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medieval

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."

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.

Ripped from the Headlines: Biblical Archaeology!

Given my recent posts, you'd probably think I work in a much earlier period than I actually do. I suppose I'm going to add to that now by pointing to three stories that have come out of Israel in the past week or so.

First is the news that "King David's palace" has been discovered at Khirbat Qeiyafa, identified by the excavators as the Biblical site of Sha'arayim (I didn't want to comment much on any of these, but I will point to Aren Maeir's response, which is both the shortest and the sweetest I've read so far). Second, a house at Tel Rehov has been identified as the Prophet Elisha's. And the third is the most recent update on Simcha Jacobovici's libel lawsuit against Joe Zias.

I could probably say a lot about any one of these stories, but don't really want to. I bring them up, actually, because I just got around to taking a look at the (open access!) Richard III skeleton paper in the most recent Antiquity (Buckley et al. 2013). The authors of that paper begin their abstract by stating, "Archaeologists today do not as a rule seek to excavate the remains of famous people and historical events" (Buckley et al. 2013:519). One might be forgiven for assuming that the opposite is generally true in Biblical archaeology. . .

Works Cited

Buckley, Richard, Mathew Morris, Jo Appleby, Turi King, Deirdre O'Sullivan, and Lin Foxhall2013 ‘The king in the car park’: new light on the death and burial of Richard III in the Grey Friars church, Leicester, in 1485. Antiquity 87(336):519-538. http://antiquity.ac.uk/ant/087/ant0870519.htm

Pleasure reading

In between the work I've been doing, I've also had some time to read a few things for my own amusement, and recently finished Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men on the Bummel, the equally-amusing-but-still-not-quite-as-good follow up to Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), from which the title of this blog is taken. In both books, Jerome often discusses the history of the places they visit, and many of these descriptions are pretty funny. Given my own work, I found this line in his description of Breisach especially good:

But when one begins to think of these things one finds oneself wondering why anybody in the Middle Ages, except kings and tax collectors, ever took the trouble to live at all