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ceramics

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.

Filling gaps in Middle Islamic settlement

My colleague and good friend Kyle Knabb just posted an abstract for a paper he's giving at the SAAs in Honolulu this year, and I thought, "Oh, I'm also presenting half of that paper. I should probably mention it."So, as Kyle said, we're working together right now to analyze some of the pottery from an intensive survey he led in Wadi al-Faydh, near Petra, in 2009. I was a member of his survey team, so it's exciting to get to analyze a lot of this material finally. As Kyle also mentioned, the majority of the assemblage is made up of rather coarse hand-made pottery (how coarse, you ask? Here's an example collected in Petra by the International Wadi Farasa Project, which gives you an idea of what we're talking about). In addition to not being the most attractive pottery (though I would argue that it has its charms), much of it is also rather difficult to date, especially when it comes from surveys, rather than excavations. One of our arguments, however, is that recent (and in some cases not-so-recent) excavations have produced evidence that enables us to date some of the ceramics Kyle found – especially some distinctive decorated forms – to the 11th and early 12th centuries AD.Our abstract begins with a related problem, which is that evidence of settlement during this period has been somewhat tricky to actually find. To get an idea of this, we just have to check out the DAAHL's (that's the Digital Archaeological Atlas of the Holy Land, for those not yet in the know) Archaeological Periods page. If you zoom to the study area and select Fatimid or Crusader, you see relatively little settlement. If you click Ayyubid, Ayyubid/Mamluk, or Mamluk, the picture is different (and this is also true if you select 'Abbasid/Fatimid, actually). If, as we're going to argue, many ceramics of the Fatimid and Crusader periods have been misclassified as Ayyubid/Mamluk – especially in the south – we have to wonder how good our understanding of settlement patterns in the Middle Islamic I (1000-1200 AD) actually is.These dating concerns have implications beyond simply establishing the chronology of settlement in the region. The biggest issue for me is that sites which weren't occupied during the same period obviously can't be directly connected to one another. This is important for reconstructing local patterns of trade, and one of the things I'm concerned with in terms of my work in Faynan. As the dating of sites becomes more precise, connections that seemed obvious when all the ceramics were lumped together as "Ayyubid/Mamluk" suddenly disappear. But that's a different story for another day. . .

Middle Islamic Faynan in BASOR

Oh right.  I meant to post something here right when this paper came out, but didn't, in part because of the beginning of a new quarter here at UCSD – as well as my first teaching assignment in two years, preparation for WAC 7, and some post-excavation things that needed to be taken care of – and in part simply because I completely forgot.  So, here we are, several weeks later, and I'm finally getting around to doing it.Anyway, as I said, I've just published a paper. The authors are myself, Tom Levy – my advisor – and our Jordanian colleague and co-PI of ELRAP, Mohammad Najjar, and it appears in the most recent issue of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. If you have access to BASOR through JSTOR, you a) can just click that link and download the paper and b) have probably already seen the latest issue anyway.The paper is, essentially, a heavily-revised version of my master's thesis, and so represents the culmination of a few years worth of work getting the Islamic Faynan portion of ELRAP off the ground and running. Primarily, what that involved was a (preliminary) analysis of the ceramics collected during the 2002 JHF (the Jabal Hamrat Fidan Project; ELRAP's predecessor) surveys of Wadi al-Ghuwayb and Wadi al-Jariya (I'd link to a PDF, but that doesn't seem to exist at the moment; there's this, though), focusing on the material collected at Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir (KNA), a site I've mentioned before. Our main goals here, in addition to finally presenting the later material from these surveys, were (1) to tighten up the chronology of KNA with a large ceramic sample (1300 sherds exactly) and (2) to put forward some ideas about why copper production was revived in this period.(1) In the paper we argue, based on the ceramics and other evidence, that KNA is primarily an early 13th century site. This isn't a terribly huge redating – most previous work assumed it was primarily a 13th century site – but it has some interesting historical consequences, as we make no assumption that there's an early Mamluk period occupation at the site. We left ourselves a bit of room to adjust this, and pointed out that we couldn't really rule out a later 13th century date, and that the late 12th century also seemed like a possibility. Now that we've excavated the site for two seasons, I'm glad that we left ourselves that room, as the ceramic assemblage has surprised us a bit. In one sense, the excavated ceramic assemblage is rather different from the survey assemblage in terms of the wares that make it up (though I don't want to talk about this too much until we've had more time to go over the material and compile better frequency data), but it's also forcing us to think about dates that are a bit earlier, again. That in itself was interesting, though not entirely unexpected, and we'll be addressing the point in at least one upcoming paper.(2) We were rather dissatisfied with existing explanations for the re-emergence of the Faynan copper industry in the Middle Islamic period, which we thought were either overly dismissive or somewhat anachronistic. Our suggestion, instead, is that mining in Faynan primarily supported the sugar industry. This would have gone primarily toward making boiling vessels – known in Arabic as dusūt – for the cane juice. This image, from flickr user ciamabue, shows an iron boiling vessel from the U.S. It's not an exact match – for one thing, the vessels we're thinking of are made of copper, obviously – but the image at least gives you a sense of scale. 13th century dusut were about 3 feet in diameter and could weigh as much as 550 pounds, so we aren't exactly talking about the Mauviel in your kitchen. This is something that would require a significant amount of copper.So, that's a short summary of two of our key points from this paper. The project is still a work in progress – and will eventually become my dissertation – but the early stages are now published and out there.

Jones, Ian W. N., Thomas E. Levy, and Mohammad Najjar2012  Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir and Middle Islamic Metallurgy in Faynan: Surveys ofWadi al-Ghuwayb and Wadi al-Jariya in Faynan, Southern Jordan. Bulletin ofthe American Schools of Oriental Research 368:67-102.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 AlongWādī al-Ghuwayb and Wādī al-Jāriya, Jabal Ḥamrat Fīdān, Jordan, 2002.Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 47:247-277.