Heritage in Stone—Assessing the Geologic Stability of Jordan’s Rock Art

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Panoramic view of the basalt cliffs perched above Wadi Hassan, pooled with water from the winter rains. Nearly every panel along the cliff face is carved with some form of rock art. Photo by C.D. Allen.
Panoramic view of the basalt cliffs perched above Wadi Hassan, pooled with water from the winter rains. Nearly every panel along the cliff face is carved with some form of rock art. Photo by C.D. Allen.

Driving north from Azraq on Jordan’s Highway 5 and turning off onto a dirt track that gradually approaches the region’s looming volcanic mountains, one eventually comes to Wadi Hassan, a picturesque desert watercourse dotted with small seasonal pools. There, surrounded by towering columnar basalt cliffs, the visitor is greeted by an overwhelming sight.

I’m not just speaking of the sheer vastness of the desert or the impressive site of Qasr Usaykhim in the distance, but of the hundreds of ancient rock art panels that cover the wadi’s boulders and cliff faces. Although the landscape offers no trees, no running water, nor barely any grass for the occasional goat to nibble, people have found their way to this little hidden canyon for millennia, leaving their marks and messages on its stones. As a heritage scientist specializing in rock art stability and decay, the fact that people not only explored but thrived in such a harsh environment is both amazing and humbling.

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A rock art site near Qasr Usaykhim inscribed with Safaitic writing as well as later marks. Photo by C.D. Allen.

The rock art together with hundreds of so-called Safaitic inscriptions found in this canyon date from the first century B.C. to the third century A.D. Evidence suggests they were created by ancient Bedouin tribes who roamed the black basalt desert that ranges across modern day Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria. While their nomadic lifestyle left few architectural traces, their art and messages relate important aspects of their daily lives. Hunting scenes, rituals, and images depicting everyday activities provide a living record of once abundant desert animals such as ostriches, ibex, and oryx that are no longer found in the region. What is more, the breadth of style and content suggest everyone from shepherds and hunters to traders and tribal warriors could write their own story on the stones—many artists even signed their work by name.


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But while the rock art and inscriptions are certainly interesting unto themselves, my purpose in exploring the expansive Wadi Hassan rock art site was to conduct a preliminary assessment of the site’s geologic stability using the Rock Art Stability Index (RASI). Analyzing over three-dozen specific rock decay processes, RASI provides a quantitative assessment of observed data and has been validated and employed widely across the American Southwest and Caribbean where rock art sites are common and preservation concerns a major issue. Through my work, I hope to show that RASI can be a valuable tool for assessing the condition of Jordan’s rich rock art and epigraphic heritage.

RASI is broken into six overarching categories that help determine a panel’s geologic stability:

  • Site Setting: assesses the panel’s geologic context (e.g. stone hardness, fissures/cracks, and lithological factors)
  • Impending Loss: evaluates the potential of decay in the near future (e.g. undercutting or developing weathering rinds)
  • Large Break-Off Events: focus on larger meso-scale decay events (e.g. rock fall or anthropogenic removal)
  • Incremental Loss: appraises micro-scale decay and superficial concerns (e.g. granular disintegration or deteriorating rock coatings). Rock decay processes at the cm- and mm- scale are abundant so RASI incorporates double the decay factors in incremental loss than any other category.
  • Rock Coatings: addresses natural and anthropogenic rock coatings that accumulate on panel surfaces (e.g. salt efflorescence or graffiti). In many cases, rock coatings can actually serve to stabilize rock art panels.
  • Vandalism and Other Issues: a qualitative category that allows researchers to record noteworthy observations related to a site’s preservation

The breadth of stability categories and processes addressed by RASI is its true strength as a research tool—not only does it evaluate the intensity of decay but it also identifies the major drivers of decay. Using RASI, the intensity of individual degradation (or stabilizing) processes is graded separately from 0 to 3, where:

  • 0 = non-existent on the panel
  • 1 = decay is present but not notably disturbing the rock art
  • 2 = decay is obvious and causing major problems
  • 3 = decay is dominant on the panel and directly affecting the rock art

The sum of these scores represents a total score for each panel ranging from 0 to 100, with a lower score signifying more stable conditions. For accessibility and interpretation, final score ranges are also given descriptive classifications:

  • ≤ 20: Excellent Condition
  • 20–29: Good Status
  • 30–39: Problem(s) that Could Cause Erosion
  • 40–49: Urgent Possibility of Erosion
  • 50–59: Great Danger of Erosion
  • ≥ 60: Severe Danger of Erosion
Cliff face containing rock art at Wadi Hassan. On the right column, notice the modern Arabic writing that covers the much earlier drawing of an ibex. Photo by C.D. Allen.
Cliff face containing rock art at Wadi Hassan. On the right column, notice the modern Arabic writing that covers the much earlier drawing of an ibex. Photo by C.D. Allen.

At Wadi Hassan, the average RASI score was 46.43, earning it a qualitative designation of having Urgent Possibility of Erosion. Some of the most prevalent decay processes were fissures or cracks in the stones and fissuresol development (dirt and dust exacerbating pre-existing fissures). However, by far, the most extreme threat to the stability of the Wadi Hassan petroglyphs is vandalism. Many of the ancient motifs and engravings have been completely over-written by modern graffiti and inscriptions. This is only a preliminary study—initial assessment was made of just 14 panels—but hopefully further study and analysis will help raise awareness and inspire more research on how to best monitor and preserve Jordan’s remarkable eastern desert rock art sites.

Written by Kaelin M. Groom

Kaelin M. Groom assessing a rock art panel at Wadi Hassan using the Rock Art Stability Index (RASI) method. Photo by C.D. Allen.
Kaelin M. Groom assessing a rock art panel at Wadi Hassan using the Rock Art Stability Index (RASI) method. Photo by C.D. Allen.

Kaelin Groom is a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Dynamics at the University of Arkansas, specializing in heritage science and cultural stone decay, with a special focus on rock art. She is currently conducting her dissertation research on the merits of rapid field assessment in cultural resource management in Petra, Jordan. During the course of her 2016 research as a Sturgis International Fellow in Jordan, she and her husband, Casey Allen (also a 2015–2016 Fulbright Scholar for Jordan), have made frequent use of the ACOR Library and its extensive scholarly collection on Jordan’s rock art and inscriptions. Her research is funded through the University of Arkansas and the King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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