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article imageArchaeologists — Life once flourished in Jordan's Black Desert

By Karen Graham     Jul 15, 2017 in Science
Hundreds of stone tombs dot the landscape in the Jebel Qurma desert region of Jordan. It's hard to imagine that anything or anyone could have survived in this arid and desolate place that an early explorer described as a land of "dead fire."
Just a little south of Damascus, Jordan lies the beginning of a vast, stony black basalt wasteland known as the Black Desert. It covers an area that stretches from northeastern Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the fringes of the great Nafud Desert.
This region is home to the range of Jebel Qurma, a land of steep-sided basalt prominences and rocky plateaus. There are vast rocky plains, interspersed with dry mud flats and limestone hillocks. Besides being highly arid, the extremes of exceedingly hot summers and severe winters add to its inhospitable nature.
Captain Lionel Rees, an explorer who visited the region in 1929 wrote: "Except for a short period in the spring, the whole of this country looks like a dead fire — nothing but cold ashes."
Jebel Qurma  a desert region in Jordan that is so desolate that one early explorer called it a land ...
Jebel Qurma, a desert region in Jordan that is so desolate that one early explorer called it a land of "dead fire."
Jebel Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project
Before any excavation was done on the archaeology of the Jebel Qurma region, the area was first studied through remote sensing. Optical satellite imagery, as well as aerial photographs, were used to map archaeological features visible from the air.
The CORONA optical satellite, originally used for spy operations and declassified in 1995 was used for the optical images, and remote sensing data consisted of aerial photographs, acquired from the Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East (APAAME).
Life once flourished in Jebel Qurma
To look at images of the desert scenery today, it is hard to imagine that anyone or anything ever once flourished in the region, but that is exactly what archaeologists have found. The hundreds of stone tombs, some dating to the Early Bronze Age, to the more intricate tombs and conical ring cairns of the Hellenistic up to the Byzantine period are a testament to the cultures who called this region home thousands of years ago.
The rocks also tell a story of the people and wildlife who once flourished in this region.
The rocks also tell a story of the people and wildlife who once flourished in this region.
Jebel Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project
The Jebel Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project is a new research project in Jordan under the auspices of the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University in the Netherlands, in close cooperation with the Department of Antiquities, Jordan. The project covers not only a long time-scale but several different environments.
Thousands of years ago, the region flourished with all kinds of wildlife, including horses, camels, lions, and birds, including one bird that is yet to be identified. The representations of daily life based on pictographs etched in rocks describes many aspects of life, including wild and domestic animals, warriors, horsemen, camel caravans, dances, and hunting scenes.
Interestingly, after discovering there were far fewer people living in the region during the late third millennium BC up to the early first millennium BC, Peter Akkermans, the project director told Live Science: "Evidently, climate change or the like came to my mind as well, but at the moment, we simply do not have the data to support or deny this claim. Research into local environmental and climatic conditions is certainly one of my aims for further research in the desert of Jebel Qurma."
Aerial photo of a   pendant burial   in the Jebel Qurma range. The chain consisting of about twenty ...
Aerial photo of a " pendant burial " in the Jebel Qurma range. The chain consisting of about twenty small, individual cairns leads to the left of the large cairn at the head.
Jebel Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project
The role the tombs played for both the dead and the living
Even though tomb robbers have pillaged many of the burial sites, the tombs were well known to local populations and visitors alike and could have easily inspired a certain amount of awe and reverence.
Akkermans writes, "These burial grounds must have been liminal places full of social memory; the continual reuse and the repeated burial events at these sites over many centuries confirm their long-lived role as focal points for social and ritual gatherings of the communities in the area."
About 4,000 years ago, people began to occupy the region, living “in secluded areas at the foot of the basaltic uplands or in the deep valleys through which wadis run.” However, they laid their dead to rest in the high plateaus and the summits of the nearby basalt hills.
The remains og aa tower tomb in the Jebel Qurma desert region of Jordan.
The remains og aa tower tomb in the Jebel Qurma desert region of Jordan.
Jebel Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project
The burial areas contain many different types and sizes of tombs, along with many rocks inscribed with drawing and text in an ancient North Arabian script. The findings indicate that the northeastern desert was once a thriving desert highway, totally smashing the idea that life there was marginal or culturally isolated.
The Cairns are older than the tower tombs, varying in size and evidence shows they were often reused. They measure from 1.5 meters (4.9 ft.) in diameter and 0.7-0.8 meters (2.3-2.6 ft.) tall, up to 10 meters (32.8 ft.) across and 2 meters (6.6 ft.) tall. Most of the Cairns have a circular or crescent shaped piece installed that was possibly used for rituals during periods of mourning.
In contrast, the tower tombs are much more elaborate, measuring about 5 meters (16.4 ft.) across and 1.5 meters (4.9 ft.) high. With straight sides made up of large, flat basalt slabs, they resembled a tower without the conical covering. New fieldwork "made clear that these tower tombs are not exceptional, but quite common in the Jebel Qurma region and the desert at large," Akkermans said, adding that "they do not seem to be restricted to specific members of society in antiquity."
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