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conferences

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.

"Not Found in the Order of History" now found exactly there

I got word a few days ago that a book featuring a chapter on Islamic period Faynan (and southern Jordan, more generally) has just been printed. As you might guess, I'm the lead author on that chapter (with Mohammad Najjar and my advisor, Tom Levy), and I'm excited to see it appear in print. The book, published by Cambridge Scholars and edited by Scott Stull, is From West to East: Current Approaches to Medieval Archaeology, which developed out of the first Conference on Medieval Archaeology. The conference itself was a great experience — and although I couldn't make the second one last year, I hope it continues — and the book reflects this. It's a nice survey of the current state of medieval archaeology, and the coverage is fairly broad. Ours is the easternmost (and southernmost) of the contributions, many of which, perhaps unsurprisingly, focus on the U.K., but there are several on Anatolia, as well, so we're not alone in the eastern Mediterranean.

Our chapter — titled "'Not Found in the Order of History': Toward a 'Medieval' Archaeology of Southern Jordan" (catchy, no?) — builds on the relationship between copper and sugar production that we've previously proposed and places this in a longer-scale analysis of the economy of the 'Araba, from the decline of Petra and a shift to an "Arabia-facing" economy in the Early Islamic period, to the decline of this system and the shift to a "Syria-facing" economy in the Middle Islamic. This is also the first publication, I believe, where we address the Late Antique and Early Islamic period material from our excavations at Khirbat Faynan, which I also covered in my most recent ASOR talk. This is, of course, very preliminary, considering that I gave the talk on which this chapter is based in 2013, but it's still quite exciting. Beyond this, we also try to connect the archaeology of southern Jordan to "medieval archaeology," by which people normally mean the medieval archaeology of Europe. We're not the first people to try to make this connection, but it does open up some interesting possibilities for thinking about the roles that a tiny copper mining village out in the desert might play.

The title itself, "Not Found in the Order of History," is taken from an Exodus itinerary reproduced in several medieval pilgrimage guides (in this case, the 12th century guidebook commonly, but incorrectly, attributed to "Fetellus"), which describes Faynan (or Fynon [Punon, really, I suppose]) in these terms. This account, in turn, is based on a letter of Jerome, who actually had rather more than this to say about Faynan. I discuss this account in more detail in my dissertation and an upcoming publication, but here it serves as a nice shorthand for the problems of doing "medieval archaeology" in southern Jordan. Medieval archaeology and Islamic archaeology are generally thought of as "historical archaeology" (in the broad sense of archaeology informed by history, rather than the narrow sense of "the archaeology of capitalism"). Southern Jordan, though — and Faynan in particular — is, for the most part, absent from the historical sources of this period. What does it mean to do historical archaeology in a place "not found in the order of history"? It's a difficult question to resolve, but we try here.

Interestingly, around the same time I heard that our chapter had been printed I also heard that Hagit Nol's paper in Palestine Exploration Quarterly, "The Fertile Desert: Agriculture and Copper Industry in Early Islamic Arava (Arabah)," had come out. I've been looking forward to this publication since she e-mailed me about it a year or so ago, and it is, indeed, a very cool paper. Hagit looks at a lot of material from the 'Araba, including a lot of work previously only published in Hebrew, and tries to grapple with the rather persistent misdating of Early Islamic sites in the 'Araba — a problem we also note in our chapter. It's funny, though. When I started working on my MA thesis six(ish) years ago, I would have been surprised to hear about multiple publications on the Islamic period in the 'Araba coming out in the same year, much less the same week. As Jasper would say, "What a time to be alive."

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.

More on the Exodus at UCSD

Recently, a page dedicated to the Out of Egypt conference went up on the Calit2 (actually, now the Qualcomm Institute) site. As I mentioned previously, this is the conference that the EX3: Exodus, Cyber-Archaeology and the Future exhibit was associated with, and Tom Levy and our colleagues at Calit2 have done a fantastic job of making everything available to those who couldn't attend the exhibit or conference.So, in addition to seeing photos from the conference (if you scroll through long enough you can see a few of me with the rest of the Levantine Archaeology Lab crew and some other UCSD Anthro folks), you can also watch videos of every talk that was given at the conference and get a guided tour of the exhibition (from Tom himself!). Plus, at the bottom of the page, you can read the three panels on the Exodus in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, including the contribution I put together with Prof. Babak Rahimi.I have to say, I'm impressed with how much of the conference has been made available online. It would definitely be a good thing if, at some point in the near future, it became common for conference organizers to provide open post-conference access to talks and other materials.

Donner on belief

A few weeks ago, I was asked by my advisor (who also happens to be the curator of this exhibit) to put together a few paragraphs describing Islamic traditions of the Exodus story for an exhibit called EX3: Exodus, Cyber-Archaeology and the Future (I planned to post this while the exhibition was still open, but it closed over the weekend). This is actually a topic I didn't know all that well before this, so although the panel had a maximum of only 250 words, I ended up doing a fair amount of research. In the course of this, I came across a quote from the historian Fred Donner that, although it's actually a metaphor for Islamic history, sums up pretty well some of the issues of Biblical archaeology:

But the parting of the waters – the actual supernatural event that, according to the story, was God's act of salvation for the Israelites – this the historian simply cannot evaluate. . . . because it involves an event that is explicitly represented as supernatural, it is simply beyond his competence as a historian to evaluate its supernatural content. (Donner 2011:34)
It's a useful compromise in some ways, and reminds me of a quote that Aren Maeir used in his presentation at the conference associated with the exhibition. It's by the Zionist author Ahad Ha'am, from his essay "Moses":
For even if you succeed in demonstrating conclusively that the man Moses never existed, or that he was not such a man as we supposed, you would not thereby detract one jot from the historical reality of the ideal Moses — the Moses who has been our leader not only for forty years in the wilderness of Sinai, but for thousands of years in all the wildernesses in which we have wandered since the Exodus.
For the believer, this seems like a rather sensible position to me.(Actually, though, we all know that what these quotes really remind me of is "Lisa the Iconoclast," the episode of The Simpsons where Lisa proves that beloved town founder Jebediah Springfield was actually the murderous pirate Hans Sprungfeld, but as a serious academic I can't bring that up. It's a perfectly cromulent association to make, though.)Works CitedDonner, Fred M.2011 The historian, the believer, and the Qur'ān. In New Perspectives on the Qur'ān: The Qur'ān in its historical context 2. G.S. Reynolds, ed. Pp. 25-37. Routledge studies in the Qur'ān. New York: Routledge.

Some scattered thoughts on sciencey archaeology

Well, I've reached the point where I have a bit of down time to update here (as in, I'm no longer desperately rushing to finish a project I'm behind on), and there are a few things I've been meaning to mention for weeks but haven't had the time for. Now that I have the time, I suppose I should actually do it.The first thing I wanted to point to is this Antiquity Project Gallery by some of my colleagues in the UCSD Levantine Archaeology Lab and CISA3, as well as Chris Tuttle, Associate Director of ACOR. They discuss a short project that involved documenting some of the features at Petra with the digital tools that ELRAP uses in the field. Although I was in Petra the weekend they did this, I was also supervising excavations at KNA during the week, so I spent my weekend relaxing in my hotel and sightseeing, rather than working. Even though I wasn't involved, though, this was a neat collaboration between ELRAP and the Temple of the Winged Lions CRM Initiative (TWLCRM), and it's worth checking out if only for the vertigo-inducing Figure 3 (assuming you haven't already been sent this link 15-20 times like I have). On a related note, Chris also has a paper in the first issue of Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies on the TWLCRM project, which you can take a look at here.The second thing I wanted to mention, and have been meaning to mention for some time now, is that I've had a bit of time to decompress and organize some of my thoughts about WAC 7 at the Dead Sea. So much time, in fact, that I've mostly forgotten what those thoughts were. Luckily, I took some notes that I can refer to.As I've said before, in general the conference was quite interesting. The session I was in, "Deep-time Perspectives on Culture Change in Jordan: Cyber-Archaeology, Production and Exchange," actually had, in case you couldn't tell from the title, many of the same people as the Antiquity Project Gallery I just linked to – enough of them, in fact, that it ran for two sessions (that's 5 hours!) – and was organized by the ELRAP PIs. Although all good, many of the papers seemed to side-step the session theme of "grand narratives," which was somewhat disappointing, as that was one of the (several) things that set our session apart from the other sessions broadly devoted to "digital archaeology." On the other hand, there were papers that confronted this theme head-on, notably a nice summary paper by a bunch of authors associated with the long-lived and inimitable MPP. But enough about us.I don't really want to detail every session I attended, because I went to quite a few, but I found one particularly thought-provoking: a forum called "Science in archaeology: Where to next?" This raised, for me at least, two related issues. The first, which started the general discussion, was about why the Journal of Archaeological Science, as the leading archaeological science journal, has such a low impact factor. One of the responses people gave, and the one that occurred to me first, is that for an anthropology journal, JAS doesn't have a particularly low impact factor. In fact, at 1.914 it probably has the highest impact factor of any archaeology-specific journal (I'm not aware of any over 2 [edit: turns out Radiocarbon is 2.84. Wow!]). There are certainly higher-impact anthropology journals, as this now rather outdated list shows – especially certain four-field journals and many of the bioanth journals – but JAS does pretty well.On the other hand, this concern was primarily raised from the perspective of people in departments other than anthropology (especially in the "harder" sciences) and people who frequently collaborate with non-anthropologists. Everyone knows, to some extent, that impact factors aren't really comparable across fields – for a variety of reasons – but this can make collaboration difficult, especially when it comes to publishing. For example, coming from a field like ecology, where none of the top 20 journals have impact factors below 4, 1.914 probably isn't very appealing. I could ramble at length about the usefulness of impact factors in anthropology and archaeology, but I won't.This brings up the second point, though. The previous discussion prompted two related questions: 1) Why don't archaeologists cite archaeological scientists more and 2) why don't scientists cite archaeological science more? Leaving aside the issue of what archaeological science actually is, if neither archaeology nor science, there was some debate in the room about which of these was a bigger deal. For some, although archaeological science is its own discipline with its own set of questions, these should be integrated more tightly into general archaeological theory. As an archaeologist, rather than an archaeological scientist, this is the view I tend to agree with. Others, however, pointed out that since archaeologists are content to publish in low-impact journals anyway, archaeological scientists should be looking at ways to get cited more often by scientists. Overall, though, the bigger issue seems really to be about the relationship between archaeological science and archaeology generally, which can't be easily answered by simply saying things like, "Well, but archaeology is a science." There's actually a session at the SAAs this year exploring this issue, called "Integrating Archaeology and Theory: How Does 'Archaeological Science' Really Contribute to the Science of Archaeology?" I'd love to attend it, but unfortunately we're giving our paper at the same time, so I can't. I'm curious to hear if anything useful comes out of it, though.

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. . .