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.
Well, I’ve reached the point where I have a bit of down time to update here (as in, I’m no longer desperately rushing to finish a project I’m behind on), and there are a few things I’ve been meaning to mention for weeks but haven’t had the time for. Now that I have the time, I suppose I should actually do it.
The first thing I wanted to point to is this Antiquity Project Gallery by some of my colleagues in the UCSD Levantine Archaeology Lab and CISA3, as well as Chris Tuttle, Associate Director of ACOR. They discuss a short project that involved documenting some of the features at Petra with the digital tools that ELRAP uses in the field. Although I was in Petra the weekend they did this, I was also supervising excavations at KNA during the week, so I spent my weekend relaxing in my hotel and sightseeing, rather than working. Even though I wasn’t involved, though, this was a neat collaboration between ELRAP and the Temple of the Winged Lions CRM Initiative (TWLCRM), and it’s worth checking out if only for the vertigo-inducing Figure 3 (assuming you haven’t already been sent this link 15-20 times like I have). On a related note, Chris also has a paper in the first issue of Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies on the TWLCRM project, which you can take a look at here.
The second thing I wanted to mention, and have been meaning to mention for some time now, is that I’ve had a bit of time to decompress and organize some of my thoughts about WAC 7 at the Dead Sea. So much time, in fact, that I’ve mostly forgotten what those thoughts were. Luckily, I took some notes that I can refer to.
As I’ve said before, in general the conference was quite interesting. The session I was in, “Deep-time Perspectives on Culture Change in Jordan: Cyber-Archaeology, Production and Exchange,” actually had, in case you couldn’t tell from the title, many of the same people as the Antiquity Project Gallery I just linked to – enough of them, in fact, that it ran for two sessions (that’s 5 hours!) – and was organized by the ELRAP PIs. Although all good, many of the papers seemed to side-step the session theme of “grand narratives,” which was somewhat disappointing, as that was one of the (several) things that set our session apart from the other sessions broadly devoted to “digital archaeology.” On the other hand, there were papers that confronted this theme head-on, notably a nice summary paper by a bunch of authors associated with the long-lived and inimitable MPP. But enough about us.
I don’t really want to detail every session I attended, because I went to quite a few, but I found one particularly thought-provoking: a forum called “Science in archaeology: Where to next?” This raised, for me at least, two related issues. The first, which started the general discussion, was about why the Journal of Archaeological Science, as the leading archaeological science journal, has such a low impact factor. One of the responses people gave, and the one that occurred to me first, is that for an anthropology journal, JAS doesn’t have a particularly low impact factor. In fact, at 1.914 it probably has the highest impact factor of any archaeology-specific journal (I’m not aware of any over 2). There are certainly higher-impact anthropology journals, as this now rather outdated list shows – especially certain four-field journals and many of the bioanth journals – but JAS does pretty well.
On the other hand, this concern was primarily raised from the perspective of people in departments other than anthropology (especially in the “harder” sciences) and people who frequently collaborate with non-anthropologists. Everyone knows, to some extent, that impact factors aren’t really comparable across fields – for a variety of reasons – but this can make collaboration difficult, especially when it comes to publishing. For example, coming from a field like ecology, where none of the top 20 journals have impact factors below 4, 1.914 probably isn’t very appealing. I could ramble at length about the usefulness of impact factors in anthropology and archaeology, but I won’t.
This brings up the second point, though. The previous discussion prompted two related questions: 1) Why don’t archaeologists cite archaeological scientists more and 2) why don’t scientists cite archaeological science more? Leaving aside the issue of what archaeological science actually is, if neither archaeology nor science, there was some debate in the room about which of these was a bigger deal. For some, although archaeological science is its own discipline with its own set of questions, these should be integrated more tightly into general archaeological theory. As an archaeologist, rather than an archaeological scientist, this is the view I tend to agree with. Others, however, pointed out that since archaeologists are content to publish in low-impact journals anyway, archaeological scientists should be looking at ways to get cited more often by scientists. Overall, though, the bigger issue seems really to be about the relationship between archaeological science and archaeology generally, which can’t be easily answered by simply saying things like, “Well, but archaeology is a science.” There’s actually a session at the SAAs this year exploring this issue, called “Integrating Archaeology and Theory: How Does ‘Archaeological Science’ Really Contribute to the Science of Archaeology?” I’d love to attend it, but unfortunately we’re giving our paper at the same time, so I can’t. I’m curious to hear if anything useful comes out of it, though.
My colleague and good friend Kyle Knabb just posted an abstract for a paper he’s giving at the SAAs in Honolulu this year, and I thought, “Oh, I’m also presenting half of that paper. I should probably mention it.”
So, as Kyle said, we’re working together right now to analyze some of the pottery from an intensive survey he led in Wadi al-Faydh, near Petra, in 2009. I was a member of his survey team, so it’s exciting to get to analyze a lot of this material finally. As Kyle also mentioned, the majority of the assemblage is made up of rather coarse hand-made pottery (how coarse, you ask? Here’s an example collected in Petra by the International Wadi Farasa Project, which gives you an idea of what we’re talking about). In addition to not being the most attractive pottery (though I would argue that it has its charms), much of it is also rather difficult to date, especially when it comes from surveys, rather than excavations. One of our arguments, however, is that recent (and in some cases not-so-recent) excavations have produced evidence that enables us to date some of the ceramics Kyle found – especially some distinctive decorated forms – to the 11th and early 12th centuries AD.
Our abstract begins with a related problem, which is that evidence of settlement during this period has been somewhat tricky to actually find. To get an idea of this, we just have to check out the DAAHL’s (that’s the Digital Archaeological Atlas of the Holy Land, for those not yet in the know) Archaeological Periods page. If you zoom to the study area and select Fatimid or Crusader, you see relatively little settlement. If you click Ayyubid, Ayyubid/Mamluk, or Mamluk, the picture is different (and this is also true if you select ‘Abbasid/Fatimid, actually). If, as we’re going to argue, many ceramics of the Fatimid and Crusader periods have been misclassified as Ayyubid/Mamluk – especially in the south – we have to wonder how good our understanding of settlement patterns in the Middle Islamic I (1000-1200 AD) actually is.
These dating concerns have implications beyond simply establishing the chronology of settlement in the region. The biggest issue for me is that sites which weren’t occupied during the same period obviously can’t be directly connected to one another. This is important for reconstructing local patterns of trade, and one of the things I’m concerned with in terms of my work in Faynan. As the dating of sites becomes more precise, connections that seemed obvious when all the ceramics were lumped together as “Ayyubid/Mamluk” suddenly disappear. But that’s a different story for another day. . .