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The southernmost Levant in the news!

April 10, 2017

Several interesting news stories have popped up in the last few days about archaeological research in southern Jordan and Israel. First, I was excited to see that my good friend and colleague Erez Ben-Yosef’s work in the Timna Valley was featured in National Geographic. The gist of the article is that he and his team analyzed donkey dung (kind of a shitty project, to steal a joke from Ben Saidel), and were able not only to radiocarbon date the dung to the 10th century BC, but also to narrow the source of the donkeys’ food to regions with Mediterranean climates, hundreds of kilometers to the north. That research has also been published in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. It’s behind a paywall, but you can at least read the abstract for free. I would do a proper Research Blogging summary, but I owe Erez revisions on a book chapter, so I should probably do that instead. . . But before that:

Second, John Oleson’s work at al-Humayma has been highlighted in a Jordan Times article (I’ve seen it reposted in a number of other places, too) focusing on the earliest Nabataean settlement at the site. The article then goes into a brief history of the site itself — including its role in the ‘Abbasid Revolution — and of the extensive research that Oleson has conducted there.

I’m a bit biased, as I’m always glad to see my general research area in the news, but these are both great projects, and the stories are definitely worth a read.

More on finding wood in the desert

March 24, 2017

I’ve mentioned my collaboration on Islamic period charcoal with the incredible Brita Lorentzen on this blog before. That time was to point to a short post on the PEF Blog. Note, incidentally, that the most recent entries are about Islamic Bayda, near Petra, and Islamic metalwork in the southern Levant. Told you that you should read the PEF Blog. Anyway, I recently found out that a short report I wrote on the charcoal project has been published in the latest issue of Palestine Exploration Quarterly. The report is only four pages long, but includes some interesting preliminary data on radiocarbon dating results and the charcoal species identification from Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir and Khirbat Faynan. Excitingly, this report has come out right as we’re getting ready to submit a paper that, among other things, will include more of the charcoal results. I’ll post updates as that starts moving along.

If that doesn’t convince you to check out the latest PEQ, there’s also an interesting (open-access!) editorial by Philip Davies — that Philip Davies?! No, not that kind of “interesting.” This Philip Davies — on the political neutrality of the PEF. Definitely worth a quick read. And it’s free!

That new coin hoard from the Sasanid invasion

March 22, 2017

Hello, and welcome to the latest installment of “Ian rambles about the latest archaeology news.” I’ve seen this story shared in various forms on the various Near Eastern archaeology social media thingummies, and I’ve read it with interest each time. This is, in part, because much of the reporting on it has been . . . rather strange. The gist of the story is that archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority found a hoard of nine 6th and early 7th century AD copper folles in salvage excavations at ‘En Hemed, and based on the dating of the latest coins have suggested that they were hidden prior to the Sasanid invasion of 614.

It’s been reported in the Jerusalem Post (use an ad blocker!), which seems mostly to rely on the IAA press release, and a much stranger article has also appeared in the Washington Post. I’m sure there are other versions out there, too, though I can’t imagine any are quite as strange as that one.

First, the less strange one. As I mentioned, the Jerusalem Post story mostly seems to repeat the IAA press release, but with nicer photos. The major contribution seems to be that in the JPost story the hoard is called “rare,” which is probably not the word I would use, as quite a few hoards can be attributed to the Sasanid invasion. In fact, to quote Alan Walmsley (2007: 324), “Quite a few hoards can be attributed to the Sasanid invasion.” Beyond that, it’s a bit weird that both the JPost article and IAA release give dates of birth and death for each emperor, which, when discussing coins, is somewhat less useful than regnal dates. (It would, indeed, be quite rare to find a coin of Phocas dating to 547 AD, as that’s 55 years before he became emperor. . .) This isn’t a huge issue, though, and the rest of the release seems pretty straightforward.

The dating issue is corrected, at least for the reign of Phocas, in the Washington Post version. Sort of. They give the dates as 604-609, which is not quite right for the reign of Phocas, but I suspect the archaeologist, Annette Landes-Nagar, has narrowed this down on numismatic grounds. I’m not a numismatist (and the coins are, as would be expected in a news story like this, not presented in much detail), so I’m not totally sure. I am, however, more sure that it is not accurate to say that Landes-Nagar “estimated that the coins were minted sometime between 604 and 609 because they bear the faces of Byzantine emperors of the time,” considering that the hoard also contained issues of Justinian and Maurice, neither of whom was Byzantine emperor at that time.

I imagine that at this point you’re saying to yourself, “I don’t know. That doesn’t seem that weird.” Agreed. That is just me being nitpicky. What’s weird is that, of the 18 paragraphs that make up the article, only five are about the ‘En Hemed excavations. The rest seems to be about the archaeological evidence for early Christianity in Israel and, uh, the existence of Jesus, for some reason. The first, we’re told, is “a potent point, offering proof of the Christian connection to the Holy Land and the Middle East, alongside that of Judaism and Islam.” This seems fairly obvious, but on the other hand, I don’t think anyone who follows the archaeology of Israel will be surprised to see the phrase “proof of the X connection to the Holy Land” in an article. So, fair enough?

Stranger is the point that archaeologists haven’t found “physical evidence of [Jesus’] existence.” True, but . . . what does that have to do with a hoard of 6th and 7th century coins? I think the idea here is something to do with the development of the Christian community, but it seems like a strange way of introducing this coin hoard, especially since that connection is never made very clear.

None of that is, of course, a critique of the excavations, and I’ll be curious to see the publication when it comes out. Considering that the hoard was found in collapse, I’ll be interested, in particular, to see if they consider the possibility that it might actually have been dropped during the earthquake of 633, as Russell (1985: 46) suggested for three houses at Bet She’an (where the latest coins, it turns out, were also issues of Phocas). That does seem less likely in this case, but still possible.

Works Cited

Russell, Kenneth W. 1985. “The Earthquake Chronology of Palestine and Northwest Arabia from the 2nd through the mid-8th Century A.D.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 260:37-59.

Walmsley, Alan. 2007. “Economic Developments and the Nature of Settlement in the Towns and Countryside of Syria-Palestine, ca. 565-800.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 61:319-352.

Some slightly outdated news

August 9, 2016

You may or may not have noticed that, since my last post, Landscapes of the Islamic World: Archaeology, History, and Ethnography, edited by the excellent Stephen McPhillips and the equally excellent Paul D. Wordsworth, has been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. It’s divided into four sections, each dealing with a different aspect of rural landscapes across what might be termed “the Islamic world,” as well as a conclusion by Alan Walmsley and a wonderful introduction by the late Tony Wilkinson. My copy arrived in my anthropology department mailbox a few weeks ago, and overall I have to say it’s quite excellent. I would say that, though, because I happen to be the author of Chapter 6, which is an expanded version of the paper I presented at the Materiality of the Islamic Rural Economy workshop in Copenhagen. The whole book is worth a look, though, even if mining isn’t your thing (or perhaps especially if mining isn’t your thing, as mine is the only chapter on mining. . .).

The “world’s oldest Qur’an manuscript”

September 8, 2015

You may recall seeing, back in July, the news that radiocarbon dating showed that a Qur’an manuscript at the University of Birmingham was one of the oldest, if not the oldest, in the world. The parchment evidently dates to 568-645 AD at 2-sigma, or 95.45%, accuracy. I was somewhat surprised to see, a few days ago, that it was back in the news. I’m not sure whether this second wave of media attention has anything to do with the upcoming exhibition of the manuscript in October, but it seems like it might.

The twist this time around, though, is the idea that the fragment may predate Muhammad. Keith Small is quoted in the Independent piece and states that the date

gives more ground to what have been peripheral views of the Koran’s genesis, like that Mohamed and his early followers used a text already in existence and shaped it to fit their own political and theological agenda.

Admittedly, I’m not exactly an expert on the history of the Qur’an’s composition, but nonetheless this surprised me a bit, because I hadn’t heard this idea before. I’ll also point out, before moving on, that this date doesn’t really seem to me to support this very strongly. If, to use Edwards, Lindman, and Savage’s famous phrase, “probability is orderly opinion, and . . . inference from data is nothing other than the revision of such opinion in the light of relevant new information” (full, embarrassing disclosure: I first encountered this phrase on the dreaded Wikipedia), this new date gives us little reason to prefer this theory or the traditional one, as most of the more balanced stories have already pointed out.

It’s strange, though, that none of the pieces I’ve read mentions the “revisionist” history I’m more familiar with, as that seems to me to be what’s really “destabilized” (as Tom Holland phrases it) by this date. The tendency among the revisionist historians has not been to argue for an early dating, but rather a late one. Nevo and Koren (2003: 11), for example, argue that the Qur’an “was not canonized until the end of the 2nd century A.H. or perhaps early in the 3rd” (that would be the late 8th to early 9th centuries AD). While their view is fairly extreme, some degree of “late” dating is standard in the revisionist view (Motzki wrote an article in Der Islam that summarizes many of these and which is, happily, available here on his page). These ideas have been debated for decades (see, for example, Whitcomb’s archaeological consideration of earlier works by Nevo and Koren, also happily available on his page), but this new date is a pretty big problem for the “late canonization” camp. It’s still possible, I suppose, that fragments existed earlier but weren’t codified into the Qur’an until much later, but this view doesn’t seem very tenable in light of the Birmingham Qur’an. Perhaps this isn’t a big deal because there isn’t anyone who thinks this these days, anyway?

Alternative archaeology update

September 3, 2015

Well, what do you know? The title of this Forbes story that’s been going around today seemed awfully familiar, and it turns out it’s actually a review, of sorts, of the recent American Antiquity book reviews section on alternative archaeology. The SAA has, in fact, made the entire section open-access. That’s awesome, and if you don’t already have an AmAnt subscription you should go out and download it. It’s definitely worth a read!

Alternative archaeology and American Antiquity

August 14, 2015

I don’t, admittedly, always read the reviews section of the SAA‘s flagship journal, American Antiquity. I am, however, quite glad that I did last month (or, more accurately, this month, since I didn’t open the July issue until just a few days ago). That is because the current reviews section is devoted entirely to reviews of “alternative archaeology” titles, in a special reviews section, titled “Talking to the Guy on the Airplane.” These are worth a read for a few reasons. First, many of them are quite funny, especially if you find “alternative archaeology” entertaining anyway, as I do. Second, many of the reviews make important points about why it is that people are much more interested in alternative archaeology than they are in actual archaeology (for lack of a better word). Stephen Lekson’s review, in particular, has some good points about why “all archaeologists not named Brian Fagan” tend to be much less successful than alternative archaeologists at writing for a popular audience. Third, for archaeologists, who often tend to ignore this sort of thing, it’s an interesting overview of what’s actually out there in terms of alternative archaeology. For example, William Conner’s Iron Age America gets a review. I occasionally see him posting to the ARCH-METALS mailing list, and have often wondered what he was all about. Well, now I don’t have to wonder anymore!

I do find one thing very strange, though. One of the stated purposes of this special reviews section was to provide laypeople with an overview of what archaeologists actually think of various alternative archaeologies and why we reject those ideas. To quote, “Accordingly, the main intent of these reviews is to offer the silent and curious majority that is interested in these works a professional perspective on them” (Holly 2015: 616). This is, I think, a good goal, especially because, as Holly implies, most of the people who consume alternative archaeology are probably not “true believers.” I’d argue, however, that the best way to engage this audience is not to bury these reviews in a closed-access PDF labeled only “Reviews” that only SAA members can download. This seems to me to miss the point. I should note that Holly has uploaded his introductory piece to his page, but maybe if the goal was to reach a wide audience of non-archaeologists, it would have made more sense to make the entire thing open-access to begin with? Or to make all of them open-access at all? Or to advertise this at all? To be fair, this is not the first time the SAA has done a less-than-stellar job of disseminating information to all of the people who might be interested in it. Still, it’d be nice if they did this time!

EDIT: In the course of my Googling on this topic, I’ve discovered that Jennifer Raff already wrote a better post on this a month ago. She’s asked people to pester the SAA about making all of these reviews open-access, but this doesn’t seem to have had much success yet, unfortunately.

Works Cited

Holly, Donald H., Jr.
2015 Talking to the Guy on the Airplane. American Antiquity 80(3):615-617.