Other Archaeological Sites / The Neolithic of the Levant (500 Page Book Online)
The domestication of water: water management in the ancient world and its prehistoric origins in the Jordan Valley by Steven Mithen in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (2010)
Updated April 29th 2019
Nabatean water management at Petra
Located within a valley in the south of Jordan, surrounded by mountains and sandstone ridges, this ancient city with its rock-cut tombs and temples is truly one of the most astounding and evocative sites of the ancient world. Petra was the capital of the Nabatean state [which was] founded in 300 BC and annexed into the Roman Empire in AD 106. Located at the centre of major caravan routes linking east and west, it was the hub of a vast trading network that resulted in astounding wealth. At its peak, more than 30 000 people lived within the city -- all thriving within a region receiving less than 10 cm of rain per annum. This was achieved by a remarkable system of channels -- tunnels -- dams -- cisterns -- aqueducts and reservoirs that captured every drop of rain and spring water (Ortloff 2005). The Nabateans perfected bottle-shaped cisterns cut into solid rock to minimize evaporation and the risk of pollution; they created plasters to line such constructions, which were resistant to percolation and the corrosive effects of water. It was by astonishing feats of hydraulic engineering that large populations could be sustained not only within Petra itself but also throughout the deserts of the Nabatean kingdom (Oleson 2007).
Climate and colonization
The site of Ohalo II, located on the shore of Lake Tiberias -- the Sea of Galilee -- is our best example of a hunter–gatherer campsite dating to the late Pleistocene, specifically to 19 000 years ago (Nadel & Hershkovitz 1991; Nadel et al 1995; Nadel & Werker 1999; Figure 3). This was discovered and excavated during the drought years of 1989 and 1999 when the lake waters fell to expose the trace of dwellings on the shoreline, the excavation of which provided abundant evidence for the hunting of gazelle, the collecting of many plant foods including wild barley and fishing within the lake. It is surely no coincidence that this site is adjacent to a permanent water source.
The extent of the lakes, most notably Lake Lisan, the remnants of which would become the Dead Sea, along with the flow of the rivers and springs on which the hunter–gatherers depended would have varied considerably during the next 10 000 years during the periods of the late glacial interstadial and then the Younger Dryas, the period of the Natufian culture (Robinson et al 2006; Black et al in press). Archaeologists have been able to document some of the changes in lifestyles during this period, most notably the emergence of large and more complex hunter–gatherer communities with art and architecture during the interstadial and the return to small and more mobile communities during the more arid conditions of the Younger Dryas (Mithen 2003). But all such hunter–gatherers were tied to the natural distribution of water. The early Natufian site of Ain Mallaha dating to 14 500 years ago is a typical example (Valla et al 1999). Here people built their dwellings and buried their dead close to a spring (Ain), after which the site is named, a spring that not only provided water to drink but also because of its stable temperature throughout the year attracted fish unable to cope with winter temperature elsewhere, and migrating birds (Por 2004).
Water supply and the Neolithic transition
The first PPNA settlement ever discovered was at the base of Tell-el Sultan (UNESCO-nominated archaeological site) at Jericho, found by Kathleen Kenyon during her excavations in the 1950s (Kenyon 1981). Since that date numerous PPNA settlements have been excavated on the West Bank such as Netiv Hagdud (Bar-Yosef & Gopher 1997) and Gilgal (Noy 1989) and then further south in Jordan such as Zahrat Adh-Dhraʿ 2 (Edwards & Higham 2001) and Dhra’ (Finlayson et al 2003). These have shown that this period of a little over 1000 years is the critical period of transformation from hunter–gatherer to farming lifestyles (Kuijt & Goring-Morris 2002; Mithen 2003). All of these early Neolithic settlements are adjacent to permanent water courses or springs. For instance the inhabitants of Neolithic Jericho depended on the artesian spring of Ain el Sultan and on the wetlands of the stream of Wadi Qelt; the inhabitants of Netiv Hagdud used the waters from the spring of Ain Duyuk and the wetlands of the nearby delta of the River Jordan which empties into the Dead Sea at a considerably higher level than today (Por 2004).
A useful case study for exploring the relationship between Neolithic settlement and water supply is Wadi Faynanl, located in southern Jordan. This has been subject to considerable archaeological and palaeoenvironmental research and hydrological modelling (Barker et al 2007; Finlayson & Mithen 2007; Wade et al). The PPNA site of WF16 is located at the base of the escarpment to the Jordanian plateau at the juncture between Wadi Ghuwayr and Faynan (Finlayson & Mithen 2007; figure 4). This settlement was occupied over the course of the first 1000 years of the Holocene, probably beginning as a seasonal campsite for mobile hunter–gatherers and ending as the permanent settlement of early farmers, although that has yet to be confirmed by ongoing excavations (figure 5). It was abandoned at around 10 200 years ago, and it is assumed that its people moved no more than 500 m further down the wadi where the settlement of Ghuwayr I is located (Simmons & Najjar 1996). As is evident with figure 6, the architecture is now quite different with rectangular, two-storey structures built out of stone.