Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Udhruh Archaeological Project

What transformations can be observed in the hinterland of Petra (South Jordan)?

Mark Driessen
Fondation Max van Berchem*
Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Petra College for Tourism and Archaeology, Al-Hussein Bin Talal University

Department of Antiquities of Jordan

Section Geo-Engineering, Technical University Delft

Environmental Sciences and Research, Wageningen University and Research

Department of Water Management, Technical University Delft

Centre for Isotope Research 

Netherlands Centre for Luminescence dating 

A green oasis in the hinterland of Petra.

The hinterland of important centres like Petra can provide essential information that contribute to the understanding of their rise, expansion and decline. The region around Udhruh, 12 km east of Petra, was actively exploited in antiquity with investments of great effort and ingenuity in agricultural intensification, water management, military dominion, communication and security networks.

To investigate this interesting region the Udhruh Archaeological Project was launched in 2011. The project is a joint venture between the Petra School of Archaeology and Tourism of Al-Hussein Bin Talal University (Wadi Musa) and the Faculty of Archaeology of Leiden University (The Netherlands).

Research Aims

The 48 km² research area around the town of Udhruh, best known for a Roman castra (legionary fortress, figure 1), can be characterised as a landscape with great archaeological diversity, good preservation and a long-term development for at least the Nabataean, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods. The project will focus on retrieved agro-hydrological innovations, trade logistics, security and settlement systems (figure 2). The theoretical tools for the project will deal with long-term changes in the hinterland of centres. Practical archaeological methods like extensive and intensive field surveys, small-scale excavations and material culture studies are used in combination with science-based techniques. These techniques are used to date the construction, maintenance and disuse of the retrieved archaeological structures, and also to detect and visualize buried archaeological features in order to reconstruct the landscape from antiquity till the Mamluk period.

The above described foci are studied in trying to understand the rural development and major societal transformations of the Udhruh region and how these contributed to the development of important centres like Petra.

Results 2011-2014 field surveys

The 2011-2014 field surveys demonstrated that the area around Udhruh was actively exploited. An antique agricultural landscape emerged with the discovery of large enclosed field systems in a wide setting around Udhruh. Northwest to southwest of Udhruh the encountered structures pointed to the use of dryland farming techniques where both run-off water and floodwater harvesting were applied. Southeast of Udhruh an impressive network of ancient water conservation measures and connected irrigated fields – a qanat-system - was further investigated (figure 3). The basis of the Udhruh qanat-system consists of four aquifers, tapped by subterranean canals. These are constructed and maintained through more than 200 vertical qanat-shafts, hacked out of the limestone bedrock The surface transport of the water took place through solidly built channels and aqueducts. The water accumulates in large reservoirs with capacities of millions of litres of water, constructed to irrigate an extended agricultural field system.

The systematic extraction of stone from quarries around Udhruh could be related to retrieved antique buildings structures in and around Udhruh.

The connectivity of the fortress of Udhruh becomes clear through the survey of several hilltop sites in the region (figure 4). At least eight of these hilltops have elevated and strategic locations with wide views over the region, remnants of watchtower-like structures which seem to be connected to each other, Udhruh and Petra through sight lines.

The curtain wall and towers of the Udhruh castra and the position and size of the herein used stone blocks are measured in order to obtain information on the initial building, reconstruction and transformation processes that took place here.

Not only archaeology

The Udhruh Archaeological Project was not only initiated to satisfy the professional wishes of involved archaeologists. We also hope to meet the interests and needs of other stakeholders. During the first season it became already clear that the local community shows interest in the archaeological heritage they live among. So we decided to start an oral history project. Local perceptions, ideas and oral traditions about the archaeology of the region are collected through semi-structured interviews to create a multi-vocal perspective on the site, to learn what value is ascribed to the place, and to promote awareness of the archaeological heritage. The plan is to publish the collected narratives in a booklet printed by a local company in both Arabic as in English, which will be distributed among the people with a connection to the heritage site: inhabitants as well as professionals. This will give the local community a voice in the archaeological project and it will give the professionals the opportunity to take the local views into account by the interpretation and management of the remains.

* This project is sponsored by the Max van Berchem Foundation, established in 1973 in memory of Max van Berchem (1863-1921), the founder of Arabic epigraphy. Based in Geneva, the aim of the Foundation is to promote the study of Islamic and Arabic archaeology, history, geography, art, epigraphy, religion and literature.

Connection with other research

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