Ancient Pollution

In my last post, I wrote about the Hebrew University campus where I am staying this summer. I didn’t really get into why I am here, though. Well, I have one word for you… pollution! Today, pollution is an issue that is as relevant as ever, wherever you are in the world. But many people may not think about the impact ancient pollution had on societies of the past. Or that in some cases, ancient pollution is still harmful to humans, even after 3000 years!

Consider this – between 1000 BCE and 300 CE, the area of southern Jordan where I work was a main source of copper for much of the Middle East. Over the centuries, archaeologists estimate that thousands and thousands of tons of copper were smelted and shipped out to other locations in the eastern Mediterranean. Ancient smelting technology easily would have produced five to ten times as much waste as copper. We’re talking about some serious trash here.

In each region of the world, the kind of pollution that can result from smelting depends on a few things. For example, what elements occur naturally in the ores, and are released when smelted? What techniques were used to smelt the ores? Sometimes smelting requires the addition of toxic substances to extract the metals from the host rock, while other times it may only require heating (though at really high temperatures!). Where I work, the most common byproducts are copper (of course) and lead, but arsenic and other toxic substances may also be present.

The big question looming over this research is a basic issue of our human heritage: why is there pollution? Of course copper smelting produces some highly undesirable substances. But why does it spread beyond the confines of a copper smelting factory, to say, nearby agricultural fields? Now, color me crazy, but I really don’t think it’s fair to assume that ancient societies were naturally destructive. Or that they were entirely unaware of the damaging effects of pollution.

At an even more general level, this research is about a fundamental aspect of human nature. Is it natural for human societies to destroy the environment? Is environmental degradation – whether erosion, pollution, deforestation, or animal extinctions – an unavoidable consequence of being human, of living in cities, or of development?

Often people approach these kinds of questions by looking to the past. How has the situation changed over the course of human civilization? One way of looking at it is to say that things are only getting worse, that human civilization is contributing more and more to the destruction of our world. Another way to answer the question is to say that ancient humans were oblivious to the consequences of their actions, and thus were equally or more destructive than now. I don’t think either of these answers is sufficient.

During the next two months I won’t be able to even come close to answering these broad questions. Even answering some of these questions for southern Jordan specifically would take years and years of research (as one of my recent (negative) grant proposal reviewers pointed out). But, by looking at how the environment was polluted, when it occurred, and under what conditions, we’ll begin to see the bigger picture.

Hebrew University

Greetings from Jerusalem! I’ve been here for about two weeks now. After getting over some pretty bad jet lag, I’m alert, awake (sort of), and analyzing the crap out of some samples I excavated in southern Jordan. I’ll get to that later, but let’s talk about this campus! The Hebrew University in Jerusalem has three campuses, one for science, one for medicine, and one for the soft sciences. I’m at the Givat Ram campus, which has most of the hard science labs. Givat Ram is also where the Knesset is, you know, the Israeli legislature. When I go runing at the track, I can see the Knesset up on the hill.

The campus is also beautifully landscaped. Yeah, I know. I really like the landscape. But there are so many TREES! And everything has a natural feel to it, like they didn’t tear every single shrub for miles before erecting buildings.


There’s also this really nice open air theatre. As far as I can tell there aren’t any shows this summer, unfortunately.


I love sea turtles. When I saw my first sea turtle, I was snorkeling in the Red Sea during a day off from excavation. It swam along the bottom of the sea floor, a few meters below me. I followed. Occasionally he turned to one side to check me out.

I can’t say why I like them so much. I just do, and I’ll never forget that experience. So while I was in Hawaii, I jumped on the opportunity to see the Hawaiian sea turtle, an endangered species that is protected by numerous federal and state laws, among other things. One of the prohibitions is getting too close to a turtle, because any kind of close interaction, especially touching, can be very stressful for these amazing animals.

There’s this beach on the north shore where the turtles rest or spend the night. Much to my pleasure, it was clear on this particular day that visitors had followed the rules of enjoying from a distance. As you can see in this picture, the beach had been walked on quite a bit, but there was a circle of un-walked beach surrounding the little turtle!


No footprints around this little turtle!
No footprints around this little turtle!

Starstruck at the SAAs

There were a lot of reasons to be excited about this year SAA conference, and I’ll get to more of them eventually. For now, this experience will have to suffice:

While at a Nat Geo reception, my friend pointed out Randall McGuire standing across the room. I had recently read his book review of Flannery and Marcus’ new tome on social inequality. As a marxist archaeologist, Randy didn’t exactly agree with all of their positions. Not only did he point out many of the inherent flaws of their approach, he was pretty funny in the process. In what could have been a harshly critical review, McGuire wrote tongue-and-cheek. I could almost hear him chuckling as I read.

Two issues in particular stood out. First, they assume that social inequality did not exist or existed in some fundamentally different way prior to early complex societies. Though the authors acknowledge inequality in age and gender in hunter-gatherer societies in the earlier chapters, they do little more to address this obvious criticism. Second, like many archaeologists, Flannery and Marcus use modern ethnographic examples. But their presentation of the “timeless ethnographic present” has obvious flaws; namely, that it doesn’t exist.

At any rate, when Randy walked by I had to introduce myself. I told him that I really enjoyed his review, and that I had sent it around to some of my friends on facebook. He was pleased to hear that it had gone viral (sort of). After a couple of minutes it was over. I should have taken a picture…

Fatimid Rural Settlement Patterns at the SAAs

It’s been a looooong time since I’ve posted, but here’s one for the new year. My friend, Ian Jones and I are presenting a paper at the SAA conference in Honolulu this April, on Fatimid and Crusader (11th-12th centuries CE) rural settlement patterns in southern Jordan. I’m really looking forward to analyzing the pottery from the 2009 survey of Wadi Feidh we conducted. The assemblage is a mish-mash of assorted coarse handmade wares, typically of very poor quality. It’s a true labor of love!

Abstract: “New evidence for Fatimid period rural settlement in southern Jordan” 

Historical accounts of the Fatimid and Crusader periods describe continued settlement and lively commercial activity in southern Jordan. Despite this, archaeological projects have been relatively unsuccessful in identifying sites from the corresponding Middle Islamic I period (11th-12th c. CE). To address this lacuna, our paper will present evidence for rural settlement during the 11th and early 12th centuries CE based on survey results from the Wadi al-Feidh, within the Petra region of southern Jordan. We suggest that the perceived lull in settlement can be explained by five main factors: the difficulty identifying pottery from this period; a corresponding tendency to lump all handmade pottery into the later Ayyubid/Mamluk period (late 12th-16th c. CE); survey bias; hyper-regionalization in ceramic types and settlement patterns; and a lack of excavated sites for this period. We argue that the settlement pattern during the Middle Islamic I in Wadi al-Feidh represents a continuation of occupation and olive cultivation that began during classical times. These results fill a long-standing gap in our knowledge of Islamic archaeology in the southern Levant.

Words I am starting to hate

There are certain words or phrases that exist in the archaeological vernacular that drive me bonkers. For the people who use them, it’s often not their fault. I assume the words pass from person to person without much thought. Sometimes it may be from mentor to student, or other times from colleague to colleague. Either way, these words stink, and it’s not anyone’s fault they’re sticking around (except for lack of thoughtful reflection, perhaps).

  • Virgin soil: Oh my god, this one drives me crazy. First of all… gross! At some point, did someone say, “hey, we need a word to describe this soil that has no cultural remains in it. Since I’m the first man to penetrate this dirt, I’ll call it virgin**.” Let’s stick with sterile soil, people. Sure, sterile has some funny medical connotations, but at least they apply to both genders.
  • Campaign (as in excavation campaign): Are we in a war? Is it the colonial period again? Are we sojourning to the countryside? NO! So campaign should be replaced with less colonialist term.
  • Patronage: Article introductions that list the sponsors, patrons, affiliations, institutional histories, and so on, are BORING! Put this in the acknowledgements like the rest of us. Try being specific when you say patron: did your patron give you money? Is your patron merely the institution with which you are affiliated? Are you a client, who has an obligation to your patron, similar to the Roman system of patronage? or the style of patronage which funded excavations when archaeologists were antiquarians (you know, like, a hundred years ago)?

These terms are distracting, and do nothing to further archaeological knowledge. Do me a favor and refrain from using them. Maybe in a couple decades they’ll be gone!

**note: Paradoxically, once you’ve penetrated virgin soil, it ceases to be virgin any longer!

ASOR Abstract Submitted!

It’s been a few years since I presented at a conference. Yesterday I submitted an abstract for this year’s ASOR conference in Chicago, IL. If accepted, this will be the first time I present results from my own fieldwork. The paper will discuss the results of two months of surveying I did in the Wadi al-Feid, southern Jordan.  Here’s the abstract I submitted; and here’s hoping it’s accepted!

“Intensive survey of the Wadi al-Feid, Jordan and the archaeology of small-scale farming and pastoral nomadism,” by Kyle A. Knabb, Thomas E. Levy and Mohammad Najjar

Wadi al-Feid borders the southern region of Jordan’s Faynan district. Situated between two important ‘core’ settlement areas, Faynan and Petra, the survey results provide unique insight into settlement patterns on the periphery. Though the area had been investigated briefly by archaeologists, our 2009 survey was the first systematic archaeological survey of the wadi.

Our study of the Wadi al-Feid has shown two major trends: 1) this marginal area was used extensively as a route between the Arabah valley and the eastern Mountains, and 2) this region was occupied by mobile groups and small-scale farmers. The results indicate settlement began in the late Iron Age, oscillating in density and size through the present. Wadi al-Feid is one of a few wadis in the region with a perennial spring; a critical resource in dryland environments. It was also one of the routes between the highland Plateau and the Wadi Arabah, known by the Bedouin today as Naqb Shdayid. In an area with such rugged terrain, people had to invest significant resources to build, maintain, and protect their settlements, agricultural fields, and trade routes.

By using an intensive survey methodology our project recorded 123 sites in an area of ca. 10 km2. Clear evidence of small-scale farming was observed for the Nabatean/Roman period through the Islamic periods. Furthermore, our results demonstrate that the remains of nomadic sites and landscape features survive and can be recovered. Doing so requires a systematic and intensive survey methodology that is not commonly employed in Near Eastern archaeology.