A Note on the Pre-Islamic Ceramics from the Khaybar Oasis (Saudi Arabia). First Technological and Morphological Considerations
Pre-Islamic pottery in northwestern Arabia remains little studied compared to other regions of the Middle East (Egypt, Levant, southeastern Arabia and Mesopotamia). Recent comprehensive research in the main oases of the Hijaz should help to define the ceramic chrono-typology of the region, in order to better characterize the human occupation and the ceramic production from the fourth millennium BC to the advent of Islam (Parr et al. 1970, Durand 2011, Hausleiter 2014, Tourtet 2021).
In the oasis of Khaybar (Medina Province, Saudi Arabia), ceramic studies started in 2020 in the framework of the Khaybar Longue Durée Archaeological Project (Khaybar LDAP) (Charloux et al. 2022). This short note aims to present a first characterization of the pottery assemblage of the ‘pre-Islamic period’ in a broad sense (ranging from the fourth millennium BCE [Chalcolithic] to the first-second century CE [Nabataean-Roman period]). This assemblage was collected during the first three seasons of the project in 2020 and 2021. We present here the macrofabric groups, the methodology and techniques employed, and an attempt to propose a preliminary overview of human activities in the Khaybar survey area during this timeframe.
Preliminary ceramic analysis
So far, 928 sherds have been collected during survey and have been attributed to the pre-Islamic period (late pre-Islamic period excluded) (Fig.1a). They come from 80 archaeological locations within the oasis: settlements, surface scatters, tombs and isolated structures. Only a limited part of the Royal commission for AlUla jurisdiction of Khaybar has been surveyed up to now, and the work is still in progress.
The majority of the pottery consists of non-diagnostic sherds (body fragments) and is very poorly preserved. The diagnostic sherds are small and provide only limited information on the vessel shapes. Generally speaking, open forms (mostly bowls, large bowls and plates) are predominant (65%), while closed forms (necked and hole-mouth jars and few large jars/basins) are scarce (only 9%) (Fig. 1b). Unclassified sherds, due to their insufficient size, represent 20% of the assemblage, and the bases (mostly flat and rarely slightly rounded) 6%.
Macro-observation showed that the most frequent production technique was the use of a coil method (Fig. 2). Slab technique, modelling (hand-made), rotation and wheel-throwing were also identified but in lesser quantity. Most vessels show minimal surface finishing. Smoothing is the predominant technique; burnishing and the use of a red slip are less common.
So far, 15 macrofabrics have been identified in the pre-Islamic ceramic assemblage (Fig. 3) with a predominance of the first five macrofabrics: 1KHA, 2KHA, 3KHA, 4KHA and 5KHA (Fig. 4). The identification of the macrofabric groups was carried out by macro-observation of the paste (matrix, inclusions, voids), then confirmed by stereomicroscope examination of fresh breaks and polished sections. The macrofabric identification is based on the size, the shape, the colour of the different inclusions and their distribution in the paste. Only a brief description of the macrofabrics has been included here.
Periods of human activity at Khaybar during the pre-Islamic era
Although the pottery assemblage derives mainly from surface scatters (Fig. 5), the identification of 15 macrofabrics and several pottery forms provides a first chronological anchor for the activities in the oasis. At this stage, we have identified four broad phases according to the macrofabrics, although resting on a small number of diagnostic sherds. This preliminary categorization is based on regional comparisons. At the present stage of research, we are not able to attribute smaller macrofabric groups 10, 11 and 12, to a specific period.
Macrofabric 5 is widely distributed in the oasis, but it is also the only group recorded in the eastern part of the oasis (Fig. 5), where a significant number of prehistoric structures have been recorded.
Macrofabrics 1, 2, 3, and 4 represent around 87% of the assemblage. They are characterized by a friable red to brown paste indicating a low firing temperature, and by smoothened or burnished surfaces. The most relevant comparisons are the Red Burnished and Gritty Ware (Grey Burnished Ware) from Taymāʾ and Madāʾin Sālih (Tourtet et al. 2021, Hausleiter 2014, Hausleiter and Zur 2016, Abu-Azizeh 2015), dated between the second half of the third millennium and the first half of the second millennium BCE. Macrofabrics 7 and 8 (only five sherds) evoke Qurayyah Ware (Hausleiter 2014, Luciani and AlSaud 2018, Intilia 2016). They testify to intense human activities in Khaybar during the Bronze Age.
Macrofabric 6 seems to correspond to Group 3 at Taymāʾ (Hausleiter 2014; Abu Duruk 1989 (Sanaʿiyah cemetery); Abu Duruk and Murad 1985 (Qasr al-Hamra)), where one sherd bears an imperial Aramaic inscription from the mid- or second half of the first millennium BCE (Macdonald 2020). Parallels are also found at Dadan (al-Shehry 2014) and at Tall al-Kathīb (al-Zahrani 2007). The same period is attested by Macrofabric 13, which is only used, so far, for the production of pilgrim flask: the closest parallels come from AlUla and Taymāʾ (al-Zahrani 2007, Abu Duruk and Murad 1986). Macrofabric 9 is represented by only a few sherds and finds parallel in the AlUla region, especially at Dadan (al-Shehry 2014). Macrofrabric 14, of hypothetical date, is the only vegetal-tempered group in the assemblage of Khaybar so far.
Only two sherds of Eastern Terra Sigillata from the first century BCE to the second century CE have been identified in the oasis.
This preliminary study of the Khaybar ceramic assemblage seems to show continuous activity throughout the oasis during the pre-Islamic period, with variations of intensity, and a possible decrease of activity over time. These results need to be re-evaluated by excavations and archaeometric analyses.
The Khaybar Longue Durée Archaeological Project led by Guillaume Charloux (CNRS, Orient & Méditerranée), Rémy Crassard (CNRS, Archéorient) and Munirah Almushawh (Royal Commission for AlUla, RCU) benefitted from the support of the multiple institutional partners of the project, the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), the French Agency for AlUla Development (AFALULA) and the French National Center for Scientific Research (Archéorient laboratory UMR 5133, Lyon, and Orient & Méditerranée UMR 8167, Paris).
Please note that this brief report originates from a poster presentation by the authors at the Seminar for Arabian Studies held in Berlin in August 2022 (Shabo & Charloux 2022).
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Shadi Shabo est post-doctorant au CNRS, céramologue et archéologue spécialiste du nord-ouest de la péninsule arabique et du Levant. Il est membre de l’UMR 8167 Orient & Méditerranée, Paris.
Guillaume Charloux est archéologue au CNRS (UMR 8167 Orient & Méditerranée, Paris) et spécialiste du nord-ouest de l’Arabie où il pilote plusieurs programmes de recherche sur les oasis depuis 2010 (Mission oasis de l’Arabie déserte ; oasis de Khaybar, d’al-Bad‘ et de Dûmat al-Jandal, ainsi que l’étude du Camel Site).