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Ceramic aesthetics and decline at the 2015 SAAs

I realized earlier this week, as often happens around this time of year, that the SAA Annual Meeting is less than two weeks away. I should really be writing the rest of my talk right now, but rather than do that, I'm going to procrastinate by writing about the talk here, instead. The conference is in San Francisco this year, which is a bit mundane compared to the past two I've attended — Honolulu and Austin — but, combined with the fact that last year's ASOR meeting was in San Diego, does make my conference travel this academic year relatively easy. I already have more entirely archaeological activities lined up than I'd probably be able to do even if I weren't attending a conference, so it should be a successful SAA trip, even if it isn't Hawaii.

I gave my paper this year a deliberately vague title, in order to try to avoid being put into an "Archaeology of Jordan"-type session. I was moderately successful there, but at a rather large price. I'm instead in the "Studies of Technology, Ecology, and Craft Production in South, Central, and Western Asia" session, which is still a catch-all session, but at least with something of an interesting theme compared to "Archaeology of Jordan." I'd say that I hope the crowd will be bigger, too, but I don't expect to be speaking to anyone but the other people in the session for this one. I have the good fortune of giving the 8 AM presentation on Sunday morning, which I suspect is the least-attended time slot of the entire conference. Ah, well, you can't win them all. Plus, my good friend and colleague Aaron Gidding is presenting in the same session, so it's not all bad.

The talk itself is a review of what we currently know about the hand-made ceramic traditions of the Middle and Late Islamic periods, focusing primarily on a long-lived group called the Hand-Made Geometrically-Painted Wares, or HMGPW for short. Rather than looking exclusively at material from Jordan, I've tried to put together a somewhat impressionistic picture of the distribution of this ware (and related wares), which is surprisingly broad. You'll, of course, have to show up at 8 AM to hear more. Following tradition, here's the abstract for the talk.

Questioning Technological and Economic “Decline” in the Medieval Rural Levant

Ian W. N. Jones

This paper argues against a common view of medieval Levantine villages as isolated from larger regional centers by examining a group of hand-made ceramics — commonly called Hand-Made Geometrically Painted Wares (HMGPW), and formerly “pseudo-prehistoric” wares — prevalent across the Levant from the 12th-17th centuries AD, and possibly longer. They are generally seen as the products of non-specialist village potters and, as the older name suggests, an example of technological decline. That view, though, is based primarily on ethnographic evidence from the late 19th and 20th century Levant, and hinges on a number of assumed, and generally unquestioned, dichotomies: urban/rural, specialist/non-specialist, wheel-made/hand-made. As HMGPW is the most visible indicator of settlement during these periods in the southern Levant, these assumptions have influenced the ways archaeologists conceive of rural Levantine economies, leading to a view of villages as disconnected from larger centers where higher-quality, wheel-made pots were produced. This view, however, is at odds with historical evidence for substantial state investment in rural agriculture. In this paper, I present a broader approach to HMGPW — integrating archaeological and ethnoarchaeological insights from beyond the Levant — that helps us better understand what the widespread adoption and longevity of this “retrogressive” technology says about rural economies.

Backlog 1: ASOR 2014

Now that we're officially on winter break in San Diego (it's currently a wintry 81 degrees at UCSD), it seems like a good time to deal with the backlog of things I've wanted to write about here but, for whatever reason, I haven't. First among these is the 2014 ASOR Annual Meeting, which was, conveniently, in San Diego this year. Generally, a good time was had by all, and it was good to be able to speak face-to-face with some long distance collaborators and to get to see some good friends working with the Central Timna Valley Project again.

It was nice being on home turf, so to speak, and this was probably the least expensive conference experience I've ever had. Being in San Diego also meant a reception at CISA3 at the Qualcomm Institute at Calit2 at UCSD, which I think covers all of the names I'm meant to include now. I can't speak for everyone, but having been to a few Calit2 receptions in the past, this seemed like a pretty successful one. As is typical of these events — for reasons I don't totally understand — rather than simply enjoy the reception, I also presented briefly on some ceramic research I did over the summer, more on which soon. Given that this was an ASOR reception, there were a few people who were interested in that project, but as is usual for these events, other Calit2 projects tend to draw a bigger crowd. I can, of course, still claim that my research rarely causes motion sickness, so that's a plus.

My talk at ASOR was in a session with several site reports focused on the Iron Age, which, as I pointed out then, was sort of a weird fit, as I was neither giving a site report nor talking about the Iron Age, but the turnout was good, and the other talks were interesting. Following tradition, although it's a bit late, here's my abstract:

Settlement and Economy in Faynan (Southern Jordan) at the Byzantine-Islamic Transition

Ian W. N. Jones, Mohammad Najjar, Thomas E. Levy

It is now established consensus among scholars working in the southern Levant that the Islamic Conquest does not mark a sharp break in settlement or economy, but rather that the 7th century AD is in fact a period of surprising continuity. Despite this, the status of much of southern Jordan during this transitional period remains unclear, due to incomplete ceramic typologies for the Islamic periods and disagreement over the nature of settlement in the late 6th century. However, continuing excavation in the region has begun to address both of these issues, especially the difficulty of identifying 7th century ceramic assemblages.Discussing the 7th century in Faynan has until now been especially difficult. In addition to the issues affecting most of southern Jordan, researchers have also faced a paucity of excavated material spanning the Late Antique-Early Islamic “transition.” This paper presents an updated view of the 7th century in Faynan based on analysis of 6th-8th century material from the UC San Diego Edom Lowlands Regional Archaeology Project excavations at Khirbat Faynan and Khirbat Hamra Ifdan, as well as reanalysis of material from intensive surveys of the region.While Faynan changed substantially between the Late Roman and Early Islamic periods, the key transition — the demise of the state-controlled copper industry — seems to have occurred in the late 4th or 5th century. The 7th century was, as in much of the southern Levant, not a period of disruption, but rather shows continuity of patterns that emerged in the 6th century or earlier.
This is something of a side project, but it's an interesting one, as people have made quite a few claims about what happened during the 6th-8th centuries in Faynan on the basis of very little evidence. Now that we have slightly more, it's possibly to say a little bit more and show that some of those earlier claims are untenable (although, to be fair, some of them were untenable even based on the evidence that was available when they were proposed). This is slowly coming together into a publication, and I'll likely be posting about it again soon.As for next year — assuming I don't go to MESA or the AAAs instead — I already have a title in mind.

Conferences past and future

It's been a bit sparse around here, not necessarily for lack of things to blog about, but for lack of time in which to do so. But, I've always heard that you should never apologize for not updating your blog, so that's something I'm not going to do. Instead, since I do have a bit of time right now, I'm going to finish a post I've been meaning to finish for some time, with updates about a conference I recently attended, and one that's coming up.

First, I've recently returned (actually, the conference was the first weekend in October, so not all that recently) from the Conference on Medieval Archaeology at SUNY Cortland, organized by Scott Stull. As much as I love San Diego, it was very nice to be back in the northeast for at least one weekend of true autumnal weather, and the conference itself was quite interesting, as well. I was presenting a fairly general introduction to our work on the Islamic periods in Faynan, since the audience consisted of people working on medieval archaeology in several regions, primarily western Europe. Some observations: 1) I was pleased to see that Scott went with an amusing acronym. I'm not sure if CoMA is better than MIRE, but I'm happy to have been at both. 2) Beyond my own anxiety about the term "medieval," this also really brought home some conversations I've had with other Islamic archaeologists — Bethany Walker especially comes to mind — about communicating periodization across space, where dynastic and archaeological periods don't translate. It's not that it's difficult to default to calendar dates, but that a lot of the assumptions that come with dynastic and archaeological terms have to be made explicit. And then there are the dynastic terms that are used in multiple regions, but not in the same way; at one point, I found myself saying something along the lines of, ". . . Late Byzantine, which would be Early Byzantine in central Anatolia." Certainly that's not confusing. 3) On those same lines, it was interesting and, I think, useful to be odd person out at a fairly small, focused conference. (Interestingly, I spoke with a few other presenters who also felt that they were "outsiders.") I've been at conferences where the Levant wasn't very well-represented, but even at the most recent SAAs we were in an "Archaeology of Jordan" session. I've had to gear talks to people working on earlier periods in the Levant, but it was a different experience speaking to a room almost entirely full of archaeologists working on the same period, but in Europe.

After the conference, I managed to take a little drive over to Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from their tasting room (apart from the beer, which I knew would be excellent), since they're part of the rapidly expanding Duvel Moortgat family, but I was pleasantly surprised. Their cafe was, from a San Diego perspective, fairly small and cozy, and the location is really rather out of the way. As evidence, here are two photos I took in their overflow parking lot.

Brewery Ommegang 1Brewery Ommegang 2

That's definitely a nicer view than most of the parking lots I've been in can boast, and I always enjoy being reminded of how much I love the northeast in fall. It's a comforting thought, especially now that I'm back in San Diego, where the forecast for tomorrow is 87 degrees and sunny. In November.

Of course, I'll be heading to cooler climes again soon enough. This year's ASOR Annual Meeting in Baltimore is just over a week away, and I'm excited to go this year. Our field season tends to conflict with ASOR, so it's not every year I can actually attend, and although I've been several times before, this is actually the first year I'll be giving a paper. This is also the first time I'll be speaking at length about our 2012 excavations at Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir, and the "Archaeology of Islamic Society" session that I'm in this year looks quite good, so I think it's going to be an interesting conference. And, since I'm speaking about it anyway, it seems appropriate to end with my abstract for this year.

Life in a Mining Village: Insights from Domestic and Public Buildings at Middle Islamic Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir, Faynan, Jordan

Ian W. N. Jones, Mohammad Najjar, and Thomas E. Levy

At some point in the late 12th century AD, due to changing economic conditions in Bilad al-Sham, the Faynan district of southern Jordan became an attractive source of copper, after a hiatus in production of more than half a millennium. In addition to reoccupying existing sites, a small copper smelting village, now known as Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir (KNA), was founded during this period. While interesting from the perspective of production, exchange, and consumption, this village also provides a unique opportunity to investigate the mining settlement as a unique social formation, and to address questions not answered in historical sources of the Middle Islamic period.In order to take advantage of this opportunity, the UC San Diego Edom Lowlands Regional Archaeology Project’s (ELRAP) 2012 excavations at KNA focused primarily on non-metallurgical contexts. A large, “elite” building was partially excavated and revealed three distinct building phases, including both metallurgical and pre-metallurgical, elite strata of the Middle Islamic period. Additionally, two probes were dug in domestic buildings, and a third probe conducted in a small, one-room building which may have been a guardhouse.This paper presents some preliminary conclusions from these excavations, focusing on (1) the differences between the excavated domestic buildings, (2) identifying “elites” archaeologically at KNA, (3) the transformation of the elite building into a metallurgical workshop, and, finally, (4) the implications of the ceramic assemblage both for life and food preferences at the site and for Middle Islamic ceramic typologies in southernmost Bilad al-Sham more generally.

Looking forward to Copenhagen

Well, it's been a while since I've posted anything here, in part because I've been pretty busy.  But following my colleague Kyle Knabb, I thought I'd share an abstract I submitted, and which has been recently accepted.  I unfortunately can't attend the ASOR Meeting this year, since I'll be digging in Faynan in November, but I submitted an abstract for the MIRI workshop on the Materiality of the Islamic Rural Economy (they, probably wisely, do not use the acronym MIRE), at the University of Copenhagen.  I'll mostly be talking about the results of the small excavation we conducted at Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir in 2011, but I also want to talk about the suggestions I've recently made (and which will, hopefully, be published soon) about the relationship between Faynan and the agricultural economy of Transjordan in the 13th and 14th centuries AD.  This will be the first time I've really discussed this in a formal setting (other than submitting it for publication), so I'm looking forward to getting some feedback on it, but also a bit nervous about how it's going to be received, since it is rather speculative.Anyway, I'm looking forward to the workshop.  Now all I have to do is write the paper and figure out how I'm going to get to Copenhagen. . .

Here's the abstract, in case you're curious (the title is perhaps a bit obscure, but it's a reference to Levy, et al. [2003]):

Beyond Iron Age Landscapes: Copper Mining and Smelting in Faynan in the 13th Century ADIan W. N. Jones, Thomas E. Levy, and Mohammad Najjar

Although work in the area has been expanding, many aspects of the Middle Islamic period in southern Jordan remain poorly understood. This is perhaps less true of the Faynan district, where several survey projects have investigated and published material from copper production sites of the Middle Islamic period. On the other hand, these projects have understandably tended to focus on periods of more intensive copper exploitation in Faynan, with the Middle Islamic period occupying a somewhat peripheral position in their research. This is unfortunate, as Faynan contains probably the best-preserved Middle Islamic copper smelting sites in the southern Levant.With this in mind, in the fall of 2011 the Edom Lowlands Regional Archaeology Project conducted a sounding at Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir, a copper production site of the 13th century AD. This small excavation revealed the remains of a copper smelting workshop including, to our surprise, a well-preserved smelting furnace. Relatively complete furnaces of any period are rare in Faynan, and this workshop has the potential to greatly increase our understanding of Middle Islamic period copper production.This paper presents the results of the 2011 sounding at Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir, and draws on the available evidence to offer a preliminary reconstruction of the process of copper production in 13th century Faynan. Additionally, building on our previous work, it attempts to locate Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir’s place in several “levels” of regional economy, from the mostly pastoral economic base of Faynan to the expanding economy of central and southern Jordan.
References:Levy, Thomas E., Russell B. Adams, James D. Anderson, Mohammad Najjar, Neil Smith, Yoav Arbel, Lisa Soderbaum, and Adolfo Muniz2003   An Iron Age Landscape in the Edomite Lowlands: Archaeological Surveys Along Wādī al-Ghuwayb and Wādī al-Jāriya, Jabal Ḥamrat Fīdān, Jordan, 2002. Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 47:247-277.