A Kinder, Greener Black Desert—An ACOR Video Lecture by Leading Prehistorian Gary Rollefson

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The ACOR Video Lecture Series provides stimulating and accessible discussions of new research into Jordan’s past and present, as presented by leading scholars and researchers working in Jordan and neighboring countries. This first lecture in the series, adapted from the October 2015 ACOR public lecture of senior archaeologist and prehistorian Gary Rollefson, highlights new discoveries that are changing our view of Jordan’s forbidding Black Desert in the deep past.

 

About the Lecture

Passing through the Black Desert in northeastern Jordan, one is struck by the lifeless and forbidding character of the landscape. The rainfall in the winter is sporadic and miserly, amounting to less than 50 mm on average per annum, although there may be many years in a row when a particular locality receives none at all. Bedouin herders have managed to eke out a living with their flocks, yet the population density of people and animals is among the lowest of the habitable regions of the planet. Archaeological investigations in the early and late 20th century indicated that this harsh region was inhabited for periods ranging certainly into the Neolithic and earlier periods, 7,000 to 10,000 years ago, and older.


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Archaeological surveys and excavations undertaken since 2008 by the Eastern Badia Archaeological Project have changed our understanding of what was considered the dismal nature of the Neolithic landscape into one that was much more inviting than what we can see today. Instead of timid migrations of a few families into the Badia, hundreds of kinship groups made the move about 7,000 BC from the damaged farmland of western Jordan into a region that, although it could not sustain agriculture, for thousands of years was probably a relatively lush grassland providing abundant pasturage for sheep and goats, even as far east as Ruwayshid. Veritable villages of families could live in permanent housing for five to six months of the year, tending their flocks and hunting teeming herds of gazelle and other animals. Charcoal from oak trees and preserved topsoil under Neolithic houses reveal that rainfall was probably considerably higher then, and that moisture penetrated the soil, providing extended growth capabilities for grasses and other plant life.

About Gary Rollefson

Gary Rollefson is Professor of Anthropology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. With nearly 40 years of archaeological experience in Jordan, Rollefson is a specialist in the archaeology and peoples of the prehistoric Near East. He is well known for the excavation, together with Jordanian archaeologist Zeidan Kafafi, of the important Neolithic site of Ain Ghazal, where some of the world’s oldest statues were discovered. Rollefson studied anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley (BA, 1965) and then at the University of Arizona (MA, 1972; Ph.D., 1978).

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