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Ceramic aesthetics and decline at the 2015 SAAs

April 3, 2015

I realized earlier this week, as often happens around this time of year, that the SAA Annual Meeting is less than two weeks away. I should really be writing the rest of my talk right now, but rather than do that, I’m going to procrastinate by writing about the talk here, instead. The conference is in San Francisco this year, which is a bit mundane compared to the past two I’ve attended — Honolulu and Austin — but, combined with the fact that last year’s ASOR meeting was in San Diego, does make my conference travel this academic year relatively easy. I already have more entirely archaeological activities lined up than I’d probably be able to do even if I weren’t attending a conference, so it should be a successful SAA trip, even if it isn’t Hawaii.

I gave my paper this year a deliberately vague title, in order to try to avoid being put into an “Archaeology of Jordan”-type session. I was moderately successful there, but at a rather large price. I’m instead in the “Studies of Technology, Ecology, and Craft Production in South, Central, and Western Asia” session, which is still a catch-all session, but at least with something of an interesting theme compared to “Archaeology of Jordan.” I’d say that I hope the crowd will be bigger, too, but I don’t expect to be speaking to anyone but the other people in the session for this one. I have the good fortune of giving the 8 AM presentation on Sunday morning, which I suspect is the least-attended time slot of the entire conference. Ah, well, you can’t win them all. Plus, my good friend and colleague Aaron Gidding is presenting in the same session, so it’s not all bad.

The talk itself is a review of what we currently know about the hand-made ceramic traditions of the Middle and Late Islamic periods, focusing primarily on a long-lived group called the Hand-Made Geometrically-Painted Wares, or HMGPW for short. Rather than looking exclusively at material from Jordan, I’ve tried to put together a somewhat impressionistic picture of the distribution of this ware (and related wares), which is surprisingly broad. You’ll, of course, have to show up at 8 AM to hear more. Following tradition, here’s the abstract for the talk.

Questioning Technological and Economic “Decline” in the Medieval Rural Levant

Ian W. N. Jones

This paper argues against a common view of medieval Levantine villages as isolated from larger regional centers by examining a group of hand-made ceramics — commonly called Hand-Made Geometrically Painted Wares (HMGPW), and formerly “pseudo-prehistoric” wares — prevalent across the Levant from the 12th-17th centuries AD, and possibly longer. They are generally seen as the products of non-specialist village potters and, as the older name suggests, an example of technological decline. That view, though, is based primarily on ethnographic evidence from the late 19th and 20th century Levant, and hinges on a number of assumed, and generally unquestioned, dichotomies: urban/rural, specialist/non-specialist, wheel-made/hand-made. As HMGPW is the most visible indicator of settlement during these periods in the southern Levant, these assumptions have influenced the ways archaeologists conceive of rural Levantine economies, leading to a view of villages as disconnected from larger centers where higher-quality, wheel-made pots were produced. This view, however, is at odds with historical evidence for substantial state investment in rural agriculture. In this paper, I present a broader approach to HMGPW — integrating archaeological and ethnoarchaeological insights from beyond the Levant — that helps us better understand what the widespread adoption and longevity of this “retrogressive” technology says about rural economies.

“Not Found in the Order of History” now found exactly there

April 1, 2015

I got word a few days ago that a book featuring a chapter on Islamic period Faynan (and southern Jordan, more generally) has just been printed. As you might guess, I’m the lead author on that chapter (with Mohammad Najjar and my advisor, Tom Levy), and I’m excited to see it appear in print. The book, published by Cambridge Scholars and edited by Scott Stull, is From West to East: Current Approaches to Medieval Archaeology, which developed out of the first Conference on Medieval Archaeology. The conference itself was a great experience — and although I couldn’t make the second one last year, I hope it continues — and the book reflects this. It’s a nice survey of the current state of medieval archaeology, and the coverage is fairly broad. Ours is the easternmost (and southernmost) of the contributions, many of which, perhaps unsurprisingly, focus on the U.K., but there are several on Anatolia, as well, so we’re not alone in the eastern Mediterranean.

Our chapter — titled “‘Not Found in the Order of History': Toward a ‘Medieval’ Archaeology of Southern Jordan” (catchy, no?) — builds on the relationship between copper and sugar production that we’ve previously proposed and places this in a longer-scale analysis of the economy of the ‘Araba, from the decline of Petra and a shift to an “Arabia-facing” economy in the Early Islamic period, to the decline of this system and the shift to a “Syria-facing” economy in the Middle Islamic. This is also the first publication, I believe, where we address the Late Antique and Early Islamic period material from our excavations at Khirbat Faynan, which I also covered in my most recent ASOR talk. This is, of course, very preliminary, considering that I gave the talk on which this chapter is based in 2013, but it’s still quite exciting. Beyond this, we also try to connect the archaeology of southern Jordan to “medieval archaeology,” by which people normally mean the medieval archaeology of Europe. We’re not the first people to try to make this connection, but it does open up some interesting possibilities for thinking about the roles that a tiny copper mining village out in the desert might play.

The title itself, “Not Found in the Order of History,” is taken from an Exodus itinerary reproduced in several medieval pilgrimage guides (in this case, the 12th century guidebook commonly, but incorrectly, attributed to “Fetellus”), which describes Faynan (or Fynon [Punon, really, I suppose]) in these terms. This account, in turn, is based on a letter of Jerome, who actually had rather more than this to say about Faynan. I discuss this account in more detail in my dissertation and an upcoming publication, but here it serves as a nice shorthand for the problems of doing “medieval archaeology” in southern Jordan. Medieval archaeology and Islamic archaeology are generally thought of as “historical archaeology” (in the broad sense of archaeology informed by history, rather than the narrow sense of “the archaeology of capitalism”). Southern Jordan, though — and Faynan in particular — is, for the most part, absent from the historical sources of this period. What does it mean to do historical archaeology in a place “not found in the order of history”? It’s a difficult question to resolve, but we try here.

Interestingly, around the same time I heard that our chapter had been printed I also heard that Hagit Nol’s paper in Palestine Exploration Quarterly, “The Fertile Desert: Agriculture and Copper Industry in Early Islamic Arava (Arabah),” had come out. I’ve been looking forward to this publication since she e-mailed me about it a year or so ago, and it is, indeed, a very cool paper. Hagit looks at a lot of material from the ‘Araba, including a lot of work previously only published in Hebrew, and tries to grapple with the rather persistent misdating of Early Islamic sites in the ‘Araba — a problem we also note in our chapter. It’s funny, though. When I started working on my MA thesis six(ish) years ago, I would have been surprised to hear about multiple publications on the Islamic period in the ‘Araba coming out in the same year, much less the same week. As Jasper would say, “What a time to be alive.”

Backlog 2: On finding wood in the desert, posted elsewhere

January 16, 2015

Last year I received a grant from the Palestine Exploration Fund to analyze the rather large amounts of charcoal our project has found at the Islamic period copper smelting sites we’ve excavated, primarily Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir and Khirbat Faynan. I’ve been meaning, for quite a while now, to write up a post for the PEF Blog — which is, incidentally, always an interesting read — with some updates on what we’ve learned so far about charcoal provisioning in Faynan. I’ve actually, finally, managed to do that, and there’s now a short post on the PEF Blog summarizing our preliminary results and (tentative) conclusions. You should go check it out!

Backlog 1: ASOR 2014

December 23, 2014

Now that we’re officially on winter break in San Diego (it’s currently a wintry 81 degrees at UCSD), it seems like a good time to deal with the backlog of things I’ve wanted to write about here but, for whatever reason, I haven’t. First among these is the 2014 ASOR Annual Meeting, which was, conveniently, in San Diego this year. Generally, a good time was had by all, and it was good to be able to speak face-to-face with some long distance collaborators and to get to see some good friends working with the Central Timna Valley Project again.

It was nice being on home turf, so to speak, and this was probably the least expensive conference experience I’ve ever had. Being in San Diego also meant a reception at CISA3 at the Qualcomm Institute at Calit2 at UCSD, which I think covers all of the names I’m meant to include now. I can’t speak for everyone, but having been to a few Calit2 receptions in the past, this seemed like a pretty successful one. As is typical of these events — for reasons I don’t totally understand — rather than simply enjoy the reception, I also presented briefly on some ceramic research I did over the summer, more on which soon. Given that this was an ASOR reception, there were a few people who were interested in that project, but as is usual for these events, other Calit2 projects tend to draw a bigger crowd. I can, of course, still claim that my research rarely causes motion sickness, so that’s a plus.

My talk at ASOR was in a session with several site reports focused on the Iron Age, which, as I pointed out then, was sort of a weird fit, as I was neither giving a site report nor talking about the Iron Age, but the turnout was good, and the other talks were interesting. Following tradition, although it’s a bit late, here’s my abstract:

Settlement and Economy in Faynan (Southern Jordan) at the Byzantine-Islamic Transition

Ian W. N. Jones, Mohammad Najjar, Thomas E. Levy

It is now established consensus among scholars working in the southern Levant that the Islamic Conquest does not mark a sharp break in settlement or economy, but rather that the 7th century AD is in fact a period of surprising continuity. Despite this, the status of much of southern Jordan during this transitional period remains unclear, due to incomplete ceramic typologies for the Islamic periods and disagreement over the nature of settlement in the late 6th century. However, continuing excavation in the region has begun to address both of these issues, especially the difficulty of identifying 7th century ceramic assemblages.

Discussing the 7th century in Faynan has until now been especially difficult. In addition to the issues affecting most of southern Jordan, researchers have also faced a paucity of excavated material spanning the Late Antique-Early Islamic “transition.” This paper presents an updated view of the 7th century in Faynan based on analysis of 6th-8th century material from the UC San Diego Edom Lowlands Regional Archaeology Project excavations at Khirbat Faynan and Khirbat Hamra Ifdan, as well as reanalysis of material from intensive surveys of the region.

While Faynan changed substantially between the Late Roman and Early Islamic periods, the key transition — the demise of the state-controlled copper industry — seems to have occurred in the late 4th or 5th century. The 7th century was, as in much of the southern Levant, not a period of disruption, but rather shows continuity of patterns that emerged in the 6th century or earlier.

This is something of a side project, but it’s an interesting one, as people have made quite a few claims about what happened during the 6th-8th centuries in Faynan on the basis of very little evidence. Now that we have slightly more, it’s possibly to say a little bit more and show that some of those earlier claims are untenable (although, to be fair, some of them were untenable even based on the evidence that was available when they were proposed). This is slowly coming together into a publication, and I’ll likely be posting about it again soon.

As for next year — assuming I don’t go to MESA or the AAAs instead — I already have a title in mind.

Brief notes on archaeology’s “Grand Challenges”

February 12, 2014

Two papers came out at the end of January — one in American Antiquity and the other a two-page Opinion in PNAS explaining the rationale for the first — with the goal of laying out “grand challenges” for future archaeological work.  Many bloggers much more widely read than myself have already written about them, but I have a few comments, as well.

1) The authors claim that these grand challenges were the result of a “crowd-sourcing” effort.  It’s unclear to me why you would call this crowd-sourcing, though, unless you refer to the results of any survey as “crowd-sourced.”  The crowd-sourcing projects I’m more familiar with — for example Galaxy Zoo or the Valley of the Khans Project — rely on non-specialist interest and effort to accomplish something a) too time-consuming (and tedious) for specialists to work through alone and b) too complex for computers to do automatically.  The grand challenges, on the other hand, resulted from a survey sent to several professional associations of archaeologists.  That’s a sensible group to survey if you only want responses from archaeologists, but I don’t see what it has to do with the “crowd,” beyond the fact that “crowd-sourced” is a trendy buzzword, while “based on the results of a survey of professional archaeologists” is not.

2) In the American Antiquity paper, the authors state:

The main demographic disappointment was the sparse response from younger archaeologists and students (2 percent). We have no explanation for the low response; this age group was simply not as likely to respond to the request. (7)

As a member of the under 30 age group in question, I actually have a fairly good explanation for why I didn’t respond to their request: I had no idea the survey had been conducted until I read the Opinion piece in PNAS.  I suspect (especially considering Nicolas Laracuente’s comment on Bill Caraher’s post) that this was the case for many, if not most, young archaeologists.  I don’t think the problem was that archaeologists under 30 didn’t want to respond, but that the survey wasn’t successful in reaching us to begin with.  This might also explain why archaeologists over 50 responded by far the most frequently.

3) I actually like this paper more than I thought I would.  I’m generally skeptical of “design by committee”, and reading the summary in PNAS left me a bit worried, but I think they do a good job in the American Antiquity paper of arguing for the continuing relevance of the challenges they identify, and including a fairly wide range of interests.  Certainly I can see my own research as broadly fitting into a number of these categories.  What I found strange, though, was the unevenness of the bibliographies provided for each challenge.  The bibliography for Challenge A3 (“Why do market systems emerge, persist, evolve and, on occasion, fail?”), for example, includes citations going back to Polanyi.  That makes sense to me, because people have been investigating markets for a while.  But the oldest citation for Challenge A1 (“How do leaders emerge, maintain themselves, and transform society?”) is Clark and Blake (1994).  Perhaps the authors saw Polanyi as still relevant, but older literature on the emergence of leadership less so?

4) Under Challenge C3 in the Am. Ant. paper (“How do humans occupy extreme environments, and what cultural and biological adaptations emerge as a result?”) the authors note,

These are difficult and expensive places to work, and it is unsurprising that archaeologists are still developing basic culture-historical sequences in many of these areas. (13)

That definitely sounds familiar.  It’s good to hear that it’s not just southern Jordan.

As a closing note, this seems like it will definitely have implications for funding, so it’s probably something everyone should read, regardless of whether it sounds like something you would agree with.

Works Cited:

Kintigh, Keith W., Altschul, Jeffrey H., Beaudry, Mary C., Drennan, Robert D., Kinzig, Ann P., Kohler, Timothy A., Limp, W. Fredrick, Maschner, Herbert D. G., Michener, William K., Pauketat, Timothy R., Peregrine, Peter, Sabloff, Jeremy A., Wilkinson, Tony J., Wright, Henry T., & Zeder, Melinda A. (2014). Grand Challenges for Archaeology. American Antiquity., 79 (1), 5-24 DOI: 10.7183/0002-7316.79.1.5

Kintigh, Keith W., Altschul, Jeffrey H., Beaudry, Mary C., Drennan, Robert D., Kinzig, Ann P., Kohler, Timothy A., Limp, W. Fredrick, Maschner, Herbert D.G., Michener, William K., Pauketat, Timothy R., Peregrine, Peter, Sabloff, Jeremy A., Wilkinson, Tony J., Wright, Henry T., & Zeder, Melinda A. (2014). Grand challenges for archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111 (3), 879-80 PMID: 24449827

Conferences past and future

November 12, 2013

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.

Brewery Ommegang 1

Brewery Ommegang 2

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.

Lost Cities, Movie Sets, and Nature’s Periodic Cruelty

July 25, 2013

I have to admit that I was rather excited when I saw the headline “Star Wars home of Anakin Skywalker threatened by dune” in my BBC RSS feed (and not only because, like many Star Wars fans, I’d be happy to forget about Mos Espa along with the rest of The Phantom Menace). The first thing I thought of when I read the headline wasn’t the movie, actually, but rather a lecture I saw Michael Moseley give at the Cotsen Institute a few years ago. The talk was mostly about periodic natural disasters in Peru, including sand incursions, and I found it quite fascinating. (If you’re interested, he’s published on it a number of times, including here, which is conveniently linkable and, unlike many Google Books entries, seems to show the whole chapter.)

This story seems like a neat illustration of that, on a non-catastrophic scale. A movie set is built in the path of a barchan dune, becomes a tourist destination for fans, and less than a decade and a half later people realize that perhaps “in the path of a barchan dune” is not the best place to build something. The slideshow at the top of the BBC piece is nice, although I wondered if Google Earth had more historical imagery. It turns out you can just fly to “Mos Espa” in Google Earth (which really shouldn’t have surprised me), but the only image the BBC didn’t include is one from 2004. It’s pretty cool to be able to go through the 2004, 2008, and 2009 images, though, and see a single vehicle track up the slip face of the dune turn into tracks covering most of the dune until finally, in 2009, the tracks all disappear, covered by sand. It really gives you some perspective on how quickly these dunes can move.

The BBC story is actually a brief summary of an article in press by Lorenz et al. (2013), published in the journal Geomorphology. I have to give the authors props, since it’s not every day I get geomorphology stories in my BBC feed. The paper itself, as you might expect for something published in Geomorphology, is primarily concerned with using satellite remote sensing to study the movement of the dunes. There are some interesting observations geared more toward “heritage” and tourism, though. For example, another nearby set building from The Phantom Menace has already been covered by a dune and emerged (seriously, they move really quickly). They note, though, that this caused some fairly significant damage, primarily because the buildings weren’t really designed to last a long time or, you know, be covered by a sand dune. This is likely the fate of Mos Espa, too, and the authors suggest that given its potential as a tourism site, something might be done to protect it, like either diverting the dune or just moving the site. This leads them to this great connection:

There would be some irony in such measures being adopted to protect a science fiction film set: it was exposure to eolian transport concerns and countermeasures that inspired author Frank Herbert to write a science fiction novel set on a desert world (‘Dune’) that itself became an epic film. (Lorenz et al. 2013:8)

(Incidentally, beyond its insights on desert cultural ecology, Dune also contains some interesting observations about the uses to which history and archaeology are put, and the processes of remembering and forgetting involved in this. These do get rather heavy-handed by the fourth or fifth installment, though.)

This reminded me of something I actually hadn’t thought about in a while: a short literature review I did during my first year of grad school as the initial stage of a cool remote sensing project. That project, for a variety of reasons, never happened, but it did expose me to a neat bit of Hollywood archaeology. The site we were interested in was the so-called “Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille”, or the remains of the set built for The Ten Commandments (the 1923 silent film, not the more familiar 1956 Charlton Heston version). The movie was filmed at Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes near Santa Barbara and, after filming, the sets were taken apart and buried beneath the dunes. This was, evidently, a compromise between hauling them away, which was too expensive, and leaving them intact, which would have allowed someone else to come along and use them. Either way, there they were, more or less forgotten, until they were rediscovered in 1983. Comparing the “Lost City of DeMille” to Mos Espa is interesting, because the underlying problem is basically the same (movie sets just aren’t built to last very long), but the environmental issues are different. In the case of the Ten Commandments set, the problem is that the sand is blowing away, leaving the site exposed to damage (more damage than was already caused by taking it apart and burying it under some sand dunes, anyway).

I remembered an archaeological project being in the works at the time I was looking into this (it’s mentioned on this site, which doesn’t appear to have been updated in a while), and wondered if anything had come of that. Unfortunately, this doesn’t look good. I suppose something might have happened after the Dunes Center last updated their web site, but I can’t find anything. It sounded like a really cool project, though: digging up the remains of what a legendary filmmaker and his crew in 1923 thought late 2nd millennium BC Egypt would have looked like.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgLorenz, Ralph D., Nabil Gasmi, Jani Radebaugh, Jason W. Barnes, & Gian G. Ori (2013). Dunes on planet Tatooine: Observation of barchan migration at the Star Wars film set in Tunisia Geomorphology DOI: 10.1016/j.geomorph.2013.06.026

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