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Bir Madhkur Project, Wadi Araba, Jordan

Andrew M. Smith II, The George Washington University, Project Grant 2013–2014

Site, Problems, and Project

When we consider the economic landscape of Byzantine Third Palestine, it is apparent that the data is skewed toward urban contexts. Evidence from the countryside, whether derived from regional surveys or from excavations of rural sites (e.g., farmhouses) is not at all abundant. Remarkably, as the most important community in Third Palestine, Petra is no exception. We know much about Petra internally, in terms of the history of its urban development, but we know little regarding settlement and economic activity beyond the city limits. Questions, then, as to the role Petra played in the ancient economy or of the economic relationship between Petra and its hinterland in antiquity, cannot be fully answered. As an ancient city with an expansive hinterland, how unique was Petra in the ancient world, and what were the factors that shaped the city’s evolution between Classical and Late Antiquity? Some documentary sources survive to illuminate the history of Petra and economic life beyond the city limits, such as the Petra scrolls from an urban church destroyed by fire in A.D. 593, but the view is limited. For the most part, the bulk of the population in rural settings remains invisible and their role in the ancient economy remains obscure. If we are to understand Petra’s transformation “as a city” in Late Antiquity, then the city’s economic relationship with its hinterland must be better articulated.

This research project offers a rural perspective on urbanism at Petra in Late Antiquity, from the vantage point of Bir Madhkur, and aims to situate Petra (and Palaestina tertia) more comprehensively in the broader society and economy of the ancient Mediterranean world. Bir Madhkur lies northwest of Petra in the foothills of Wadi Araba, midway between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Dead Sea, and it is the first major way station along the ancient route west of Petra that tracks to Gaza. Main features of the site include a Byzantine fort, a bath complex and caravanserai, a civilian settlement west of the fort, cemeteries, and numerous other (as yet unidentified) structures in outlying areas. Documented features in the territory around Bir Madhkur include nomadic encampments, agricultural fields, farmhouses, caravanserais, and smaller forts; the ancient agricultural systems around the site are, in fact, extensive. Networks of communication and exchange connected these sites to one another and helped to integrate Bir Madhkur into the hinterland of Petra. Significantly, in addition to local communication and exchange networks, the ancient Incense Road once passed through the site of Bir Madhkur and its territory. Holistically, then, due to the variety and richness of the evidence, a comprehensive study of Bir Madhkur and its territory, involving both archaeological excavations and intensive survey, with an emphasis on understanding the regional agriculture and trade, should make a significant contribution to our understanding of economic activity in the hinterland of Petra and the city’s place in the ancient economy.

The Bir Madhkur Project began in 2008, and the intensive archaeological surveys and limited excavations conducted thus far have been very successful. In 2010, for example, we uncovered a wealth of material culture, including pottery, bone, and more than 700 coins and other metal objects.  Likewise, we have documented more than 1400 archaeological sites in a fairly limited area of 10 km2 and collected datable material at roughly half of them. The majority of these sites are small and unobtrusive, such as stone circles, stone rings, graves, and artifact scatters. We have also recorded larger sites, which include farmhouses, towers, and road stations. We have focused much attention on documenting the agricultural activity in the region and the various land routes. This focus on land routes, in fact, is important since one of our goals is to establish networks of connectivity between the various sites documented in the region to one another and, ultimately, to Petra itself. Already, then, we are making significant progress in illuminating the economic landscape of Bir Madhkur and its relationship to Petra.

The 2013 Campaign

Fig. 1: Regional map of survey area (Smith 2013–2014) Fig. 1: Regional map of survey area. The red triangles indicate sites recorded in 2013.

Specifically in 2013, with the support of a Dumbarton Oaks Project Grant, we focused our efforts on the intensive regional survey of the south bank of the Wadi Musa to the south of Bir Madhkur. In this area, we continued to document the ancient agricultural systems as well as the routes connecting Bir Madhkur with Petra. Over the course of the survey season from 2 June 2013 to 13 July 2013, we recorded a total of 351 new sites (fig. 1), a summary of which follows.

The majority of the sites documented in the region were small, unobtrusive sites such as stone circles, stone rings, graves, and artifact scatters. There were also a handful of sites where the survey documented architectural features such as miscellaneous wall alignments and hut circles. Within Wadi Musa itself, we recorded a series of field systems. Figure 2 shows one of the more expansive agricultural field systems utilizing floodwater irrigation. In this area and elsewhere, we found an abundance of grindstone/milling stone fragments, which highlights the intensity of agricultural activity in antiquity. Recent work at a farmhouse associated with one of these field systems indicates that crop production was most intensive in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. We also recorded what may be a Roman mansio across from the site Qasr Umm Ratam (fig. 3), at the confluence of the Wadis Musa and Umm Ratam.

Fig. 2: Agricultural field system along south bank of Wadi Musa (Smith 2013–2014) Fig. 2. Agricultural field system along south bank of Wadi Musa, most likely dating to the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. Fig. 3. Possible mansio along the south bank of Wadi Musa at the confluence of the Wadis Musa and Umm Ratam (Smith 2013–2014) Fig. 3. Possible mansio along the south bank of Wadi Musa at the confluence of the Wadis Musa and Umm Ratam.

In addition to the survey, we also conducted a salvage excavation at Khirbet Sufaysif, an early Roman caravan station along the south bank of Wadi Musa reoccupied in the early Byzantine period. This excavation was in response to the increased looting activity across the site and the ongoing destruction of the site due to erosion (nearly a quarter of the structure has eroded into the adjacent wadi). Key goals of the excavation were to illuminate the nature of the early Byzantine reoccupation of the site, to get a sense of the volume of trade through the region in antiquity, and to determine the relationship of the site to Petra, its hinterland, and the trade routes through the area. With these goals in mind, we focused on the northern interior rooms of the complex since this area was least disturbed; we also opened a unit along the eastern side of the complex. The results clearly highlight the importance of long-distance trade in the early Roman period along with a significant decrease in trade in the Byzantine period. A large hearth/tabun in the courtyard of the structure adjacent to the outer wall of one of the excavated rooms proved to be the most significant feature perhaps belonging to the early Byzantine period.

To sum up, with hundreds of new sites recorded, we now have a more complete understanding of the broad range of economic activity in the hinterland of Petra that highlights various patterns of production and distribution. Interpreting this evidence in relation to Petra’s urban development is an ongoing process, the end result of which will surely increase our understanding of Petra’s place in the ancient economy.