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The History and Archaeology of Jordan: The Second Millennium BC by Patrick McGovern
Pages 285-300 in Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan Conference VIII Amman: Department of Antiquities (2004) (PDF)

The past 20 years of archaeological work in Jordan have led to a major reassessment of the second millennium BC, one of the most pivotal in Jordan's long history and with profound consequences for world civilization. A generation ago Nelson Glueck’s nomadic hypothesis still held sway. According to this theory, based on field surveys when the Bronze and Iron Age pottery sequences of Transjordan were poorly known, only nomads and pastoral transhumants roamed the plateau south of Wadi az-Zarqa from the beginning of Middle Bronze (MB) IIA (circa 1900 BC) down to the end of the Late Bronze Age (LBA), which Glueck ended around 1300 BC.

It can now be demonstrated that the city-state system, which was well-established west of the Jordan River earlier in the millennium, had already penetrated into Jordan from the north by around 1900 BC. Newly established urban sites, such as Pella in the northern Jordan Valley, probably served as large regional centers that coordinated the trade of a range of agricultural and finished goods from intermediate centers and producers in other areas of the country. Southern Palestine was the hub of this MB economic network which had reached its highpoint by the “Hyksos” period (circa 1670-1550 BC).

Glueck’s Nomadic Hypothesis and LB I Urban Culture

When I was introduced to Jordanian archaeology a little more than 20 years ago, my decision to begin working there professionally was in direct response to the apparent inadequacy of Glueck’s nomadic hypothesis. In 1976, LB Pottery vessels, to cite only one category of material artifacts, came onto the antiquities market in Amman. They were traced back to the Baq‘ah Valley, a fertile and well-watered expanse 20 km northwest of the capital and were just as sophisticated in style and manufacturing technique as anything found west of the Jordan River. The locally made pottery was accompanied by pieces of imported pottery from Greece, in particular Mycenaean IIIB stirrup jars and Cypriote White Slip II milk bowls, making it clear that Transjordan was part of the international trading network of the period. The contrast with the nomadic hypothesis could not be greater: artifacts attesting to advanced technologies and almost identical stylistic assemblages as those associated with small, medium and large-sized settlements west of the Jordan could only be explained by a sedentary more complex society on the central Transjordanian plateau.

The Baq‘ah Valley Project (McGovern 1986; 1989), which I directed for five seasons from 1977 to 1987, represented the scientific confirmation of this alternative hypothesis. Intensive ground surveys, geophysical prospecting and aerial surveying were followed up by test soundings at sites throughout the valley. In addition to finding and excavating undisturbed burial caves of the second millennium BC, the main settlement site on the northwestern side of the valley was located at Khirbat Umm ad-Dananir. Its name alone — “the mother of the gold coins or dinars” — promised untold riches! Apart from yielding any scraps of the precious metal however, the archaeological light this site has shed on the central Transjordanian plateau from circa 1550 BC to the end of the millennium is what has made it such a profitable site to excavate on a larger scale and study.

One very instructive lesson was learned at Khirbat Umm ad-Dananir regarding surface surveys of second millennium BC Jordanian sites in general. The survey of this site was carried out in an exhaustive fashion --— collecting every conceivable artifact (ceramic -- lithic -- bone -- etcetera) from the total 2.5 hectare area of the site which had been enclosed by a 2 metre thick double wall of boulders as revealed by a detailed plan of visible architecture. Since the site was built on a series of terraces above Wadi Umm ad-Dananir it might be anticipated that archaeological materials from every period represented on such a skewed “tall” (mound) would have washed down the slope, a vertical drop of about 50 metres, and be represented somewhere on the surface. To be sure quantities of pottery and other artifacts were recovered from every sub-phase of the Iron Age (including the early Iron Age, constituting the end of the second millennium) along with Roman -- Byzantine and Mamluk materials. LB II (circa 1400-1200 BC) pottery was also well represented and even a stray sherd of what appeared to belong to the late MBA. What did not show up on the surface were any artifacts that could be identified as belonging to LB I (circa 1550-1400 BC). Excavation was needed to reveal this pivotal period in the second millennium BC history of Jordan.

No sign of LB I was found on the surface because this period constituted the lowest occupational level of the site, built on bedrock and sealed, after its destruction, beneath 5 metres of later occupational debris. Once having excavated and removed later Iron Age and Roman structures, a unique building, which was in use from circa 1480-1300 BC (LB IB-IIA), was revealed. The building, with walls 1 metre thick and some still standing 1.5 metre high, had been destroyed by a fire and carbonized beams from the roof had collapsed onto a thick well-made plaster floor. Two layers of beams, made of 300-500 year-old olive trees were found running parallel and at right-angles to one another with a clay layer in between; though burned, some of the beams were 20 cm in section with mortise joints still visible. Few artifacts were found on the floor of the building but beneath the floor, directly over bedrock, was a 60 cm thick accumulation of burnt and unburnt animal bones. Cattle legs, gazelle heads and the remains of many other mammals (donkey -- sheep/goat and mountain lion) were represented; in other words both domesticated and undomesticated species, including two animals (the gazelle and mountain lion) no longer living in the region.

The foundation trenches for the LB I building were dug down into this bone layer. Before the plaster floor was laid the builders placed foundation offerings in the trenches including a jewelry pendant of standard Syro-Palestinian type (McGovern 1989: Figure 6) and glass and Egyptian Blue frit beads that represent some of the earliest vitreous materials from the ancient Near East (McGovern 1989: Figure 6: 1-2). More important for dating purposes was the pottery which included a miniature hand-made lamp, an imitation of a Cypriot white-shaved juglet in an unusual black ware and well-made bi-chrome painted bowls and kraters of local 15th-14th BC century BC types (McGovern 1989: Figure 5).

Even more intriguing, the layout of the rooms in the Khirbat Umm ad-Dananir building and its construction were nearly identical to a contemporaneous structure that has long fascinated scholars --- the Amman Airport Building about 15 km to the southeast (Hennessy 1966; Hankey 1974; Herr 1983). This building, which was discovered at the old airport when a runway was put in but which has since been covered over by another runway, is a perfectly square 15 x 15 metres. Like the Khirbat Umm ad-Daninir structure, a “dedicatory fill” of animal bones had first been deposited over bedrock and [the] walls were precisely 1 or 2 metres thick. Although some finds are recorded as coming from above the floor, a treasure trove was found beneath the floor including Mycenaean, Cypriote and Minoan pottery -- gold -- silver and bronze jewelry etcetera.

Although such rich deposits are yet to be found at Khirbat Umm ad-Dananir, what is remarkable is that to the extent that it has been exposed the Khirbat Umm ad-Dananir structure closely parallels the layout of the Amman Airport Building. Thus the northern rooms of both buildings were exactly 2 metres wide and had doorways spaced 2.5 and 3.5 metres apart and opening to the south. Based on analogy to the Amman Airport Building a massive pillar was hypothesized to be at the center of the Khirbat Umm ad-Dananir structure. A sounding was sunk at this spot, and true to form, a large boulder 1 metre on a side was exposed. It proved to be the upper drum of a pillar comprised of three drums, the lowest of which was hewn into a 1m3 (sic) of bedrock. It’s not often that one can use another building’s plan to direct the course of excavation. It would seem that 3500 years ago one Jordanian architectural firm had a monopoly on construction in the area and they even worked according to the “metric system”!

Both the Khirbat Umm ad-Dananir and Amman Airport buildings were probably destroyed sometime during the 13th century BC. Pits containing characteristic LB IIB pottery were dug into the destruction debris of the Khirbat Umm ad-Dananir structure (McGovern 1989: Figure 7; also see McGovern 1986: 61-63, Figures 47-48). Besides more bones of the same species of animals as those in the “dedicatory fill” and foundation trenches, one of these pits yielded the front part of a pottery rhyton in the form of a bull, a complete example of which came from a contemporaneous nearby burial cave (cf McGovern 1986: Figure 88 1-2). This zoomorphic type, which generally occurs in late MB and early LB contexts at other Levantine settlement sites, has obvious religious associations as a manifestation of the Canaanite sun or weather god.

The finding of burnt human bones near the central pillar of the Amman Airport Building has led to speculations that human sacrifice or cremation, as part of a mortuary cult, was carried out here. As yet no human bones, burnt or otherwise, have been recovered from the Khirbat Umm ad-Dananir structure that might help to resolve this issue. Still, the animal bone layers below the floors of both buildings and the miniature vessels and other special artifacts in their “dedicatory fills” and foundation trenches point to some kind of cultic activity. It is also known from contemporaneous texts, as well as biblical tradition, that animal sacrifices played an important role in covenant ceremonies --— although mountain lions go unmentioned.

Taking a broader perspective, the layouts of the Amman Airport Building and Khirbat Umm ad-Dananir structure belong to the so-called Quadratbau architectural type (German “square building”) which is characterized by a central courtyard and surrounding rooms. The type is especially well represented in the Amman area --— at Rujm al-Hinnu East in the middle of the Baq‘ah Valley and at al-Mabrak (Yassine 1983) 4km southeast of the Amman Airport Building --- both of which were built on bedrock and were possibly constructed during the LBA according to surface pottery. In the central hill country west of the Jordan River around Nablus and the ancient site of Shechem (Tall Balatah), several buildings of similar type on Mount Jirzim were more precisely dated to the late MBA and early LBA (Landes 1975). This region might well have been in contact with the central Trans-jordanian plateau as trade routes probably ran down Wadi al-Far'ah to the Jordan Valley and then up Wadi az-Zarga and Wadi Umm ad-Dananir to the Baq‘ah Valley and Amman, a distance of only 40 km as the crow flies.

Investigators of the MB-LB Quadratbau buildings have noted that they often appear to be isolated or at some removed from any permanent settlement. The Amman Airport Building is more than 5 km from the Amman Citadel where a major LB settlement was located. In keeping with Glueck’s nomadic hypothesis and bibical tradition it was then proposed that itinerant groups of proto-Israelites met at the Amman Airport Building periodically to seal their alliances (amphictyony) with one another. Apart from the fact that a settlement was noted some 300 metres east of the building, which could not be investigated because it lay under the main runways, it is highly unlikely that the excellent and precise building techniques of the Amman Airport Building can be ascribed to nomads or semi-nomads. Moreover the pottery and other artifacts of local types as well as the numerous imports attest to a sedentary way of life.

Two alternative hypotheses may be proposed to account for why the buildings are generally not incorporated into settlements proper in the Amman and Shechem regions. Firstly they might have been physically separated from ordinary residences because of their special architecture and social -- political and/or religious significance. Secondly the physical separation might reflect and have encouraged the interaction of sedentary and mobile groups, which is well-attested in all periods of Jordanian history and appears to have provided a buffer in times of economic exigencies. The latter hypothesis is partly borne out at Khirbat Umm ad-Dananir where large scatters of LB sherds on the uppermost terrace of the site were not associated with any surface architecture and might represent transhumant encampments (McGovern 1986: 11; 1989: 130-132).

The Transjordanian LB I culture on the central plateau, at the midpoint of the millennium and with its distinct urban character, provides a good perspective from which to take stock of developments before and after as well as elsewhere in the country ...

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