What Not To Wear: Petra Edition

•January 6, 2008 • 5 Comments

I went to visit one of the new “Wonders of the World” the other week as part of a trip around Jordan for a friend. Personally, there is little attracting me to Petra anymore – I find monumental architecture far less exciting than a flint scatter in the middle of nowhere. But first-time visitors to the country always want to see it, and it’s hard to wiggle oneself out of that trip.

The two-day visit to Petra couldn’t have come at a better time than just before the New Year: the weather was perfect for long walks through the city, not cold and with enough sunshine to freshen up my tan with a new layer of red-turned-brown. Unlike last year, there wasn’t even a threat of snow or the danger of being cut off from the world because all the roads were washed away. But if I had thought that I would be spared the inexplicable clothing decisions of Western tourists, I was quite wrong. At least there weren’t any women in shorts and tank tops, as tends to happen during the hot summer months despite warnings that such attire would really not be appropriate in Jordan.

Petra SiqJerash StreetThe problem, this time around, was much more the lack of appropriate walking gear than the lack of clothes on one’s back. Petra is not a museum with linoleum floors and wheelchair ramps; in fact, if you’re in a wheelchair, tough luck, as you probably won’t even make it to the entrance gate. In many ways, despite the development of the area for tourism, Petra is still rather wild. The siq contains some stretches of the Roman cobbled street, which – like, for example, the colonnaded street in urban Jerash – is not something for high heels or weak ankles (or indeed horse carriages, but that doesn’t stop anybody from trying). And that’s the easy part of the site. While the main route through the ancient city is fairly well “paved” by thousands of feet every day, some of the most rewarding places you can see in Petra are found at the top of hundreds of stairs cut into the soft sandstone.

“950 stairs to the monastery, madame! Take a donkey up, just 20 minutes! Walk 1 hour!”

It’s not a hard walk up to the Monastery, just a little steep if you’re out of shape, and a little pressured by the faster climbers in the group and the masses of donkeys carrying fat people to the top. And it’s definitely worth it; if not for the archaeology, then certainly for the amazing views across the Wadi Arabah. But it’s not the staircase to the upper level of the museum. Every tour leader will tell you that; every guidebook will warn you about that. And yet there’s people in footwear that I wouldn’t recommend for visiting “tamed” archaeological sites anywhere.


Riding BootsWearing riding boots (and see-through riding pants) when climbing – not donkey-riding – up to the Monastery.


Nobody looks twice if you’re appearing a little rough and disheveled from your long hikes around Petra. There’s no 5-star restaurants at the top of the stairs that you need to be dressed like a mannequin for. A cup of tea is 1 JD for everybody. If you fall on your ass in white trousers, which you most likely will in those boots, you’ll look like an idiot for the rest of the day, and you’re probably not going to get the red sand out for a few washes yet.

I wonder if it is a real concern to some people to distinguish themselves from the local appearances.



Handbag and a suede suit.


To be honest, I never understand the handbag thing. You automatically lose one hand because you keep having to hold on to the bag so it won’t slip off your shoulder, which means your balance is off even on level ground. And if you fall, you’ll land flat on your face because one hand alone won’t hold you up.

And a suede suit? It’s not a catwalk! It wasn’t even cold. Although there were a lot of people running around in thick ski jackets and with fleece hats and gloves while the sun was shining brightly down on them. I don’t understand that either. Just because the calendar says it’s winter doesn’t mean it’s freezing cold.




Other amusing clothing decisions include tight jeans that are bound to burst when you need to stretch a little to climb over a boulder (and look, there’s the boots again!) – although it doesn’t look like these particular people on their out ever left the main route; the always-worrying display of bare legs; and those little shoes that will fill up with sand in no time and are rather unlikely to support your ankles across terrain any rougher than the hotel carpet.

I simply don’t get it. How hard is it to pack a decent pair of walking shoes if you’re going on a tour across a massive archaeological site? Or to pack some less revealing clothes that you can actually be active in? Maybe a tour to Jordan should include a Friday-morning trip to the Abdali market to purchase some cheap second-hand clothes for the journey. It would certainly be more of a cultural experience than overnighting at the Movenpick Hotel and be bussed around everywhere without any contact to the local population.


10,000 BC

•December 25, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Has anybody seen the trailer(s) for this new Roland Emmerich movie? It seems to have everything – Pleistocene mammals just minutes from extinction (c0nsidering the setting of the movie in an apparently warm and fairly arid place, by 10,000 BC mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers should probably be already gone), heroic men in love, women with plucked eye-brows, sailing boats, pyramids and metal weaponry. The only thing that’s missing, at least from the previews, is any archaeological foundation of any of this.

Of course, a film by the same guy who did The Day After Tomorrow (which I just watched last night) will hardly proclaim to be “accurate,” in as much as such a term can be used for a story like this. Yet I still have a hard time putting it into the Fantasy category.  I can see myself watching it with a notebook on my lap writing down every single thing that I know is wrong – pyramids? metallurgy? sails? – and be utterly disappointed. Not to say I won’t be entertained. But there is one of the few movies that tackle a time in human prehistory that can tell a great story based on a good body of evidence, and it’s going to turn into another One Million Years BC.  And that upsets me, because it’s unnecessary.

Four Stone Hearth #30

•December 20, 2007 • Leave a Comment

The 30th anniversary edition of the Four Stone Hearth blog carnival is over at The Greenbelt. Go check it out (of course, most of you will have come here through the post I submitted…)! I’m glad to be a part of this, and shall endeavour to write something meaningful for the next one too.

Neolithic and Chalcolithic Earthquakes in Jordan

•December 13, 2007 • 1 Comment

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.

Dead Sea Earthquakes – History, Archaeology and a Doomsday Prediction

•December 10, 2007 • 1 Comment

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research A series of small earthquakes in the immediate Dead Sea area in the last two weeks of November, ranging between 3.0 and, allegedly, 5.1 (on November 20th 2007, which has more widely been reported as reaching a modest 4.5) on the Richter scale, has set off renewed worry about a major shake-up in the near future, and just how prepared we are for it. The opinion camps can be divided quite smoothly into those predicting a significant earthquake within the next two decades or so, based hugely on Bible citations and an arbitrary pattern extracted from historical earthquakes along the Israeli side of the Dead Sea Transform, and those insisting – or maybe reassuring the public – that such minor tremors are far from indicators of a major quake, and that they are mainly functioning as regulatory measures to equalise the tension in this fault-rich area. I know embarrassingly little about the mechanisms behind earthquakes,at least beyond basic plate tectonics taught in geography classes in secondary school; however, just a little research shows that it takes more than to select a small number of major quakes within the national boundaries of Israel to suggest a pattern and make doomsday predictions.

Dead Sea Transform The list of earthquakes along the Jordan Valley is long – after all, the Dead Sea Rift isn’t a small one. Varve-counting and radiocarbon-dating of lacustrine sediments at the shore of the Dead Sea has found geological confirmation of most major historical and recent quakes above 6.0 on the Richter scale, and has found proxy data for quakes going as far back as the early 7th millennium BC (Migowski et al. 2004). According to this, there has been a major tremor along the the Dead Sea Transform (DST) [from the Red Sea in the south to catching up with the East Anatolian Fault line in south-eastern Turkey] on average every one hundred years; this pattern is clearest for the last 2000 years or so, for when there is ample historical evidence for these natural disasters. These have been spaced variably very close to the Dead Sea, but also up to about 400km along the rift, making for an even distribution of quakes across the Levant and thereby limiting the amount of damage done to the area. The intensity of the destructive capability equally depends on the depth of origin of the quake, and this is visible in the thickness of the disturbed sequences of sediment in the cores taken for analysis (Migowski et al. 2004: 308).

This research has allowed the extraction of a couple of interesting patterns of earthquake occurrences, which can be compared to the “historical basis” of the doomsday predictions of Israeli geologists.

Chronological Pattern.

Overall, the recurrence data from the Dead Sea suggest that the rate of seismic activity along the DST changed several times during the last 10,000 years. [Migowski et al. 2004: 311]

This is a very rough chronological outline.

  1. Early Holocene (c. 8,000 – 5,500 BC): seismically quiet, although a bias in the accuracy of the core’s bottom levels might influence this picture. This was the time of the development and “perfection” of agriculture and animal domestication during the Aceramic and Ceramic Neolithic of the Levant. The suggestion has been made that the aggregation of people in so-called mega-sites in the later PPNB in Jordan (middle to late 7th millennium BC) was the result of an increased level of destruction in the Valley forcing migration up onto higher grounds (Rollefson pers. comm.); but no evidence for such settlements in the Jordan Valley have been found to confirm the earthquake hypothesis.
  2. Later Prehistory (c.5,000 – 1 BC): moderately active, with a cluster of seismic activity between 1,000 and 2,100 BC. The Chalcolithic period (c. 4,500 – 3,600 BC), during which pastoralism flourished and a number of current staples became domesticated (e.g. olive), ended with a notable “collapse” of the settlement system then predominant, and transformed into the proto-urban Early Bronze Age (Levy 1995). An earthquake of some magnitude is mentioned around 4,000 BC in the upper Jordan Valley, although it’s relation to the transition/collapse needs to be further examined. The more active part of this later prehistoric period falls into the end of the Early Bronze Age (c. 2,000 – 1,600 BC), which is characterised by large-scale destruction and abandonment of the fortified towns of the time in favour of nomadic, small-scale settlement. The ruins at Pella (modern Tabaqat Fahl in the northern Jordan Valley) bear evidence of such destruction in the massive walls of the Bronze Age structures. While the map produced by Midowski et al. 2004 (see below) does not identify any significant quakes in the immediate vicinity of the site, the geological sequence indicates a serious of major shake-ups that might have enveloped the entire area. A major earthquake is recorded in Israel in 31 BC, being the oldest historically documented disaster in the region.
  3. Historical Period (0 – 1,000 AD): low frequency of seismic activity. Nevertheless, quakes that did strike had devastating results in the entire Levant, as the earthquake of 749 AD can attest. That even quakes of 7.0 or higher on the Richter scale have left little evidence in the historical and archaeological records might be related to their epicentres being located at quite some distance from the DST or underneath the Mediterranean Sea, and/or originating so deep underground that not much of the tremor reached the surface. The geological sequence indicates mainly microscopically thin layers of disruption during that time period.
  4. Modern Period (since 1,000 AD): active. Especially the last 500 years have been recorded as particularly active, with major earthquakes striking at a high frequency all across the region, notably in 1837 just north of the Sea of Galilee and 1927 at the northwestern end of the Dead Sea.


Geographical Pattern.
With a few exceptions, the epicenters of the matched earthquakes are situated very close to the
Dead Sea (within 150 km) or up to 500 km north of it along the DST.
[Migowski et al. 2004: 312]

Again, this is a very rough summary. Consult the cited papers with bibliography for further details. The chronology does not reach as far into prehistory for this factor, as the sample data becomes less and less clear with the depth of the core. While I am uncertain about the significance of this pattern and how it came about, I believe it can help refute the arbitrary selection of individual quakes to create a pattern of choice across a vast chronological stretch.

  1. prior to 1,050 BC: Epicentres are scattered along the DST fairly evenly. Several major quakes occurred to the south of the Dead Sea, but also in the north and towards southeastern Turkey.
  2. 1,050 BC – 1,000 AD: Epicentres are located primarily along the northern segment of the DST, including the 749 AD quake.
  3. 1,000 – 1,600 AD: Epicentres are scattered along the DST fairly evenly.
  4. 1,600 – present: Epicentres are located primarily along the northern segment of the DST. The last few small tremors all fall within this pattern, including the major quakes of 1837 and 1927.

I’m the first one to say that this is not the most scientific of analyses of Levantine earthquakes during the Holocene. But Marco Shmuel of Tel Aviv University (whose analysis of the 749 AD quake I have cited above) has decided to select 4 large and notable quakes of the last two thousand years to make up a chronological pattern that has little grounding in reality, in my opinion. He selected:

  • 31 BC: western Jordan Valley. Magnitude: 6.7. Massive geological impact. Occurred during a moderately active seismic period that was focussed on the northern part of the DST.
  • 363 AD: northwest of the Sea of Galilee. Magnitud: 6.7. Geological impact unknown (historical source only). Occurred during a period of low frequency activity that was focussed on the northern part of the DST.
  • 749 AD: northern Jordan Valley. Magnitude: 7.0 – 7.5. Low geological impact (thin disturbance layer). Occurred during a period of low frequency activity that was focussed on the northern part of the DST.
  • 1033 AD: southwest of the Sea of Galilee. Magnitude: 7.1. Massive geological impact. Occurred in the transition to the more active modern period during a time of even spread of the tremors along the DST.

Notice how all of these earthquakes originated in Israel, despite having had an impact throughout the region. Notice how he also leaves out the massive quakes of 1837 and 1927, even though both of these were located in Israel or very, very close to it. The same goes for a number of other quakes throughout the Middle Ages.

DST Quakes

–> “So roughly, we are talking about an interval of every 400 years,” Marcos said. “If we follow the patterns of nature, a major quake should be expected any time because almost a whole millennium has passed since the last strong earthquake of 1033.”

–> “There’s been no release of tension, just buildup. It’s like if you have a strip of rubber between your hands and keep pulling it – you know that it’s going to snap eventually.”

MapYet the series of small earthquakes around the Dead Sea recently presents exactly that – a release of tension. Maybe not to the extent that a major quake can be prevented; maybe the small quakes are even a sign of a bigger one to come. We are in a seismically active period of the DST at the moment, and it is not unlikely that one will occur within the next few decades; after all, the current pattern suggests an average frequency of about 100 years between major quakes. The 400-year pattern suggested by Marco is an arbitrary number with little grounding in geological and even statistical fact that will do nothing but increase hysteria and fear – especially since most of the quotations of Marco’s predictions are accompanied by apocalyptic Bible verses indicating the return of the Messiah:

On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives which lies to the east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in half from east to west, leaving a great valley. Half the mountain will move northward and the other half southward. (Zechariah 14:4)


Levy, T. (1995). Cult, Metallurgy and Rank Societies – Chalcolithic Period. In T.E. Levy (Ed.) Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land (p. 226-244). Leicester : Leicester University Press.

Marco, S., M. Hartal, N. Hazan, L. Lev & M. Stein (2003). Archaeology, history and geology of the 749 AD earthquake, Dead Sea Transform. Geology 31: 665-668

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.

Final Image courtesy of the Dead Sea Project.

Landscape Archaeology

•December 4, 2007 • Leave a Comment

People sometimes look at me funnily when I tell them that my archaeological specialty is landscape. Landscape is everywhere, but we rarely see it as anything but the background on which life takes place; or, in the archaeological sense, on which life took place.

I would like to spend some time here to introduce landscape as an active participant in the lives of people in the past. Specifically, my research involves landscape in prehistory, and even more specifically, in the Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic of the Near East. I’m interested in island colonisation and the often misunderstood sub-discipline of island archaeology; hunter-gatherer archaeology and anthropology; and archaeological theory pertaining in particular to the learning of landscape as a social activity through the ages.