Life After Collapse: Water and Environment in the Late Neolithic of Southern Jordan

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Recent ACOR-CAORC fellow and archaeologist Kathleen Bennallack writes below about her current research in southern Jordan.

During the 2015–16 academic year, I spent more than six months at ACOR conducting dissertation research—learning stone tool types and how they change through time; learning how to read climate data; finding publications that are nearly impossible to find in the U.S.; and puzzling over how to interpret archaeological data, which by its nature is always incomplete.

Excavations at the Late Neolithic site of Wadi Fidan 61 in Jordan’s Wadi Arabah.
Excavations at the Late Neolithic site of Wadi Fidan 61 in Jordan’s Wadi Arabah.

My research concerns a Late Neolithic site (around 8,000 years old) and its surroundings in the Arabah Valley of southern Jordan, about 50 km south of the Dead Sea and about 40 km west of Petra. The site, called Wadi Fidan 61 (a prosaic name, I know), is located at the mouth of a major wadi (or seasonal drainage) system and is quite large for the Late Neolithic, measuring around 3 hectares, although much of the original site, which seems to have been covered with buildings, has been washed away by the seasonal floods of the past 8,000 years. It is built on a granite outcrop with very steep sides, and the buildings appear to have been constructed on terraces.

In 2012, our team did a small excavation on the lower slopes of the site, and we discovered complex architecture, evidence of textile production, remains from both wild and domesticated animals (many now extinct) and farmed plants, including water-intensive grains. Radiocarbon dates indicate the site was occupied for up to 1,000 years, beginning around 8,250 years ago. Interestingly, the site’s major occupation occurred just before and during a massive shift in the regional climate (called the “8.2ka Event,” see below).

The Faynan region of the Arabah Valley is best known for its ancient copper mining and smelting operations in the Bronze, Iron, Roman, and Islamic periods, but it was also a busy place long before copper metal was discovered. During the earlier Neolithic periods, thousands of years before the founding of Wadi Fidan 61, the area may have been a religious center, and later on an exporter of beads, especially those made from copper ores. Interestingly, rather than seeing a collapse there during the 8.2ka Event, as is common in the wetter Mediterranean zones and the Jordan Valley to the north, people continued to farm, herd, and hunt, and some even founded new settlements. My research focuses on how that was possible—why, when so many other places were struggling, did Faynan seem to be insulated, and perhaps even growing?


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One answer may have to do with the region’s geology, which has an accessible water table that causes springs to bubble to the surface. These springs are especially concentrated in the area immediately surrounding Wadi Fidan 61. In 2015, we conducted a small survey of the low mountains surrounding the site and found several year-round and seasonal springs. We plan to return next year to survey other nearby mountains with similar geology, which not only may help explain the presence of a large population during such climate fluctuations, but may also answer long-standing questions about the water provisioning of copper mining outposts in later periods.

Views of the various springs located in the mountains surrounding Wadi Fidan 61
Views of the various springs located in the mountains surrounding Wadi Fidan 61

A little over 8,000 years ago, a major climate change event occurred worldwide. Before this shift, agriculture had exploded in the warm, wet period following the Ice Ages, ritual and religion had become ubiquitous and perhaps even institutionalized, and trade networks were established that moved goods thousands of kilometers. But during and after this climate event, all of these systems and networks were disrupted, and sites and economies all over the world collapsed and were abandoned. For decades, archaeologists knew that whole regions were mostly or completely abandoned—but they hardly addressed the issue of where all those people went or what they did. Most research focused on the earlier part of the period when agriculture was being developed, or the following period when metal was discovered. But now, several research teams in Jordan have begun to find evidence for what happened in the period in between.

The climate event was caused by the melting of the last glacial ice sheet from the Pleistocene Ice Ages. Its name was the Laurentide Sheet, and it was located roughly in what is now New England and Eastern Canada. It melted very suddenly around 8,200 years ago—referred to as the 8.2ka Event—and it’s shorthand for both the melting event and the climatic disruptions that followed. The melting ice sheet drained massive volumes of ice-cold freshwater into the Hudson Bay very quickly (think of a glacier the size of a continent melting over only six months!), and from there into the North Atlantic. The sudden influx of cold, fresh water disrupted the salinity and surface temperature of the oceans worldwide. The temperature shift disrupted global winds and precipitation patterns, and while overall global temperatures dropped and precipitation decreased in many well-studied places, in some regions rainfall and weather patterns became highly unpredictable. In many regions, the melting led to a severe drought, while in others the effects were much more complicated.

Climate chart (Weninger et al. 2009) showing (in red) the 8.2ka Event. The grey bars on either side of the red indicate a sapropel—a die off of plankton in the ocean due to increased freshwater. This indicates higher rainfall on land, and hence freshwater runoff into the oceans, which suffocates the salt-loving plankton.
Climate chart (Weninger et al. 2009) showing (in red) the 8.2ka Event. The grey bars on either side of the red indicate a sapropel—a die off of plankton in the ocean due to increased freshwater. This indicates higher rainfall on land, and hence freshwater runoff into the oceans, which suffocates the salt-loving plankton.

In the Levant and Anatolia, the shift seems to have been from weather that was very warm and rainy (as during the earlier period when agriculture was invented) to colder and much drier. Some scholars who study the 8.2ka Event hypothesize that it would have caused freezing, dry winds to sweep down from Siberia, bringing longer, later winters and drastically reduced rainfall; colder winters coming later in the year would have disrupted planting seasons and harvests, and the drought would have caused all sorts of havoc, not only with farming, but any activity involving water.

There are a number of ways to detect climate shifts in the archaeological record; for later periods, for example, when writing was common, researchers begin with written records and then proceed to other, more scientific methods. In the Late Neolithic, though, writing was still 3,000 years in the future, so archaeologists need other methods. These methods are usually referred to as “proxies.” Because we can’t directly observe the past climate or environment (having only our own climate to observe), scientists use physical items that are affected by and retain traces of effects from past climate conditions. These can include, among others, stalactites and stalagmites from caves, ancient tree rings, drilled cores from seafloors or other landforms such as peat bogs or lake beds, and sometimes plant or animal remains of certain types that have been buried and preserved in just the right way. Interpreting climate data is not exactly straightforward, but scientists have made significant progress, and as more archaeologists turn their focus to the Late Neolithic, with exciting projects in the eastern and southern deserts, as well as the Jordan Valley, Dead Sea area, and on the Jordan plateau, more nuanced data has come to light.

Written by Kathleen Bennallack

Kathleen Bennallack is a Ph.D. candidate in Archaeology at the University of California San Diego. She was an ACOR-CAORC pre-doctoral fellow in Jordan in the spring of 2016.   Read her scholars’ profile here.

 

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