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Fieldwork campaign

Levant: Deir Alla (Jordan)

This long term project in Jordan is at the basis of many specialists’ studies and has several off-shoot projects. The project, with its many approaches, is also a framework for much teaching in Levantine Archaeology at Leiden University, especially concerning fieldwork methods, artefact studies, research questions and interpretative theories (including ethnoarchaeology). In this sense it is a window to Southern Levant Archaeology, especially when dealing with Bronze Age and Iron Age societies, but also with those of earlier and later periods.

Peter Akkermans

Project history

The project was initiated by Henk Franken of Leiden University in connection with biblical studies, with five seasons of fieldwork at the northern slope of the site from1960-67, financed by NWO (then ZWO). It was meant to develop an archaeological chronology, largely independent from biblical chronology and to be based upon careful stratigraphic excavation (Wheeler-Kenyon approach) and a craft-oriented pottery chrono-typology. Some surface exploration and soundings were done in the surrounding region, including the neighbouring Mamluk site of Abu Gourdan.    

Fieldwork was resumed with six seasons from 1976-87, but now as a Joint Project with the Jordanian Department of Antiquities and Yarmouk University (since 1980), with Moawiyah Ibrahim as co-director. Gerrit van der Kooij became co-director for Leiden University in 1979. Jointly the Deir Alla Station for Archaeological Studies was established in 1982, also functioning as a dig house for the international teams and as a small project-museum. Very influential discoveries during the 1960, especially the Late Bronze Age temple and the Iron Age Balaam inscription, triggered the restart, now aiming at a settlement study for the Iron Age II period.

Fieldwork of the Joint Project, now with Zeidan Kafafi as co-director from Yarmouk University, was resumed in 1994 with (till now) five seasons, and continued as a settlement study. The excavations of Iron Age II strata are being finalised and the main focus is on Middle and Late Bronze Age strata outside the northern slope. The settlement study made some fieldwork of the surrounding region necessary, including soundings at the highly endangered site of Tell el-Hammeh, 2.5 kms to the East.

The study and social interpretation of the Bronze and Iron Age settlement data made it necessary to make a close context study of the surrounding landscape. This resulted in a regional focus of the NWO-funded programmatic project Settling the Steppe …, since 2004 (see separate web-article). The chance discovery of a 10/9th century BC iron smelting site at Tell el-Hammeh resulted in The Iron Track of Jordan project, in cooperation with Delft University, since 2007 (see separate web-article).

Heritage issues

The Deir Alla project, as well as its off-shoots, include heritage management issues.

These are of three kinds:

  1. damage and value assessments in the archaeology of the landscape concerning obvious and hidden settlement sites and installations;
  2. post-excavation care at excavated or sounded sites;
  3. distribution of knowledge about results and study methods in museum context (exhibition and visitors).

Current foci of research and publication process

The final publications of the Iron Age I strata and its pottery, the LB Temple area, and the Medieval site of Abu Gourdan were prepared by Henk Franken. Also the Balaam inscription was published, with a re-evaluation in 1991, as congress procedings.

The resumed excavations and analyses were preliminarily published in 1989, especially dealing with the Iron Age II period. Major studies of the botanical and zoological remains were undertaken at Groningen University, but not yet fully published. Apart from a number of preliminary excavation reports and short studies of specific topics or objects, a major report on the chronology of the Middle and Late Bronze Age strata is published.

Currently three main foci of research are in progress (apart from subjects from the Steppe project and the Iron Track project): 

  1. Final report of the Iron Age II and III excavations: stratigraphy and use of space.
  2. A typological, technological and archaeometric study of the Iron Age II and III pottery (PhD study Niels Groot, with Delft University).
  3. A final report of the Middle and Late Bronze Age excavations mainly those since 1994. The first two are scheduled to finish by 2009 and ’10, the 3d is to follow after that.

General results

Tell Deir Alla is a major site in the Ghor Abu-Obeidah or Zerqa-triangle, the middle part of the East Jordan Valley between Lake Tiberias and Dead Sea with the valley floor some 230 m below sea-level here. The valley is a bioclimatic steppe region, turning into a Sudanese tropical zone wherever groundwater is available. Local irrigation systems are attested for many centuries, but the current irrigation regime is large scale and based upon a general East Jordan Valley water supply and regulation. Current intensive landscape use and settlement density was preceded by a very low degree of use and density (mainly pastoralists) a hundred years ago. However a dense population and use had preceded during Mamluk and early Ottoman times. In fact Tell Deir Alla represents a strongly varying population density and landscape use of the region, especially during the Iron Age II period, with some more stability during the preceding Iron I, Late Bronze Age and Final Middle Bronze Age. During these periods the cultural connections with the surrounding hilly regions and plateau appear to be varied. The orientation could be mainly towards East, or towards West and equally towards both sides. Deir Alla showed also its own idiosyncrasies with little or no clear outside connections attested.

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