Short Report on the 1996 Season of the Southeast Araba Archaeological Survey

Extracted from report submitted to Dr. S. Thomas Parker, Director, Roman Aqaba Project,
and Lockheed Martin Corp.

Andrew M. Smith II

Table of Contents

The following report offers a brief summary of the results of the 1996 season of the Southeast Araba Archaeological Survey, and highlights areas in which the 1996 season differed from the 1994 season in terms of improvements in methodology and changes in its scope and vision. Following the pattern established after the 1994 season of the survey, a more detailed report will be prepared and submitted for publication in order to disseminate the 1996 results to a broader scholarly audience.


Wadi Araba extends ca. 165 km north from the Red Sea to the escarpment overlooking the Southern Ghor of the Dead Sea. The survey defines the southeast sector of Wadi Araba as the area extending ca. 70 km north-northeast from Aqaba to the watershed of the Araba valley, ca. 12 km north of Gharandal. The escarpment of esh-Shera forms the eastern boundary and the western boundary is marked by the political border that separates Israel from Jordan.

As part of a reconnaissance conducted in 1993, the southeast Araba was partitioned into three distinct areas outlined by the three 1:50000 K737 series map sheets that cover the region.1 AREA I extends ca. 22 km north from Aqaba to the alluvial fan of Wadi Muhtadi, within which we define the greater Aqaba area as the densely populated region extending ca. 7 km north from the Red Sea coast to the fan of Wadi el-Yutm. AREA II extends ca. 28 km further north of Wadi Muhtadi to Wadi Nukheila. AREA III lies between Wadi Nukheila and the watershed of the Araba.

The 1993 Southeast Araba Archaeological Reconnaissance and Survey had four specific goals, which were 1) to learn more concerning the natural environment, especially the geomorphology, hydrology, climate, flora, and fauna, 2) to assess the known evidence for past human activity in the area by visiting previously reported archaeological sites, 3) to search for new archaeological sites in the study area, and 4) to assess prospects for a more intensive survey. Subsequent results suggested that an intensive survey of Wadi Araba was in fact warranted and long overdue.

After the 1993 reconnaissance, an offer of support was submitted by Dr. S. Thomas Parker to have the Southeast Araba Archaeological Survey serve as an extension of his forthcoming three seasons (1994, 1996, 1998) of the Roman Aqaba Project (RAP). Two seasons of survey (1994 and 1996) have been conducted thus far as part of RAP. I began a study season in 1995, which was graciously funded by another USIA Fellowship. This study season permitted a reevaluation of the scale and scope of the SAAS and its role as part of RAP, and served to establish the foundation of the Wadi Araba Archaeological Research Project.2

The primary goal of the SAAS from the start has been to conduct an intensive and thorough survey of the southeast Wadi Araba for all evidence of ancient human activity. It was realized early in 1993 that the valley possessed a rich cultural history dating back as early as the Paleolithic period, with dense settlement periods in the Chalcolithic, Bronze, Nabataean, and later classical periods. However, because of a lack of archaeological explorations, very little was known concerning this evidence; and it was a goal of the survey to fill this void in our knowledge of the antiquities of the valley.

The specific goals of the survey as outlined by its participation with the Roman Aqaba Project are more limited in their scope. These are to explore the Araba in order to increase our knowledge of the hinterland of the classical city of Aila and to gain understanding of the valley as a major land route associated with Aila. Hence, it is primarily to enhance our knowledge of the history of the valley for the classical periods that defines the goals of the survey as related to its involvement with RAP. Results from the two seasons of survey conducted thus far have enhanced greatly our understanding of the valley for the classical periods, while providing substantial evidence for other periods of occupation as well.

Goals for the 1996 Season

Three major goals were set for the 1996 survey season. These were 1) to further investigate AREA I focussing on the territories that the survey was denied access to in 1994; 2) to begin the survey of the alluvial fans and principal wadis within AREA II; and 3) to conduct a vehicular reconnaissance of areas south and east of Aqaba in order to determine possible land routes for commercial traffic into ancient Aila. Several factors, however, both disappointing and unforseen required that these goals be altered.

The goal to survey within AREA II changed for two specific reasons. First, the vehicle employed during the 1996 season proved inadequate to cross the rugged terrain encountered within AREA II; and second, the area within AREA III holds more potential for future economic development, and it was considered expedient to begin our coverage of this area at the earliest possible time.

In terms of a reconnaissance to the south of Aqaba, no permissions were granted to initiate this work. Accordingly, the survey turned its attention to another area just north of Aqaba. Based on my discussions with Sausan Fakhri, the head of the Department of Antiquities for the Aqaba district, I was informed that the area extending between the two major Chalcolithic tells (Tell Magass and Hujeirat al-Ghuzlan) situated on the fan complex of the Wadi el-Yutm was under a serious threat of destruction. In fact, it was estimated that within four months, the entire area would be destroyed because of the expansion of Aqaba to the north. For this reason (and having knowledge of the richness of the cultural landscape in the area), I turned the survey toward a thorough documentation of the preserved remains in the area between the tells. The purpose was to document as much of the ancient remains as possible in order to convince the necessary officials within Aqaba that the area was worthy of preservation. I am pleased to announce that these efforts were rewarded and the dense Chalcolithic occupation north of Aqaba has been earmarked for preservation. It is now my intention to return to this area in the near future to begin a systematic study (excavation and survey) of the late Chalcolithic culture of the valley focussing on the dense occupational sites immediately north of Aqaba.

The goal to continue and complete the survey of AREA I met with many disappointments. Incorporated within this goal was our plan to survey areas surrounding the Aqaba airport to meet the promises made upon acceptance of the funding given by Lockheed Martin Corp. What was discovered within the area north of Aqaba was discouraging. Virtually no new site was documented despite large expenses in time and effort. Much of the area has been bulldozed, evidenced by the large number of mounds of alluvial debris. It is supposed that this bulldozing is a consequence of either Jordan's efforts to rid the valley of land mines or a consequence of continued development and expansion of Aqaba to the north. There are in isolated areas what I term "pockets of preservation" where the old alluvial surface remains intact; and it is on these surfaces that a few sites were documented.

Results from the 1996 Season

The Southeast Araba Archaeological Survey recorded 71 new sites during the course of the 1996 season. Table 1 shows the number of sites recorded as related to artifacts collected:

Table 1. Number of sites according to artifacts collected.

Artifact Type (Collection)
Pottery & Lithics
No Artifacts
Number of Sites

The small number of sites recorded in 1996 is due to three principal factors. First, because of problems associated with the vehicle assigned to the survey, nearly two weeks were eliminated from the season. Also, the vehicle proved inadequate throughout much of the terrain the survey expected to cover, and a great deal of time was wasted reaching areas targeted for survey. Second, more consistency was placed in the methodology of defining sites in the field than occurred in 1994. Finally, a large number of sites recorded in 1994 derived from pedestrian transects through the urban sector of Aqaba (eg. the Radwan district), where isolated sherd scatters of dubious provenance were documented as sites. During the 1996 season, there was no need for expending resources within the urbanized sector of Aqaba.

Among the sites recorded in 1996 and accordingly to a preliminary analysis of ceramic artifacts collected, the Chalcolithic/Early Bronze Age (Chalco/EB) and the Early Roman/Nabataean (ER/Nab) period were the best represented periods. The Chalcolithic/Early Bronze Age was represented at 31 sites, and the Early Roman/Nabataean period was represented at 15 sites recorded in 1996. Most every other period represented in the survey database for this season (and this includes evidence for the Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic periods) derived from isolated finds of only a few sherds on the surface of sites where the majority of artifacts collected belonged to the Chalco/EB or ER/Nab periods. The nature of the sites recorded ranged from isolated graves to large cemeteries, and from isolated hut circles to large domestic complexes (i.e. hamlets and villages).

Preliminary comments on the hinterland of classical Aila

Some preliminary comments will be offered here regarding the evidence collected thus far and its relation to the RAP goal of understanding more about the hinterland and economy of Aila in the classical periods. These comments, which are discussed largely in terms of agricultural, domestic, and industrial activities, should not be taken as definitive since large portions of the valley remain unsurveyed. In fact, it is unlikely that all of the study area can be completely surveyed in just three seasons given both limited time and resources.

There is little evidence of any agricultural activity in the valley north of Aqaba which can be viewed as exclusive to the classical periods. Some reuse of the ancient terraces, which are assigned to the Chalcolithic period, on the alluvial fan of Wadi el-Yutm may be evidenced. Sherd scatters belonging mostly to the ER/Nab period were documented among these. Further south from the Chalcolithic terraces and beyond the road to the airport, several interesting features were documented that may be associated with the occupation of the region in the classical periods. A series of low-lying linear mounds extending in an EW direction and set parallel to one another, which were documented within one of the so-called "pockets of preservation" may illustrate limited terracing of the alluvial surface. These linear mounds would have allowed some retention of the water draining down the alluvial fan, perhaps for the support of some local food production. A much larger linear mound was reported by the staff geologist and recorded several hundred meters to the north. This mound has the appearance of a large diversion mound for checking the floods down the alluvial fan of Wadi el-Yutm. Unfortunately, the dating of these features remains problematic.

The most productive area in terms of food production can be found in the northern limit of the survey area near the modern village of al-Risha. An abundance of wheat is currently farmed within Qaa' es-Sa'idiyeen, and it is likely that the small Roman fort situated in the center of this sabkha was established to safeguard the local food production. Such produce could easily have been transported the ca. 80 km south for consumption at Aila. Apart from this, the fort is clearly contemporary and associated with the Roman mining of limestone along Jebel Khuraij to the west. Thus far, two limestone quarries have been documented along Jebel Khuraij, one of which produced several incomplete discarded milestones.

Further mining activity within the Araba is clear along the mountains immediately east of al-Risha. Here, just north of Wadi Abu Barqa, there is clear ER/Nab activity at the Chalco/EB domestic settlements associated with the collection/mining of the semi-precious stone garnet. This is evidenced by the presence of ER/Nab sherds collected from the sites. An ancient road winding up the alluvial fan from the west directs one toward the settlements. The road itself has been dated to the ER/Nab period by the discovery of a potbust situated in its center.

There is no evidence of copper mining or smelting in the study area for the classical periods. All evidence of such activity collected so far has been assigned to the Chalcolithic/Early Bronze Age.

Further evaluation of the survey data is required before any additional comments can be offered. However, it must be stressed that the task of reconstructing the cultural landscape associated with classical Aila (actually for any archaeological period) is difficult given the degree to which the landscape has been modified. Even the current rate of destruction of the old alluvial surfaces is extreme in its rapidity. As a rough estimate, I would guess that nearly 70% of the old alluvial fan surface extending from the modern airport south to the coastline has been either destroyed or heavily damaged due to bulldozing activity. This obviously prevents any thorough understanding of the hinterland of Aila as there is no way to fully evaluate or gauge the nature or percentage of ancient sites destroyed.


The Aqaba region is currently undergoing an extensive program of development and modification of the current landscape. For the most part, this activity is occurring without much knowledge of the cultural landscape or the degree to which ancient sites situated to the north are being damaged or destroyed. This would seem to stem directly from the fact that the area remains largely deficient in terms of any systematic and intensive survey. Although the Southeast Araba Archaeological Survey, with previous support drawn from the Roman Aqaba Project, is attempting to fill this void, the survey remains too limited in terms of time and resources (i.e., equipment and personnel), and restricted in terms of areas that can be covered. Now alongside the added support of the Wadi Araba Archaeological Research Project, hopefully these problems will be lessened.


1. The 1993 reconnaissance of the southeast Wadi Araba was funded by a USIA Fellowship awarded to A.M. Smith II, and received the support of the American Center of Oriental Research and the Department of Antiquities of Jordan.

2. The following individuals and institutions must be acknowledged for their support of the project over the years: Dr. S. Thomas Parker, Director of the Roman Aqaba Project and all financial supporters of RAP, Dr. Pierre Bikai, Director of ACOR, and its staff, Dr. Ghazi Bisheh, Director-General, Dept. of Antiquities of Jordan; Sausan Fahkri, Dr. Tina M. Niemi, Michelle Stevens, John Rucker, the 1996 SAAS staff, Heather Walters, Carol Frey, and Christian Gierke, the Endowment for Biblical Research, and the US Information Agency.

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