Neolithic and Chalcolithic Earthquakes in Jordan
My recent dabbling in the world of prehistoric earthquakes, far they may be from my main research interests, has at last made it possible for me to have a meaningful conversation with a number of prominent archaeologists without me feeling inferior and unable to contribute.
I went to a lecture last night introducing in very broad terms the ritual aspect of the southern Levantine Chalcolithic, a subject about which I have been embarrassingly ignorant. It was expertly presented by Dr. Yorke Rowan of Notre Dame University, who is currently a fellow at the American Centre for Oriental Research here in Amman. Although most of the evidence in the talk came from Israeli or Palestinian sites, a small number of dots were on the Jordanian site of the map. The only site of Chalcolithic date (c. 4,500 – 3,600 BC) that I have any kind of familiarity with (and by “familiarity” I mean that I have heard of it and seen a picture; I might have driven past once too) is Teleilat Ghassul, halfway up the Plateau at the very northern edge of the Dead Sea. But little has been written about it, and less has been read by me. I had a brief browse through Lovell 2001*, though, prior to the last post. Mainly because there appears to have been a significant enough earthquake in the immediate vicinity of Ghassul at around about 4,000 BC to justify the question to the Chalcolithic specialist as to whether there was any evidence in the stratigraphy of Chalcolithic sites, and I didn’t want to sound like a complete tool. As it turns out, what little mention there is of any cracks in the architecture of the site might be found only in Basil Hennessy’s records; I could certainly not see any reference in Lovell’s work. Apparently, there are good signs for at least two major earthquakes at Tall Hujayrat al-Ghuzlan, a late Chalcolithic and Bronze Age site just outside Aqaba on the Red Sea. Nobody gives any rough dates for these, although it appears that they might be quite late (and probably right in the vicinity to have caused such recognisable destruction). Publications are hard to find; the excavations are a joint German-Jordanian venture, and nobody writes anything.
Much more interestingly, it turns out, is a reference in the Migowski et al. 2004** paper to a possible (unlocated) quake at round about 7,000 BC; a time when both Gary Rollefson and Hans-Georg Gebel might have evidence for some destruction at PPNB ‘Ain Ghazal and Basta respectively. Gary mentioned how one of the sub-terranean “altar” features (basically a round stone-lined pit with a plaster ceiling, a hole in the centre and a couple of water channels feeding it) had been reconstructed at some point in a very rushed and shoddy manner after it was apparently damaged by forces stronger than a person. The interpretation of the feature as an “altar” is ambiguous; likewise the claim for “temples” or other such structures on a site like ‘Ain Ghazal. A PhD student from La Trobe who is studying Natufian art has jokingly theorised that such installations might be sewers or other sorts of plumbing. It’s almost a convincing argument; more so, at times, than a ritual interpretation. I hope I’ll be updated about this; it would be shame to have initiated such a discussion and than have it taken away from me.
* Lovell, J. L. (2001). The late Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods in the southern Levant : new data from the site of Teleilat Ghassul, Jordan. Oxford, England: Archaeopress.
** Migowski, C., A. Agnon, R. Bookman, J.F.W. Negendank & M. Stein (2004). Recurrence pattern of Holocene earthquakes along the Dead Sea transform revealed by varve-counting and radiocarbon dating of lacustrine sediments. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 222: 301-14.