The LaPJob project team’s first time in the field at Tell Abu Habil (Jordan)
Questions and approaches: genesis of the LaPJoB project
Although for decades the Jordan Valley has been considered a decisive area in the exchange network of the late prehistoric Southern Levant, the nature, organization and relationships of the communities of this territory between the 6th and 4th millennia BC remain little known (Lovell and Rowan 2011). Despite investigations at important sites such as Beth Shean, Tel Tsaf and Tell el-Farah on the right bank of the Jordan Valley, information on late prehistoric settlement pattern and social mobility is much more scattered than for the Negev, the Israeli coast or Galilee. On the other hand, similar problems are experienced on the Jordanian bank, where Teleilat Ghassul – the eponymous site of the so-called “Ghassulian” phase in the second half of the 5th millennium BC – represents the only extensive excavation (Bourke 2007), while Tell esh-Shuna (Bronk Ramseyl et al. 2002), Tubna (Banning 2007) and Pella (Bourke 2008) have been investigated by way of relatively small excavation trenches. French excavations at Abu Hamid (Lovel et al. 2007) covered quite a large area and collected essential data on a Chalcolithic village community and its ceramic traditions (Roux et al. 2011).
Nevertheless, many documentation gaps persist regarding the Jordan Valley chronology, architectural traditions, production organization, as well as local (Levantine) and supra-regional (with northern Mesopotamia) exchange networks. These are precisely the main aspects on which a new French-Jordanian expedition focuses. The LaPJoB (Late Prehistoric Jordan Basin) project, directed by J. S. Baldi (Ifpo-Beirut) and F. Hourani (University of Jordan), aims at obtaining new data on the occupation of the Jordan Valley during the Chalcolithic period (6th-4th millennia), by conducting extensive excavations at Tell Abu Habil and developing further micro-regional investigations at the confluence between the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers.
In the 1950s, Abu Habil was explored by Glueck (1951) and sounded by Mellaart and de Contenson (1960), yielding a series of superimposed dwellings pits. Then, in 1975, it was surveyed once again by Ibrahim, Sauer and Yassine (Kafafi 1982).
The first fieldwork season of the LaPJob project was carried out in May 2019 at Abu Habil (Fig. 1), the key site of the program (Fig. 2). The mission was supported by the Department of Antiquities of Jordan and funded by the French Institute of the Near East (Ifpo).
Our first campaign involved different activities:
- extensive survey of the tell and its surroundings,
- a wide stratigraphic section (Trench B) in the northern portion of the tell,
- extensive excavations of two contiguous trenches (A-A2) in its western part.
Reordering scattered fragments: first results of the survey
Despite the presence of modern barriers, such as buildings, an irrigation canal and a road around the tell, the surveyed area was divided into ten different zones (1-8, while A and B are respectively the areas where Trenches A-A2 and B were excavated) according to the topography of the site. The method applied to the survey combines study of old maps and published research as well as satellite GIS images. Four different phases of occupation were recognized through cross-referencing of data from both the excavation and the survey (Fig. 3).
- Early Chalcolithic (6th millennium BC) (Fig. 4.I-III),
- Late Chalcolithic (5th millennium BC) (Fig. 4.IV-VI),
- Transitional Late Chalcolithic – Early Bronze I (Early 4th millennium BC) (Fig. 5.I-III),
- Late Antiquity – Early Byzantine (7th-8th centuries AC) (Fig. 5.IV-VI).
It is clear that the anthropic site was much larger in the past than in its current preserved form (Fig. 3). Areas A and B were the center of the site since its earliest stages. Late prehistoric sherds are well attested, even if sometimes poorly visible in this central sector, which has been densely settled during all phases of occupation, and especially in the Byzantine era.
Working with shovel, pick and trowel: architectural remains in Trenches A-A2 and B
Trench A is a 15x10m wide north-south oriented area, while A2 is a 5x5m large trench contiguous to the south-western side of Trench A (Fig. 6). Although results are still preliminary, 7 Levels of 3 phases of occupation were identified. This phasing was confirmed by Trench B, in the northern portion of the tell, where the Late Antiquity remains are well preserved (Fig. 7, Locus 66) and a 10m wide section was cut through modern, Byzantine and 4th millennium BC levels without reaching the geological substrate.
The oldest structures (Level 7, associated with Late Chalcolithic 5th millennium pottery – Fig. 4.IV-VI) were reached in a deep test-sounding in the northwest corner of Trench A2. This phase, which represents the main focus of the LaPJoB project, will be extensively investigated in future seasons.
Most of the structures brought to light in Trenches A-A2 as well as in the lower portion of the section in Trench B date back to the early 4th millennium BC, at the transition between Late Chalcolithic and Early Bronze I (Hourani 2010). The discovery of a large building devoted to ceramic production and belonging to this phase was completely unexpected. Indeed, this period has long been regarded as a phase of abandonment of the entire Jordan Valley and its surroundings. More recently (Roux et al. 2013), transitional Late Chalcolithic-Early Bronze I assemblages have been identified at few sites on both banks. It is therefore particularly significant that Abu Habil has provided clear evidence that the beginning of the 4th millennium does not correspond to a period of complete abandonment in this region. Furthermore, the size of the workshop (only a portion of which has been excavated) seems to suggest that specialized and intensively used facilities for the ceramic production were centralized at Abu Habil, so that pots could then be distributed in nearby villages. This late prehistoric ceramic factory was compartmentalized in production units separated by walls. Each workroom has yielded kilns, ash-filled discharge ditches, potter’s tools (stone hammers, scrapers and sherds re-used for burnishing vessels), as well as slag, overfired ceramics and fragments of vessels broken before being fired. The workshop underwent internal renovations (in Levels 6-3), which nonetheless preserved the general structure, surrounded by a large wall. After a transitory abandonment, the entire area was completely transformed (in Level 2 of Trench A and in the bottom level of Trench B) with the construction of new circular structures (Fig. 8). They still contained slag and overfired pottery, but had far fewer fire traces on their chambers compared to the kilns of the previous levels. Moreover, their structure is completely different, with two chambers of homogeneous size separated by a step. The nature of these structures has to be carefully investigated in the coming field seasons. For the moment it can be noted that, if these structures are actually ceramic kilns, they would represent the oldest Levantine evidence for a horizontal-draught firing technology. Horizontal-draught kilns are documented in Mesopotamia as of the 6th millennium BC (Buccellati and Buia 1991: fig. 6), but they constitute a rare type and become better documented in Syria and in the Levant after the 2nd millennium BC.
Lastly the Late Antiquity phase is represented by scattered stone walls (in Trenches A-A2) and a building with a large stone threshold (in Trench B – Fig. 7, Locus 66) associated with early Byzantine ceramics and glass sherds.
Conclusion: more questions than before
The site and its micro-region are only beginning to reveal their potential for better understanding regional and supra-regional interactions during the period spanning the 6th-4th millennia BC. Moreover, the large pottery workshop provides crucial evidence for the Late Chalcolithic-Early Bronze I transitional occupation. This period does not correspond to any complete abandonment. On the contrary, the existence at Abu Habil of a large ceramic workshop structured in distinct production units could suggest that several village communities were centralizing their pottery manufacture in a specialized site.
Further investigations will aim to better understand these phenomena from a micro-regional point of view. In fact, if Abu Habil was a production center, where was the nearest settlement located?
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Johnny Samuele Baldi est chercheur au Département d’Archéologie et Histoire Ancienne de l’Ifpo-Beyrouth, il est archéologue et céramologue, spécialiste de la phase proto-urbaine en Mésopotamie et au Levant Nord.
Fouad Hourani est professeur à la University of Jordan.
Fiona Pichon est post-doctorante en archéologie du Proche-Orient ancien, spécialité tracéologie, au CSIC de Barcelone, et chercheure associée au laboratoire Archéorient.
Anne-Sophie Laurent est doctorante à Paris I
Claire Padovani est doctorante à Paris I