in May this year. I wanted to visit the site to take a closer look at its many structures, paying particular attention to building techniques, potential quarrying locations, and the sequence of the site’s construction. This is when I started thinking of capturing the site in 3D using photogrammetry. Photogrammetry software is able to reconstruct physical objects and the environment in 3D based on overlapping photographic images. I’d had success in the past capturing squares and objects I’d excavated in 3D using this method but had never applied it at a scale like this. Really, this would require the use of drones or kites, both of which are difficult to use in Jordan due to local restrictions and weather conditions. We developed a method which, though it’d stretch the limits of the software, should theoretically work. To do this, we’d need to cut the site up into ‘bite-sized’ chunks which we’d capture at several angles while fieldwalking using 2.5 m. camera poles. Our methodology proved effective, as we managed to capture the entire site in 8 working days.

Figure 2: trial model of section of the casemate wall (image courtesy of author)

Having achieved our initial goals earlier than expected we had time to also investigate the site’s eastern slope, on which previous investigations spotted remains of three cisterns. On this slope we found remains of a previously unknown built road leading down towards the wadi. We furthermore discovered a total of 16 cisterns which were cut into the hill’s soft limestone layers. These cisterns were in different states of preservation, some being near completely sanded up whereas others were remarkably well-preserved. Several of these well-preserved cisterns contained remains of plaster, which were sampled for further study at the University of Liverpool. The reinforced road led down to a final retaining wall guarding access up the slope to the cisterns. Protruding from this wall was a small built path leading down to the wadi proper.

In all, this survey season proved very successful, and its results will not only allow us to create a higher resolution plan of the site and work towards a better understanding of the socio-political dynamics following the ‘Late Bronze Age collapse’ but also to approach issues on water management strategies at early Iron Age sites. To be continued!

Fig. 3: Entrance to one of the cisterns (image courtesy of author)