It’s been a bit sparse around here, not necessarily for lack of things to blog about, but for lack of time in which to do so. But, I’ve always heard that you should never apologize for not updating your blog, so that’s something I’m not going to do. Instead, since I do have a bit of time right now, I’m going to finish a post I’ve been meaning to finish for some time, with updates about a conference I recently attended, and one that’s coming up.
First, I’ve recently returned (actually, the conference was the first weekend in October, so not all that recently) from the Conference on Medieval Archaeology at SUNY Cortland, organized by Scott Stull. As much as I love San Diego, it was very nice to be back in the northeast for at least one weekend of true autumnal weather, and the conference itself was quite interesting, as well. I was presenting a fairly general introduction to our work on the Islamic periods in Faynan, since the audience consisted of people working on medieval archaeology in several regions, primarily western Europe. Some observations: 1) I was pleased to see that Scott went with an amusing acronym. I’m not sure if CoMA is better than MIRE, but I’m happy to have been at both. 2) Beyond my own anxiety about the term “medieval,” this also really brought home some conversations I’ve had with other Islamic archaeologists — Bethany Walker especially comes to mind — about communicating periodization across space, where dynastic and archaeological periods don’t translate. It’s not that it’s difficult to default to calendar dates, but that a lot of the assumptions that come with dynastic and archaeological terms have to be made explicit. And then there are the dynastic terms that are used in multiple regions, but not in the same way; at one point, I found myself saying something along the lines of, “. . . Late Byzantine, which would be Early Byzantine in central Anatolia.” Certainly that’s not confusing. 3) On those same lines, it was interesting and, I think, useful to be odd person out at a fairly small, focused conference. (Interestingly, I spoke with a few other presenters who also felt that they were “outsiders.”) I’ve been at conferences where the Levant wasn’t very well-represented, but even at the most recent SAAs we were in an “Archaeology of Jordan” session. I’ve had to gear talks to people working on earlier periods in the Levant, but it was a different experience speaking to a room almost entirely full of archaeologists working on the same period, but in Europe.
After the conference, I managed to take a little drive over to Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from their tasting room (apart from the beer, which I knew would be excellent), since they’re part of the rapidly expanding Duvel Moortgat family, but I was pleasantly surprised. Their cafe was, from a San Diego perspective, fairly small and cozy, and the location is really rather out of the way. As evidence, here are two photos I took in their overflow parking lot.
That’s definitely a nicer view than most of the parking lots I’ve been in can boast, and I always enjoy being reminded of how much I love the northeast in fall. It’s a comforting thought, especially now that I’m back in San Diego, where the forecast for tomorrow is 87 degrees and sunny. In November.
Of course, I’ll be heading to cooler climes again soon enough. This year’s ASOR Annual Meeting in Baltimore is just over a week away, and I’m excited to go this year. Our field season tends to conflict with ASOR, so it’s not every year I can actually attend, and although I’ve been several times before, this is actually the first year I’ll be giving a paper. This is also the first time I’ll be speaking at length about our 2012 excavations at Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir, and the “Archaeology of Islamic Society” session that I’m in this year looks quite good, so I think it’s going to be an interesting conference. And, since I’m speaking about it anyway, it seems appropriate to end with my abstract for this year.
Life in a Mining Village: Insights from Domestic and Public Buildings at Middle Islamic Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir, Faynan, Jordan
Ian W. N. Jones, Mohammad Najjar, and Thomas E. Levy
At some point in the late 12th century AD, due to changing economic conditions in Bilad al-Sham, the Faynan district of southern Jordan became an attractive source of copper, after a hiatus in production of more than half a millennium. In addition to reoccupying existing sites, a small copper smelting village, now known as Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir (KNA), was founded during this period. While interesting from the perspective of production, exchange, and consumption, this village also provides a unique opportunity to investigate the mining settlement as a unique social formation, and to address questions not answered in historical sources of the Middle Islamic period.
In order to take advantage of this opportunity, the UC San Diego Edom Lowlands Regional Archaeology Project’s (ELRAP) 2012 excavations at KNA focused primarily on non-metallurgical contexts. A large, “elite” building was partially excavated and revealed three distinct building phases, including both metallurgical and pre-metallurgical, elite strata of the Middle Islamic period. Additionally, two probes were dug in domestic buildings, and a third probe conducted in a small, one-room building which may have been a guardhouse.
This paper presents some preliminary conclusions from these excavations, focusing on (1) the differences between the excavated domestic buildings, (2) identifying “elites” archaeologically at KNA, (3) the transformation of the elite building into a metallurgical workshop, and, finally, (4) the implications of the ceramic assemblage both for life and food preferences at the site and for Middle Islamic ceramic typologies in southernmost Bilad al-Sham more generally.
Given my recent posts, you’d probably think I work in a much earlier period than I actually do. I suppose I’m going to add to that now by pointing to three stories that have come out of Israel in the past week or so.
First is the news that “King David’s palace” has been discovered at Khirbat Qeiyafa, identified by the excavators as the Biblical site of Sha’arayim (I didn’t want to comment much on any of these, but I will point to Aren Maeir’s response, which is both the shortest and the sweetest I’ve read so far). Second, a house at Tel Rehov has been identified as the Prophet Elisha’s. And the third is the most recent update on Simcha Jacobovici’s libel lawsuit against Joe Zias.
I could probably say a lot about any one of these stories, but don’t really want to. I bring them up, actually, because I just got around to taking a look at the (open access!) Richard III skeleton paper in the most recent Antiquity (Buckley et al. 2013). The authors of that paper begin their abstract by stating, “Archaeologists today do not as a rule seek to excavate the remains of famous people and historical events” (Buckley et al. 2013:519). One might be forgiven for assuming that the opposite is generally true in Biblical archaeology. . .
Buckley, Richard, Mathew Morris, Jo Appleby, Turi King, Deirdre O’Sullivan, and Lin Foxhall
2013 ‘The king in the car park’: new light on the death and burial of Richard III in the Grey Friars church, Leicester, in 1485. Antiquity 87(336):519-538. http://antiquity.ac.uk/ant/087/ant0870519.htm
Topping the list, quite excitingly, is “A New Chronological Framework for Iron Age Copper Production at Timna (Israel)” by former UCSD Levantine Lab grad student (and current Tel Aviv University professor) Erez Ben-Yosef, as well as UCSD SIO professor Lisa Tauxe, SIO post-doc Ron Shaar, and Hebrew University researcher Hagai Ron, who sadly passed away in September of last year, not long after the paper was published. The paper, which pretty much does what it says on the tin, is an excellent reassessment of the chronology of copper production in the southern ‘Araba Valley based on some of the excavations Erez conducted as part of his dissertation work. It’s fantastic that Erez and colleagues made it to the top of the list, and they certainly deserve it for their great work.
The other exciting thing about this top 10 list (for non-BASOR subscribers who don’t have JSTOR access through a large university library, anyway) is that you can download all 10 for free until the end of July. I like that ASOR is increasingly making some of their publications available for free, even if only for limited periods. It’s not open access, really, but at least it’s something.
The list itself, though, I find rather strange. Of the 10 articles, seven deal with the Iron Age (ca. 1200-500 BC), and none deal with topics earlier than the Middle Bronze Age (late 3rd – mid-2nd millennium BC) or later than the Roman period (ca. late 1st century BC – mid-4th century AD). On the one hand, I feel like this might actually represent BASOR’s readership, or even ASOR’s membership, fairly well. When ASOR changed the name of their more “general interest” publication from The Biblical Archaeologist to Near Eastern Archaeology in 1998, there were (I hear, since I was just starting high school then) a lot of complaints, which I assume stemmed from the fact that many members of ASOR didn’t consider periods not covered in the Bible to be a topic of general interest (and I suspect some still don’t).
On the other hand, I am a bit surprised that none of these papers made the cut:
1) Whitcomb, Donald
1988 Khirbet al-Mafjar Reconsidered: The Ceramic Evidence. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 271:51-67.
2) Holum, Kenneth
1992 Archaeological Evidence for the Fall of Byzantine Caesarea. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 286:73-85.
3) Avner, Uzi, and Jodi Magness
1998 Early Islamic Settlement in the Southern Negev. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 310:39-57.
Certainly there are others that could be suggested (and I’m not even going to try for the prehistoric periods), but these were the three that I had in mind as I read through the list, expecting to see at least one of them. I’m not saying that Islamic archaeology (or, for that matter, Neolithic archaeology) is necessarily being intentionally slighted here; the Iron Age is a big period, and there was definitely an attempt to cover a lot of ground in this list. But it does seem to emphasize that although Islamic archaeology is becoming a bigger part of ASOR, we still occupy a fairly marginal position there.
But again, it’s still quite exciting to see that Erez made it to the top of the list. If you have any interest, you should definitely download his paper for free while you have the chance!
Recently, a page dedicated to the Out of Egypt conference went up on the Calit2 (actually, now the Qualcomm Institute) site. As I mentioned previously, this is the conference that the EX3: Exodus, Cyber-Archaeology and the Future exhibit was associated with, and Tom Levy and our colleagues at Calit2 have done a fantastic job of making everything available to those who couldn’t attend the exhibit or conference.
So, in addition to seeing photos from the conference (if you scroll through long enough you can see a few of me with the rest of the Levantine Archaeology Lab crew and some other UCSD Anthro folks), you can also watch videos of every talk that was given at the conference and get a guided tour of the exhibition (from Tom himself!). Plus, at the bottom of the page, you can read the three panels on the Exodus in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, including the contribution I put together with Prof. Babak Rahimi.
I have to say, I’m impressed with how much of the conference has been made available online. It would definitely be a good thing if, at some point in the near future, it became common for conference organizers to provide open post-conference access to talks and other materials.
A few weeks ago, I was asked by my advisor (who also happens to be the curator of this exhibit) to put together a few paragraphs describing Islamic traditions of the Exodus story for an exhibit called EX3: Exodus, Cyber-Archaeology and the Future (I planned to post this while the exhibition was still open, but it closed over the weekend). This is actually a topic I didn’t know all that well before this, so although the panel had a maximum of only 250 words, I ended up doing a fair amount of research. In the course of this, I came across a quote from the historian Fred Donner that, although it’s actually a metaphor for Islamic history, sums up pretty well some of the issues of Biblical archaeology:
But the parting of the waters – the actual supernatural event that, according to the story, was God’s act of salvation for the Israelites – this the historian simply cannot evaluate. . . . because it involves an event that is explicitly represented as supernatural, it is simply beyond his competence as a historian to evaluate its supernatural content. (Donner 2011:34)
It’s a useful compromise in some ways, and reminds me of a quote that Aren Maeir used in his presentation at the conference associated with the exhibition. It’s by the Zionist author Ahad Ha’am, from his essay “Moses”:
For even if you succeed in demonstrating conclusively that the man Moses never existed, or that he was not such a man as we supposed, you would not thereby detract one jot from the historical reality of the ideal Moses — the Moses who has been our leader not only for forty years in the wilderness of Sinai, but for thousands of years in all the wildernesses in which we have wandered since the Exodus.
For the believer, this seems like a rather sensible position to me.
(Actually, though, we all know that what these quotes really remind me of is “Lisa the Iconoclast,” the episode of The Simpsons where Lisa proves that beloved town founder Jebediah Springfield was actually the murderous pirate Hans Sprungfeld, but as a serious academic I can’t bring that up. It’s a perfectly cromulent association to make, though.)
Donner, Fred M.
2011 The historian, the believer, and the Qur’ān. In New Perspectives on the Qur’ān: The Qur’ān in its historical context 2. G.S. Reynolds, ed. Pp. 25-37. Routledge studies in the Qur’ān. New York: Routledge.
As I’ve mentioned before, my research on copper production has led me to be more interested in the history and archaeology of sugar production than I otherwise might be. This interest has exposed me, on several occasions, to a wonderful etymology for the English word “sugar.” Allow me to present a brief outline:
At some point in the second millennium AD, the technology of sugar production made its way west into the southern Levant, where sugar became a lucrative cash crop in Galilee, the Jordan Valley, and – the important part for our story – the lowlands (aghwar; أغوار) around the Dead Sea (the exact date is a bit unclear, but some time in the 12th century AD is likely for the area around the Dead Sea). One of the key centers of this production was a town to the southeast of the Dead Sea, in Ghawr al-Safi, known then as Zughar. Zughar produced a lot of high-quality sugar, some of which was exported to Europe. Because of its quality, or the amount they produced, or whatever else, the name of the town became so closely associated with sugar that people simply began using the name of the town to refer to the sweetener.
It’s a neat story, especially for those of us who work in southern Jordan, as it confirms our suspicion that our research area is the center of the world. That’s not to say that Zughar wasn’t an important place, of course. 19th century scholars like Le Strange (1890:287) noted that, “[t]o the Arab Mediaeval writers, Zughar, the City of Lot, was as well known a place as Jerusalem or Damascus,” which isn’t that much of an exaggeration. Al-Muqaddasī (1896:2), for example, calls the town a “little Busrah.”
Getting back on track, I’ve always wanted to repeat this story, but two things have stopped me from doing so. First, it’s simply too good a story, which raises my suspicions. Things that seem too good to be true, as the old adage goes, probably are. Second, it’s difficult to trace the origins of the story. For example, the Rough Guide to Jordan tells the story and attributes it to a museum display. Politis repeats the story in brief reports in the AJA and the ACOR Newsletter, but doesn’t give a source (Politis 1999:519; Politis 2010:4). I’m sure I’ve seen it in other sources (and I’ve been told the story in person on several occasions), but it’s difficult to make much sense of where it came from, and I’ve been looking.
I was rather content to regard this story as probably apocryphal without looking into it too much, but this quarter I’m TAing for a world history/writing course covering the period from 1200-1750 AD. One of the themes of this course is the commodification of luxury goods in the Early Modern period, and sugar is, of course, one of the goods that we’re discussing. I’m certainly no linguist, but I have a passing interest in etymologies (and I enjoy ruining everyone’s fun), so I decided to look into this one a bit to see if there was anything to it (tl;dr version: not really).
My first thought, before really looking into it, was that the word for “sugar” is more or less the same in most languages I’m familiar with, including Arabic, and a quick look at the OED more or less confirms this. The first example given in the etymology for “sugar” is the French sucre, and most European languages seem to use basically the same word, derived from the Arabic sukkar (سكر). The exceptions are, of course, English, which replaces the “k” sound with a “g,” and Spanish and Portuguese, which also include the Arabic definite article (in Arabic, al-Sukkar (السكر) is read “as-sukkar”). (Messner  points out that leaving the article off is characteristic of Arabic words coming through Italian, apparently.) Ultimately, the Arabic word is derived from a Persian word, which in turn comes from an older Sanskrit word. All of this took place before sugar was produced in Zughar, so already things aren’t looking good for our story. Let’s not stop there, though.
It’s still possible that European sources conflated the two words (sukkar and Zughar), linking the two as sugar became more common in Europe. This also seems unlikely. As one example, William of Tyre‘s Historia refers to the town as “Segor” (see here, Book 10, section VII), but calls sugar zachara (unfortunately this isn’t in the Fordham Medieval Sourcebook version, but see here, for example). It doesn’t seem likely, then, that these two were closely associated, at least in William of Tyre’s mind.
The only thing we’re really left with is the anomalous English word, with its “g” sound. As the OED notes, though, this isn’t entirely uncommon in English, either. The word “flagon,” for example, is derived from the Old French word flacon, and even in Middle English was flakon. It seems much easier to attribute the English word “sugar” to this change, rather than to an association with a town that most people in England were certainly unaware of.
I wonder, to some extent, if the origins of this story don’t have as much to do with the true etymology of the English word “sugar” as they do with a bit of clever wordplay on the name of the town. Obviously there’s the “Sugar from a town called Sugar? No Way!” response that we can imagine. Beyond that, though, there’s this excerpt from Yāqūt in Le Strange (1890:291): “The name of Zughar, according to the same authorities, is also spelt Sughar and Sukar.” It seems fairly straightforward, then, to assume some connection between sukkar and Sukar. The hint to what’s going on here, though, is in the fact that Le Strange also calls Yāqūt “Yakut,” and generally transcribes the Arabic letter qaf as “k.” What he’s saying, then, is not that the town is also known as Sukar (سكر) but Suqar (سقر). And therein lies the punchline.
You see, one of the sources that gives this alternate name is al-Muqaddasī, who quips, “The people of the two neighbouring districts call the town Sakar” – (read: Saqar, سقر) – “(that is, ‘Hell’); and a native of Jerusalem was wont to write from here to his friends, addressing ‘From the lower Sakar (Hell) unto those in the upper Firdûs (Paradise)’” (1896:62). So it seems that Zughar was closely associated with hell before they ever produced sugar there. If you’ve ever been through Ghawr al-Safi in summer, of course, you know this is pretty accurate.
Overall, it doesn’t seem like there’s very much truth to this story. I definitely don’t blame people for repeating it. It’s certainly, to borrow a term from journalism, a story that’s too good to check. Of course, it often turns out when you do check them that they’re too good to be true, as well.
Le Strange, Guy
1890 Palestine under the Moslems: A Description of Syria and the Holy Land from A.D. 650 to 1500. London: Alexander P. Watt.
1992 Further Listings and Categorisations of Arabic Words in Ibero-Romance Languages. In The Legacy of Muslim Spain. S.K. Jayyusi, ed. Pp. 452-456. Leiden: Brill.
1896 Description of Syria, Including Palestine. In The Library of the Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, Vol. III. Pp. 1-103. New York: AMS Press.
Politis, Konstantinos D.
1999 Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata and the Ghor es-Safi. Pp. 518-520 in Archaeology in Jordan. Virginia Egan and Patricia Bikai, eds. American Journal of Archaeology 103(3):485-520.
Politis, Konstantinos D.
2010 Ancient Landscapes of the Ghor es-Sāfī: Surveys and Excavations 1997-2009. ACOR Newsletter 22(2):1-5.