Archaeofoolery

This is a late entry from last week… I have some catching up to do. 

The Jordan River Valley is a strip of hilly arid desert that sunbathes along the banks of the Jordan River from the Kinnereth to the Dead Sea. Deeply furrowed by seasonally flooded wadis (like the arroyos of the southwest,) the valley is bone-dry for most of the year, and is home to a population of irrigation farmers, nomadic Bedouin goat herders, gazelles, jackals, foxes, lizards, hawks, scarab beatles and a few other characters willing to sweat through the thirsty summers. Yesterday I joined my uncle on his archaeological survey of this area, where he studies the peacemeal remains of a civilization scattered throughout the levant from about the sixth to the third millennium, B.C.E. The Calculithic period, as it is hazily classified, marked the end of the Neolithic age and the development of copper tools, regional government, draft animals and other technological advances. What remains of this shadowy epoch can summarily be defined as ‘not much.’

As always, the trip with my uncle was surreal. In the place where the ancient volcano of Saartaba should cast its great shadow, but does not for fear of disturbing the imperial arm of the sun which insists on palming every inch of the valley, the ground is littered with scraps of military and Bedouin litter amid a talus of flint, granite and basalt. I wandered among the ubiquitous broken bottles, rusted cans, yogurt containers and shell casings, avoiding an occasional spent mortar or prodigal tangle of razor wire. Uniquely indicative of the desert nomads was the stray unpaired shoe, wrinkled as a dead leaf, or only the sole of a shoe whose owner thought better than to waste the leather. The vast landscape, apart from it’s rolling humps and wadis, was interrupted only by rare abandoned bunkers, dissolving remains of shot-up oil drums and scrap metal heaps only marginally identifiable as auto parts, pieces of army cots or ammo boxes. Near roads, the peppering of litter built and was channeled into great, raging creeks of garbage that flowed from village to village along the roadside. Somehow in this tiny country, desperately short of land, there is more garbage per square meter than in the average American dumpster. It’s as if the only cure for the horror vaccui imposed by the pallid desert is to plaster the earth with bright plastics and familiar brand names. People say they have better things to worry about, which I guess means that they don’t mind living in a landfill.

Among the snow-pack of cobbles and this odd discarded potpourri, we searched for tiny fragments of pottery or slivers of flint which were worked over by human hands. That, or the larger but more subtle homesteads and outposts, now reduced to faintly symmetrical patterns of rocks amid a penumbra of identical boulders. In one of the photos below, I am standing in the foundational remains of a small room, easily spotted by my uncle but nearly invisible to me until I was walked right through it. Identifying these small smatterings of order among chaos was like trying to find the faintest of constellations on a dark night, with only the vague description of an animal to guide you. We dug two exploratory pits at sites we had identified, one which yielded a collection of pottery fragments and flint blades, and another which yielded only disappointment. Our pickaxes and hoes seemed always to be glancing off of buried boulders, and the whole thing took much longer than I would have expected. Fine digging work was done with a steel bristled broom and dustpan. In a comic attempt to civilize the digging of pits, we carefully squared off the corners and straightened the walls of each hole, which gave them an appearance of shallow graves. Finally, after all the artifacts were bagged and labeled, we moved on.

I have to say that despite mind-numbing heat, lethal scorpions and the omnipresent suit of dust mixed with sweat, I really enjoy these misadventures in archaeology. I have been learning to identify and roughly date potsherds, flint tools and basaltic wares, and the views are panoramic and soul-lifting. Searching for artifacts keeps my eyes keen and affords plenty of exciting minor discoveries. Plus, wandering around looking for little flecks of ancient litter makes our everyday variety of road trash a little more palatable.

Me standing in a site Blooming desert Shai with shepherd zooming by

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~ by jonlib on October 9, 2006.

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